Mental health resources for trainees are more important than ever

Over the years, my siblings and close friends have sought mental health resources like therapy, psychoanalysis, or psychiatry, so I understood their benefits. When I was a PhD student I even went to therapy, but my counselor and I decided I could do without it. Since I started my postdoc, my stress manifested in new ways, but I managed it well with my usual coping strategies and support. That changed when I got a call one bright December day that my father had died unexpectedly.

It didn’t take long for me to decide I wanted to see a therapist. Thanks to the strong support from my boyfriend, many close friends, and my siblings I was weathering the process as well as one can. But getting professional help seemed like a no-brainer. Even if I felt OK one day, I didn’t trust that I’d be OK the next. I couldn’t see around the corner of this crisis and the emotional trauma it brought. It was too thick and too broad a landscape for me to navigate without help.

I called a number for mental health and counseling at my institution (MIT). A triage counselor noted my therapy needs and verified my insurance. She asked what times and locations I preferred, and then searched for an open appointment with a therapist that accepted my insurance. She also informed me that my coverage allowed 12 sessions with no copay, which was a pleasant surprise. The therapist who agreed to see me had very few openings, in part because this all happened in December—the holidays are especially busy for therapists.

The author and his father enjoying one of their favorite shared activities. Photo by Leah Fessenden

I didn’t like interrupting my work day to trot off to therapy. Taking a long break once a week meant I couldn’t run experiments or mentor my student during that time. But I made the sacrifice because my priority was getting the help I needed. Prioritizing mental health over lab work is tough for researchers, especially postdocs. I would never have accepted that kind of weekly disruption before my dad’s passing. But as a former mentor of mine used to say: “You are the most valuable reagent in the lab.” That is more true now than ever before. My first few sessions were on Tuesdays at 2:00 pm.

The afternoon break turned out to be less disruptive than I had feared since I had just come back to the lab and was working short days. My PI and lab mates had encouraged me to take all the time I needed. Had she asked, I would have told my PI where I was on Tuesday afternoons, but she didn’t need to know my specific daily or weekly schedule, so I didn’t seek her approval beforehand. Coordinating my lab tasks with lab mates thankfully wasn’t an issue since my work is largely independent. But had I needed to, I would have simply let lab mates know that I had an appointment on Tuesday afternoons and would be out of the lab for a bit.

The weeks went by and the benefits of therapy accrued, helping me in large and small ways as I grieved. In mid-March, my therapist followed guidelines and asked all her clients to transition to remote sessions. For me this was easy and sensible, but still a little disappointing. Therapists are professional empaths, among many other things, and doing away with the physical presence and exchange with her was a blow. But since almost all my social interactions became remote, therapy via video felt less odd. Thankfully I didn’t have to move out of state for the lockdown so I could stay with the same therapist during the transition to remote everything without any complications.

A few weeks into lockdown, I asked my therapist if we had reached the limit of my 12 sessions without a copay. She replied with the good news that my insurance provider had waived all copays for mental health costs due to the pandemic. I had felt that, if needed, I would be OK foregoing therapy at that point. Even with all the disruption of the lockdown I was doing much better emotionally than just after my father’s passing. But in the end I’ve been much happier continuing therapy because it has allowed me to explore areas other than my grief and the memory of my father.

I am fortunate to have affordable health insurance and the support from my lab and my department. I’m sharing my story with humility and the understanding that not everyone enjoys the privileges I do, and the knowledge that everyone weathers life’s tragedies in their own way. Most importantly, I’m writing about my experience because I believe institutions should be providing mental health resources to their research staff and telehealth is one way to do so.

Since the pandemic began, the number of people reporting anxiety or depression has steadily increased. Not being able to continue my therapy by video chat would have ended my therapy too early and contributed to an even greater loss of my well-being, not to mention productivity than I already experienced due to the pandemic. But as I’ve acclimated to almost all of my social interactions being online, so have I adjusted to the new norm of video calls with my therapist.

Therapy has helped me use my time in lockdown differently, given me some much needed mental space to clear my head sometimes, or at other times allowed me to delve into memories of my father, and a deeper consideration of my childhood with him. It is not lost on me that all of these benefits are the result of a policy change made by my insurance provider. The provider made the right decision to waive copays, so I didn’t have to choose cost over my mental health needs. Telehealth may be one of the few benefits we can all enjoy in a post-COVID-19 world, but it should be made available to all who need it.


About the Author:

Tim Fessenden is a postdoctoral fellow studying immune cell motility and tumor immunology in Stefani Spranger’s lab at MIT. In his free time Tim coproduces the podcast GLiMPSE, along with two other postdocs at MIT ( Twitter: @timisstuck Email: