Giving room to discussing mental health taboos among international researchers

Pieter Detombe (Ghent University) discusses the release of a podcast on mental health taboos among international researchers and plans to give mental health issues more room to be heard.
9th December 2022
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Talking about mental health matters. And even more so for international researchers. They come from a foreign country – often on their own – and have to find a way of dealing with all kinds of challenges: a new culture, another language, being away from family and friends, and so on.

Trustpunt – the service of confidential counsellors at Ghent University – asked a group of international students what are, in their experience, the biggest mental health challenges. Six topics came out of this brainstorm and it was immediately clear that these topics are also quite taboo. There’s a logical explanation for this: the less we talk about certain topics, the more they become challenging and difficult.

The mission of Unpublished – a podcast on mental health taboos among international researchers – is to break the silence and create an open and inspiring dialogue about things we normally hesitate to talk about. The topics that are discussed are: mental health in general (with specific attention for one of the most difficult things to talk about, namely suicidal thoughts), loneliness, cultural differences, the balance between competition and cooperation in academia, transgressive behaviour and imposter feelings. That last one – imposter feelings – sparked a lot of attention in the brainstorm as many people seem to recognize the fear of being exposed as not really intelligent or not as good as other people think they are. Unfortunately, it’s – again – a topic that people find difficult to be open about.

In each episode, an expert on the topic shares insights and knowledge that helps to get a better understanding of the different taboos. Also in each episode, a witness is heard who shares a personal experience surrounding the taboo topic. In that way, the podcast creates a combination of the latest scientific knowledge and personal, brave but also vulnerable human experiences. One of the main aims of the podcast is to share recognizable stories so that international researchers feel they are not alone with what they are struggling with. The episodes are just as relevant for the general public and people with an interest in the topics discussed.

Unpublished also wants to move mental health away from a ‘black and white’ perspective in which you are either struggling with something or not. The idea of a continuum is repeated many times during the series: each mental health issue can be placed on a scale ranging from zero to one hundred. Take, for instance, loneliness: it’s not that you feel either completely lonely or not. Almost everyone will at some point experience some level of loneliness. And also: feeling lonely is one of the toughest human experiences, but at the same time the idea of continuum implies that you won’t feel like that forever. At some point things will get better again and you will move up the scale. People move up and down the scale almost constantly. This creates a hopeful message: this too shall pass.

The goal of the podcast is multifaceted: contributing to an environment in which it is OK for international researchers to talk about mental health issues, giving recognition for how difficult it sometimes can be but also giving a hopeful, positive and optimistic message.

Mental health is a nuanced domain that can be looked at from many different angles. Unpublished wants to give these different angles and perspectives room to be heard.

Pieter Detombe (Ghent University)

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