It seems appropriate on this day when the US Senate voted to move forward with efforts to dismantle public healthcare that I’d come across this 2015 post by theoretical physicist Sabine Hossenfelder, highlighting the toll that instability and financial insecurity takes on the mental health of postdoctoral researchers. Responding to the 2011 suicide of a 34-year-old postdoc, Hossenfelder writes:
“I found myself in a very similar situation after I moved to the US for my first postdoc. I didn’t fully realize just how good the German health insurance system is until I suddenly was on a scholarship without any insurance at all. When I read the fineprint, it became pretty clear that I wouldn’t be able to afford an insurance that covered psychotherapy or medical treatment for mental disorders, certainly not when I disclosed a history of chronic depression and various cycles of previous therapy.”
This post touches on several things I spend a lot of my time thinking about: mental illness; science, and how it is conducted, and the people who conduct it; how to maintain well-being, particularly in what feels like an overwhelmingly uncertain world. It also reminded me that mental health seems to have largely been left out of the national conversation around healthcare. Mental illness may not kill you the way cancer or a car accident does, but left untreated, it can trick you into killing yourself (and I don’t just mean suicide).
American workers today are increasingly living lives like postdocs, working long hours for low pay and no benefits, jumping necessarily from job to job, with no stable future in sight. In this economic structure, and with the reality that emotional stress is its own disease, public health care is more than a safety net. It is a lifeline.