Episode 52: Head Space
with Dr Jack Radcliffe
In this week’s episode, we take a step back from astronomy and focus on mental health in academia and beyond. We are joined by Dr Jack Radcliffe, an astronomer from the University of Pretoria. Jack speaks to us about his work on galaxy evolution, as well his recent efforts to speak out about mental health challenges facing academics in particular.
Jacinta and Dan also share their own mental health challenges, and we discuss how these can be managed and overcome.
Trigger Warning: Please note this episode contains occasional references to self-harm. If you or someone you know is suffering please call the SADAG hotline at 0800 567 567 (South Africa)
This week’s guest:
For excellent posters on Mental Health Awareness please visit: https://www.zjayres.com/posters
[00:00:00] Dan: Welcome to The Cosmic Savannah with Dr. Daniel Cunnama
[00:00:08] Jacinta: and Dr. Jacinta Delhaize. Each episode, we’ll be giving you a behind-the-scenes look at world-class astronomy and astrophysics happening under African skies.
[00:00:17] Dan: Let us introduce you to the people involved, the technology we use, the exciting work we do, and the fascinating discoveries we make.
[00:00:24] Jacinta: Sit back and relax as we take you on a safari through the skies.
[00:00:31] Dan: Welcome to episode 52. And this week, we are joined by Dr. Jack Radcliffe from the University of Pretoria. And we will be giving you a behind-the-behind-the-scenes look at world-class astronomy. And we’ll be discussing mental health.
[00:00:50] Jacinta: Yeah. So Jack is going to tell us a bit about his work that he does with VLBI, Very Long Baseline Interferometry, a bit about his PhD, his work with the SKA preparations, and also about DARA, the Development in Africa with Radio Astronomy, that he works with to teach students about radio astronomy.
But mostly we’re going to do quite a deep dive into our personal stories – the three of us – about mental health, and mental health in astronomy, and in academia in particular. It’s a particularly important topic to talk about for everybody because our minds are our greatest tool. And in academia specifically, we kind of paid to think, essentially. And so you can’t do that unless your mind is well. And so it’s definitely important to make absolutely sure that your mind is in the best condition that it can be, just as it’s important to make sure that your body is in the best condition it can be.
So this episode is going to be talking a lot about mental health. So we’d just like to give a trigger warning about some of the topics involved and we will be sharing our own experiences. And there will be a brief mention of self-harm.
[00:02:06] Dan: Yeah, thank you. And, you know, as you said, it’s an incredibly important thing, not just in academia, for everyone to take care of themselves or their own mental health. And we’ll talk a little bit more about it with Jack, but both myself and you have had our mental health challenges and, you know, it’s very important that we are able to speak about it and share that. And hopefully in doing so, we can make it a little bit easier for others to seek help and to feel a little bit more comfortable with some of the challenges they’re facing.
[00:02:40] Jacinta: Absolutely. And we’re both quite passionate about that now, but this is actually the first time that we’ve spoken about these things publicly, which is not a problem, but we just aren’t quite super eloquent at it yet. So bear with us as we kind of try and explain our stories and also just to stress that we are not experts on mental health. So please do take the advice of mental health experts and your doctors and specialists, when it comes to issues like these. So I think without further ado, let’s hear from Jack.
With us today, we have Dr. Jack Radcliffe, who is a lecturer at the University of Pretoria. Welcome Jack.
[00:03:26] Jack: Hi Jacinta. Hi Daniel. Thanks for having me on the podcast. Been good to be on here. I’ve listened to many episodes, so I’m glad to finally contribute for it.
[00:03:36] Dan: Oh great. Oh, we’ve got a listener too, as well as a guest. Wonderful. Well, welcome on the podcast. So Jack, you’re at the University of Pretoria. Perhaps you can just tell us a little bit about your path into astronomy and what you’re working on.
