How to tackle the mental health epidemic in academia | A new approach by UC Berkeley and Dragonfly Mental Health

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Photo (left to right): Matthew Welch, PhD - MCB Professor and Chair of the Wellness Committee, Sarah Wilson, PhD - Managing Director of Dragonfly Mental Health and MCB Alum, Black and White Photo: Cris Alvaro, PhD (1988-2018), Wendy Ingram, PhD - CEO of Dragonfly Mental Health and MCB Alum, Michael Eisen, PhD - MCB Professor and Founding Member of the Board of Directors for Dragonfly Mental Health

The University of California, Berkeley’s Molecular and Cell Biology (MCB) Department and Dragonfly Mental Health, a nonprofit organization dedicated to cultivating excellent mental health among academics worldwide, will partner to deliver an innovative mental health program for academics. This three-year comprehensive program will be delivered to the members of the MCB Department starting in Spring of 2022 and demonstrates the department’s commitment to the health and safety of their students, staff and faculty.

Graduate students have 6-8 times higher rates of severe depression and anxiety (Evans 2018), yet most university wellness programs do not target graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, staff or faculty, who are all less likely to seek support for their mental health struggles (Karpinski 2018). Often, organizations attempt to implement one-size-fits-all programs that end up being ineffective and short-lived and are unprepared to deal with tragic crises like suicide. The MCB Department at UC Berkeley is now demonstrating a real concern for the health and safety of their students, staff, and faculty by investing time and resources to fundamentally change mental health culture at the community level.

Dragonfly Mental Health, a non-profit that addresses the unique mental health challenges academics face worldwide, designed a new comprehensive program to decrease stigma, enhance community ties, increase mental health literacy, and improve human relational skills relevant to workplace peer and supervisor-mentee relationships. Dragonfly’s groundbreaking comprehensive mental health program takes an innovative and evidence-based approach to improving mental health outcomes by transforming mental health culture at the organizational and community level. This program recognizes systemic impacts on mental wellness and shares the onus for change between the organizational and individual levels. 

"We have been working to develop a wellness program for several years but lack the expertise to develop new program elements or assess their effectiveness. This partnership with Dragonfly provides a new paradigm that will help us innovate and implement a sustainable and effective wellness program that will benefit our entire community for years to come," says Professor Matthew Welch, the current chair of the MCB Wellness Committee. 

“With this innovative approach, UC Berkeley - often on the forefront of thought innovation and research - is now at the leading edge of creating the internal culture changes necessary to adapt to changing times.” - Sarah Wilson, PhD, Managing Director of Dragonfly Mental Health, and UC Berkeley MCB alumna.

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Remembering Cris Alvaro, PhD (1988-2018)

The new program builds on the nonprofit’s other highly effective programs, wherein 75% of participants show improvement in objective mental health knowledge, 88% report reduced mental illness stigma, and 98% of faculty participants feel more prepared to support distressed students. 

"It is much harder for people to seek care when the dominant culture stigmatizes care seeking and denies the existence and scope of the problem. We inherited this culture so it’s not our fault that it exists, but when I started losing colleagues and friends to suicide, I took it as my responsibility to change it,” says Dragonfly’s CEO and cofounder, Wendy Ingram, PhD. As an alumna of Berkeley’s doctoral program in Molecular and Cell Biology herself, Ingram is intimately familiar with the mental health challenges of academic life. She has both struggled with mental illness and experienced the loss of two of her graduate school colleagues dying by suicide due to depression. The most recent loss was Dr. Cris Alvaro who graduated from Berkeley with Wendy in 2015. In both cases, she saw the need for more community resources and support, in part to counter the stigma preventing open discussion of mental illness. This stigma exists despite the fact that conditions common in academic workplaces, such as constant competition, pressure to achieve and perform at the highest level, and constant evaluation against shifting standards, often lead to mental distress.

Dragonfly’s comprehensive mental health program, while always relevant, is especially necessary now as challenges associated with mental illnesses have skyrocketed during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. 

In response, the program also includes workshops on navigating mental health in isolation as well as faculty-focused support for teaching students with increased stress and mental health-related needs.

Ingram concludes, “While we’re certainly interested in improving mental health in academia alone, this work is relevant to all of us. These professors, grad students, and postdocs teach every student who pursues higher education. And these graduates go on to impact every sphere of culture through science, medicine, law, government, art, music, history, news, entertainment and education. The potential for this community to impact universal mental health culture is vast.”


About Dragonfly Mental Health:

Dragonfly Mental Health is a “by academics, for academics” global non-profit that cultivates excellent mental health in higher education by developing, deploying, and evaluating evidence-based programs for academic researchers. Dragonfly’s programming addresses the unique mental health challenges academics face through offering facilitated mental health literacy discussions, skills training workshops, anti-stigma presentations, and implementation of community organization systems. In only two years, Dragonfly has delivered over 150 programs to 20,000+ academics in 15 countries, fueled by 300+ volunteers. The initiative aims to create systemic culture change in professional training atmospheres across the globe.



Name: Wendy Ingram, PhD
Dragonfly Mental Health
Phone: 602-403-5024

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