Guest writer: The art of advocating for mental health awareness by Zoë Ayres

by | Jul 10, 2020 | Guest Writers | 0 comments

This post is written by Dr Zoë Ayres, an analytical scientist by background, with a PhD in electrochemical sensor development she’s now an analytical research scientist in the water industry. Zoë is a passionate mental health advocate working to improve mental health in research settings, primarily focusing on graduate mental health. She raises awareness of the common issues postgraduate students face through various campaigns and initiatives and is the author of the #mentalhealth poster series on Twitter. You can find her on Twitter, or get more information about her work on her website.

Being logical does not come at the expense of being artistic, yet it sits deep-rooted as a stereotype that we routinely face as scientists. We need only to look at the contributions of Leonardo Da Vinci to both art and science, or the illustrations created by Maria Sibylla Merian – the German-born naturalist and scientific illustrator who is considered to be one of the most significant contributors to entomology of all time – to know that art and science are, and have always been, aligned.

The view that scientists are logical, is often further accompanied by a misconception less frequently discussed but no less pervasive, the idea that we can only be logical – that our thinking is exclusively analytical, impartial and rational. By stating we are these things, we inadvertently say that we cannot be the opposite, which could not be further from the truth. This, combined with the stereotypical image of scientists that tend towards being aloof and disconnected from the world, quickly produce a warped view of a ‘successful’ scientist. These stereotypes suggest that to be successful we cannot be both emotional and logical. One could infer that being a human being, with our ‘flaws’ is directly at odds with being a good scientist.

Is it any wonder then, that we as scientists struggle to open-up about our mental health? After all, it is natural to want to be viewed as successful.

Our mental wellbeing is an important factor in enabling us to do the best work we can, yet all too often it becomes a lower priority than scientific output. For example, if we are burned out, we can no longer be as creative or passionate as we used to be. It is only by raising awareness around the mental health issues that we face as scientists, and being honest about the our many facets that make us human that we can strive for change, enabling us and those around us to be the best scientists that we can be.

One of Zoë’s mental health posters, this one is based on research she did on her lunch breaks!

This is why I started making mental health posters and infographics for scientists and academics back in 2019. As a scientist myself I have lived experience of mental health concerns, particularly during my PhD, including impostor syndrome almost driving me to quit altogether. I decided that more awareness was needed and took action accordingly.

The day I uploaded my first poster to social media, I was nervous. I had no idea how it was going to be received. When it was a resounding success, I started to realise that it wasn’t just me that had suffered with mental ill-health, but a large portion of my colleagues and counterparts in the chemical science community as well.

Another of Zoë’s mental health posters, this one focussing on what universities and other academic institutions need to do to improve graduate mental health.

It was around this time I also realised the power of art to convey a message. Art provides us with the opportunity to describe complex concepts and garner understanding of the world around us more effectively through visualisation. We can also broach complex topics, be it flying machines ahead of their time, or something as nuanced as mental health, making these topics more accessible. Images can start a foundation for a conversation – and it is only by talking about mental health that we can really start to change perceptions and break the stigma still shrouding mental health. These conversations are the start that all important cultural change needed for us all to thrive.  

I’m incredibly lucky to be in a situation where I can speak out, without fear of repercussions, and by doing so I hope to pave the way for others to do the same. For those of you that do feel able, but don’t know how to get started, I leave you with this thought. In the world that we find ourselves in, with connectivity allowing us to convey our message to all corners of the globe, we need only recognise that the power to start these crucial conversations and advocate for change is ours –  with the opening of an app, composing of a 280 character tweet, and the simple tap of a button.