[00:03:51] Jack: Sure. Yeah. So I’m a lecturer at the University of Pretoria at the moment, and I’m also affiliated with the University of Manchester. I am originally from Manchester. So you may need to put subtitles on this podcast because I have a strong northern accent. In South Africa, I’ve been called Australian or from New Zealand a few times because of it.
[00:04:14] Jacinta: Excuse me.
[00:04:21] Jack: So, yeah. And then I did my PhD in Manchester and Groningen. And, doing a degree, before moving down here to Pretoria to do a postdoc, and then became a lecturer here where I teach observational astronomy. So my general work is around excreting supermassive black holes and how they influence the galaxies around them, and this is typically using radio arrays. So that includes MeerKAT, but also includes telescopes all around the world working as one.
[00:04:53] Dan: So you work on something called VLBI. We’ve spoken about VLBI a couple of times, and a sort of similar long-baseline project which we talked about a while ago was the Event Horizon Telescope. So we know that using these very long baselines, we get very high resolution images. So when you’re doing your research, that’s what you’re using?
[00:05:16] Jack: Yeah, essentially. We use similar telescopes to the Event Horizon Telescope, except we’re looking at a slightly different frequency and we’re looking at objects which are typically further away. But the great thing about VLBI is that for our work, it allows us to see through all the dust and all of the stars being formed which also produce radio emissions. And we can see that central supermassive black hole without any of these issues blocking us. So that’s why we use VLBI to select these objects. And by finding all the black holes, we hopefully can then infer how those black holes will cause the galaxies to evolve. Do they help make more stars or do they hinder it? That’s one of the big questions. There’s thousands of astronomers working on that same problem.
[00:06:05] Jacinta: Yeah. So you and I both work on radio galaxies, Jack, and galaxy evolution. I kind of look out at a zoomed out kind of version and you look at a very zoomed in version of, I guess, within the galaxy itself to try and see, as you were saying, that black hole in the centre. What do you actually see? What does it look like when you see these things?
[00:06:24] Jack: Well, we always have a bit of a joke we do when we do VLBI… it’s a bit like blob-ology. So we just end up with a blob in the centre, which is from the radio emission around the black hole. But in some of the work that we do, we try and combine this VLBI telescope with other telescopes around the world so that we can see not just the central black hole, but also these jets that are emanating within the galaxy. And that’s one of these key drivers to see whether these jets moving at your relativistic speeds, so near the speed of light, is going to cause… is basically going to influence how the stars are going to be formed in that galaxy.
[00:07:03] Dan: So you’re originally from Manchester. I assume you… and you’ve got an affiliation still with Manchester. So the Square Kilometre Array, which is coming soon, is based at Jodrell Bank in Manchester. And I assume you’re going to be working very closely with the SKA?
[00:07:18] Jack: Yes, definitely. I already work fairly closely with them. And one of the roles here that we are trying to do eventually is to get MeerKAT involved in the VLBI arrays. So for VLBI arrays, I think you may have said in your previous podcast, these telescopes are spread across kilometres. And because MeerKAT is currently the best interferometer around… most sensitive… sees more of the sky than most others… getting that as part of your array adds great sensitivity. We can see further and deeper – see the faintest black holes and see how they’re going to be influencing their galaxies. So that’s one of the key drivers for me here in South Africa. To do this for MeerKAT, and then eventually to get SKA involved in getting this ultra high-resolution imaging.
[00:08:04] Dan: You say you’re lecturing observational astronomy at the University of Pretoria. I don’t know much about Pretoria. Is there a large astronomy department there?
[00:08:12] Jack: We only started the group in 2018. And essentially the university decided that they wanted to start getting involved with the SKA. So now there’s a kind of concerted effort to build up astronomy and new people also to build up the astronomy groups in Gauteng as well. So the majority of astronomy groups in South Africa are in Cape Town. And so we’re trying to build up this kind of triangle between Wits and UP and UJ, so that we can build these groups up and build also the astronomers there that will be able to exploit the data that the SKA will do. Because yeah, it’s an African adventure and we want to make sure that, you know, we get these pipelines of the students who can then use this data and be the next generation of discoverers of these amazing new things. Like as Jacinta has recently published with these giant radio galaxies, we’re seeing stuff we’ve never seen before.
[00:09:10] Jacinta: Yeah, absolutely. And speaking of the sort of the African network, you are involved with teaching astronomy across Africa and there’s something called DARA. Is that correct?
[00:09:22] Jack: Yes, that’s right. So this is the Development in African Radio Astronomy, which is a human capital development. So the SKA has eight partner countries in Africa, and the issue is that we need to have telescopes up the spine of Africa to make our imaging much better in higher resolution, to compliment the SKA. So for us to do this, we need to have interferometry experts, people who can operate the telescopes. So over the last – it’s going to be seven years now – and DARA is just about to finish. So it finishes in literally 15 days. We go and teach students how to go from data from your telescope to science-ready images.
The goal is that these students go back and build up their groups in their home country. And then we have experts on the grounds and a nice pipeline of students from Africa who then can basically make all these discoveries, build their networks. And the key thing with all of this, as well, is most people go, “Okay, well, we’re pumping all this money into the SKA. How’s this going to benefit us?” And many of these students who do DARA, for example, can go back and build their mobile phone networks in their home countries. They’re not ever going to be tied into astronomy. So that’s kind of some of the goals of this project is that those kinds of offshoots as well, not just for the astronomy group, for the economic development of these countries too.
[00:10:50] Dan: So you’re heavily involved in students, as you’ve said. And one of the reasons we wanted to get you on today and speak with you is you’ve recently spoken a little bit about mental health, particularly in students and, you know, how you can deal with doing your PhD, which I think we can all agree is quite a difficult time in your life. What got you interested in mental health and choosing to speak about it?
[00:11:19] Jack: Yeah. So that’s a good question. So, during During my PhD, I struggled with mental health. So for context, I had nine months off my PhD where I had what we would call generalized anxiety disorder. And I don’t mind talking about it because I think that’s the first step in making this normalized, you know. Lots of the time, there used to be a taboo on mental health and over the kind of the last couple of decades, this taboo has been slowly edging away. And so I kind of wanted to get out there, get my experience out there, and if I just help at least one person, you know, on the road to recovery, then all that effort is worth it for me.
So I really wanted to make this conversation more normal because you see people who would never speak up about it. But when they see other people who have been able to say what their issue was, or give some tips on this, you know, it might persuade them to do this. And you know, it’s quite sad because one of the biggest causes of death in especially young men is suicide, you know, 16 to 30 year olds. That’s one of the leading causes of death in them. And not that they didn’t want to go and get help, but it’s difficult to make that first step. So that’s one of my reasons to try and speak up about this and normalize that conversation.
[00:12:50] Jacinta: Thanks very much for sharing that insight, Jack. I think it’s, as you said, extremely important and part of the reason why we wanted to do this episode. Because I also have experienced significant mental health problems, you know. I guess it was building up during my PhD. There’s about six months of my life where I don’t really remember after I finished my PhD, and then it kind of continued on for the next five years until finally it hit to a point where I guess you could call it a big breakdown. And I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety and, you know, then had a very long recovery period.
So it’s also something close to my heart. I wish that I had heard more conversations about it many years ago, so that there are many things I could have done to avoid the depths. And also, yeah, just to normalize it, to tell other people that, particularly in what we do, it’s extremely stressful and prolonged. And being under that much stress for that much time, along with other factors, can be extremely detrimental to your mental health. And so it’s very important to look after it very carefully and to know how to seek help.
[00:13:56] Jack: Yes, they are. I totally agree with that. And I’m glad to see that you’re coming through the other side of it. Because I think that’s always the tough part of it is just, you know, knowing there’s something wrong and then dealing with it. And I’m glad at least now that the conversation is happening, there’s all these support mechanisms that are being put in place.
For example, when I went off, I was lucky, I was in Groningen in the Netherlands, then they just went, “You’re off work. We’re going to pay for your help. And you come back when you’re ready.” And that was a godsend. If that was 20 years ago, that probably wouldn’t have been around. And we’d just have to, I guess, people would be suffering in silence then, which is not the way to deal with these things.
[00:14:42] Jacinta: Yeah, well, that’s an amazing way that the University of Groningen dealt with that. I’m so glad to hear it.
[00:14:49] Dan: Yeah, that’s incredible. And yeah, I mean, glad you came out of it and you managed to get that help. So one of the reasons that, you know, Jacinta and I wanted to talk about this… I mean, I’ll throw my hat into the ring too. I was lucky, I didn’t suffer from anxiety, but then I was unlucky in that I suffered from extremely severe depression for so many years. I’m fortunate that with a lot of therapy and a lot of antidepressants, amongst other drugs, I’m very stable at the moment and very glad for that.
But it has been an incredible challenge. And I think mine was also brought on largely by stress. So I made it through my PhD and sort of first postdoc or two okay. And then once I had a young family, as well as trying to maintain the level of work that’s kind of required in our field, the cracks started to show. And I really, really struggled to try and juggle everything, particularly with losing sleep, you know, at night. And for me in particular, and I guess for a lot of people, sleep was definitely an incredibly important aspect. If I could get on top of my sleep, then I managed to cope a lot better. So yeah, I think that there is a lot to be said for talking about it. And since then, I’ve been trying to be incredibly open about it amongst my friends and colleagues and, you know, pushing the organization to do more.
And maybe, you know, you can just talk a little bit about that. So you said, you know, Groningen was incredibly supportive for you, giving you time off and even offering to pay for it. What more can organizations and institutions do? What should they be doing in these sorts of situations to help support students, staff, and others who may be struggling?
[00:16:51] Jack: Yeah. So from my sort of experience, I think the big issue that remains from what I’ve seen is it’s getting from that step where you see people are struggling, to getting them help, or identifying that people are struggling. Because a lot of the time, they’re not going to say anything.
So, you know, you’ve got this… so in Pretoria here, we have a counselling unit for students. And if they’re feeling depressed, they’ll go to the counselling unit. But for them to make that step is the big part. So it’s difficult, definitely, to keep track of everyone or every student. But knowing, or trying to work out when people are suffering, and it might be mental health related, is the first step. Because I guess the earlier that you can catch it, the earlier you can address those problems.
So in my case, you know, my anxiety was building up over months beforehand. I was going into work for 14/15 hours a day. And I wouldn’t notice. This is the weekend and I’d be withdrawing from social interactions. I’ll be withdrawing from doing stuff that she makes me less stressed. Which for me, I saw Daniel, yours was sleep minus like exercise. So I don’t play sports and that will cause me to relax.
And yeah, I think institutions need to somehow get some mechanism to see these warning signs, to get some people there who can just check in on folks. So, for example, in Pretoria, we’re about to do buddy systems here. So when a new student comes in, they get assigned an academic or an older student who is not related to their project who just says, “Hey,” every month, “Are you okay?” And if they say yes, then that’s fine. But then knowing that they have that avenue and they’re not going to be judged, I think, is key for this. But I guess with all of this, it’s the same thing doesn’t work for everyone. And I’d like to hear your views on this as well. That’d be great to know.
[00:18:57] Jacinta: Yeah. I also had quite a good experience with the Astronomy Department at the University of Cape Town. My supervisors and head of department were extremely supportive. I was able to… I’m a good communicator. Well, I think I’m a good communicator. And I was able to tell them sort of what was going on with me and what I thought was happening and what I needed. And so they were able to give me the help that I needed in terms of, you know, reassuring me that it’s okay to take time off and, you know, to put myself first. That’s sort of what I needed was the reassurance and kind of the permission almost to do that.
But I do also worry about people who aren’t able to express that clearly and how the supervisors or the colleagues or the department or their institution reacts to that. So I think part of it is education in basic mental health first aid, really. I don’t know what your thoughts are on that?
[00:19:57] Dan: Yeah, in terms of me and my thoughts on it… So it’s great to hear both of you had good experiences. I feel like mine wasn’t that good in the work environment. I was very fortunate that I had a couple of friends around, Jacinta actually being one of them, who was able to support me and push me in the direction of getting help and putting myself first. So I ended up taking a couple of weeks off. I took two weeks off in one of the bad patches. But the bad patches continued for probably over two years and it was sort of constantly building up and, you know, sort of came in waves.
So since then, I’ve actually pushed really hard on the organization to do better. I attended a management course over the last year and one of the requirements of the course was a year-long project on something within the broader National Research Foundation, that could improve, you know, the organization as a whole. And myself and a colleague chose mental health. And we, you know, we obviously couldn’t solve the entire organization of one and a half thousand employees’ mental health challenges, but actually the NRF does offer very good services. You know, there is free counselling for those that wish to use it. But what we found, and we did do a survey, was that people don’t. I mean, people don’t take up those services for various reasons. And one of the main ones being that they’re scared of what their bosses will think, and that it will negatively affect their career. And it’ll negatively affect their relationship with their colleagues.
And, you know, in my experience, I do feel a little bit like – I mean it’s very regrettable to say it – but I do feel like it did negatively affect some of my relationships at work. You know, people think differently of you, particularly when they don’t understand what this is and what it means.
So, yeah, our project we tried to focus on management in particular because you know, there are studies – and we can link to the studies in the show notes – that have shown that training, like Jacinta mentioned, for management has a massive impact on the wellbeing of the organization and their reportees.
And it’s very highly impactful. And this is what you mentioned too, was it’s identifying that. So it’s having somebody within the organization and a manager is a good one because they are monitoring your performance. And if they do start to see some changes, rather than trying to whip you into shape, they can engage with you and try and figure out what’s going on and whether you do need help.
And I think it’s just a sort of change in mindset that needs to come. And I… you know, we’re all in an academic environment. And, you know, I would hope that in an academic environment it would be accepted a bit more readily. I’m not sure what it’s like in a corporate environment, but I imagine when there’s millions of dollars at stake, it’s sometimes more difficult to be forgiving and let people take time off to look after themselves.
But I don’t know, I’m not… you know, that’s just speculation. But yeah, I think that for me, definitely the training and the training of managers or supervisors is hugely impactful because it allows people the space to seek the help they need.
[00:23:43] Jacinta: So Jack, sort of with all of that in mind, what can people actually do to help themselves and to help others when they identify that there is a mental health issue?
[00:23:55] Jack: Yeah. So with regards to, you know, identifying these stresses, I think that’s the first thing for also people to self-help themselves, where they, you know… I’m going to say this now. I’m not a clinical psychologist. My doctorate is in astrophysics. So please, everyone take this with a pinch of salt because it might work for you, but it might not work for other people. And I think the main thing is once you’ve identified that stress… Is it becoming a repetitive thing? So I think it’s Daniel that said, there’s ways of getting worse. I had the same where I was working more and more and just retreating from all social interaction. And then as soon as that happens, you know, instantly finding… Who are the contact points? Is there counselling at work? Is there counselling? Does your medical aid cover this? And that’s one thing that I found in South Africa is that medical aid sometimes doesn’t cover trips to the psychologist.
So for context, recently, I kind of slipped back into this anxiety. Last well, two years ago, because my dad passed away very quickly and I was a bit like it didn’t affect me until three months later. And I was just, you know, not sleeping at nights and waking up all the time. And I was like, does my medical aid cover this? And it didn’t. And so things like this because, you know, if you chopped your arm off, people would treat a little bit differently when there’s something wrong in your head because they don’t see that physical difference. I think as Daniel has said, this is how people’s mindset treats mental health should be the same as how they treat a normal illness.
So I think for people listening here, I think the main thing to do now, even if you’re not feeling depressed now is to find those contact points. You know, where are you covered? It’s there free counselling? Is there counselling at work or anything like this? And then that means that when you’re in that rut and you know exactly where to go and where to get help.
And I think the key thing about it is also to make sure that the people you would see as your closest friends know about how you’re feeling and be honest with them about it. Because yeah, we all have those friends who you think you can say anything to, and you should use them because I’m sure you do the same for them. And those are the people that, you know, help get you through this. And I think you both have attested to this with your closest confidants, the people who are there to help you get through all of these difficult times.
[00:26:34] Dan: Thanks Jack. And I’m very sorry to hear about your father and I hope that you are doing okay now.
So I think that, you know, one of the things that I’ve kind of felt, or maybe learned is the value in preventative. You know, the therapy and counselling too. So, I’m not sure it applies to all medical aids in South Africa, but I think it should. There is something called prescribed minimum benefits that a medical aid should provide.
I’m not sure it’s always the case, particularly for foreigners, but, you know, I did find that the minimum that… you know, we’re on a hospital plan, which is a sort of minimum medical aid. But they still are obliged to cover 15 visits to a therapist or psychiatrist a year. So I’ve been leaning pretty hard on that.
I’m doing really well these days, but I still like to go have a check in, see how things are going. And, you know, even if it’s just talking about my running injury to my therapist, it’s still helpful. And it’s a good way to just check in with, you know, how you’re doing and before anything does get out of hand.
So I think that that too is something which maybe isn’t widely accepted. You know, we’ve been talking a little bit about, you know, our anxiety, our depression and how bad it got before we sought help. And, you know, I think that if we could normalize having a therapist, even if you don’t have to go every week, but like somebody you check in on once a month. And you just, you know, they know how you’re doing and they know where you are. And you don’t have to do that… you know, you don’t have to wait until you really struggling before you do that. You can start now and, you know, the therapist doesn’t have to talk about your childhood or your parents or all of the trauma you’ve gone through. Like, that’s a very, sort of, you know, a Hollywood view of what therapy is. Like I said, you can just talk about what happened yesterday. Like what’s going on, what are some of your stresses and maybe how you can deal with them a little bit better.
And then, yeah, you know, like I said, sleep for me, also exercise for me. I run a lot and, you know, I’ve been injured now for over a year. I had an operation last year and that’s been very difficult for me. I’ve had to work really, really hard on my mental health with not having running as an outlet for me. So, you know, that’s a physical ailment which is affecting my mental health. And I think that, you know, people can recognize that that’s part of it. We’re a whole being and everything is kind of interconnected. So yeah, I think that’s my thoughts on it.
[00:29:21] Jacinta: I guess sort of, we’re speaking about mental health in academia and astronomy because that’s, you know, the area that we’re all in and the area related to this podcast. But of course, many of the things that we’re talking about relate to anyone anywhere involved in anything. But specifically within kind of astronomy and academia, what are the aspects that would contribute towards poorer mental health? Because I do think that our field of work is quite difficult in terms of coping mentally.
[00:29:54] Jack: So I think the first thing that is key to put any perspective post-grads is that, you know, it’s not… we do amazing things every day, you know, we’re using these premiere telescopes, building and making these new discoveries. And while academia can be incredibly rewarding, you know, you get these press releases that come out and these amazing galaxies, amazing pictures. And we’re discovering about how the universe works. I think the big thing with academia and its difficulties to mental health is the fact that… I guess, at least some are my opinion… it would be nice to hear both your opinions on this… is that often the responsibility is cell phones. So you put that responsibility on you. So you want to be able to do everything. And often people don’t know how to say no. So they ended up being overworked, doing the job of three people at once.
The other thing as well, is that you’ve always got this sort of pressure, and this is related to responsibilities. So you do your Master’s degree and you’ve kind of got to own that project and you’ve got to get it finished. Yes, your supervisor also feels that pressure, but they’ve been through that. So, you know, you’re the one who needs to get that degree. So for me, when I went off work, it was that pressure which got to me – that time pressure for me was… I had a year left and I just broke down and couldn’t do anymore. I found some issue with my work and it just like… that was it, I couldn’t do anymore.
And I think that’s why at least academia is quite prone to this because you always have these pressures and, you know, as you go further up, you’ve got job insecurities. And you’re always writing grant cases and telescope proposals. So I guess academia is a bit more of a roller-coaster for me, that can make these kind of extreme emotions and also get into bad habits.
As Daniel has said, because of your injury, you stopped running, but you know, people will withdraw from these other social interactions which they think was taking up by their time they could be working. But in fact, it was looking after their mental health. And other things like eating well, like people end up eating junk and that can have a negative effect. But it’d be good to hear both of your opinions on this too.
[00:32:18] Jacinta: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think all of those things contribute significantly toward one’s mental wellness.
And also for me, it was, you know, often when you have finished your PhD and you’re going to continue with academia, you’re expected to do post-docs, maybe one or two or a series of those. And often that involves moving country or even moving continent. And that comes with a whole range of stresses, right? You know, changing location… changing, you know, money, relationships, friendships, your entire life. And it’s a huge upheaval. And often you’re expected to do it, not just once, but twice or multiple times, and kind of start your life again. And that can be extraordinarily difficult and extraordinary hard. And I think that we almost talk about it in a kind of flippant way, as if this is just an expectation and a normalized thing, but it’s actually a really gigantic thing. And often our post-docs are only for, you know, between two and four years. So actually really quite short-term contracts. So I think this is also a major contributor.
As well as imposter syndrome, right? Where, you know, we’re working at very high academic levels and it’s very common to believe that you are the imposter in the room. You are the one that doesn’t actually deserve to be there. You are not smart enough. You are not naturally talented enough. And this is certainly something that has plagued me for a very long time. And it’s only since getting treated properly for depression, anxiety, and it also turns out ADHD, that my brain has been able to recover and my self-confidence has recovered. And of course, if you’re in a spiral of imposter syndrome, lower confidence, your output is worse. You’re just spiralling down and down and down. And so it’s kind of like a nice way to just cut that off. And, you know, obviously working very hard with a psychologist, a therapist, to battle those aspects as well from, you know, thoughts and emotions kind of point of view, I think has been very important. Dan, I don’t know if you have anything else to add there?
[00:34:25] Dan: Yeah, of course. I think that in my sort of experience or understanding of academia, you know, I think we’ll all agree. We kind of, I don’t know… what they used to call A-type. We are very like high-functioning individuals, which is kind of why academia appeals. We want to really be at the coalface of new research. And we’re used to achieving, we’re used to kind of doing well in exams or whatever else. And then you get into an academic environment and often, you know, Jacinta mentioned the imposter syndrome. You’re young, you’re on new projects, you’re learning constantly. And you get into situations where you really don’t know what you’re doing because you are at the coalface. You know, there, aren’t always textbooks telling you what you should be doing. Like you’re doing new research, novel research often. And that kind of uncertainty makes it very difficult.
And there’s another thing, not to put the blame on others or academia, but there is a tendency within academia, and I hope it’s getting better, for established researchers to be a little bit disparaging of new young researchers. I certainly experienced that. And you have your imposter syndrome already sitting in you feeling like you’re not good enough and you don’t know enough. And then you occasionally have people in a conference, you know, who stand up after you’ve given a talk, and you know, rip you to shreds because they have their own insecurities and they want to prove that they’re intelligent and they know what they’re talking about, and they don’t necessarily regard your feelings or are very supportive. And I think that that’s something which, I don’t know if that’s unique to academia, but it’s certainly something which I experienced. And I know others have – the fact that you don’t necessarily feel like you’re in a supportive environment always. And I think that that’s something which perhaps if, you know, supervisors are more aware of mental health, they would be slightly better at. But again, I mean, there’s a lot that comes from us and the environment we’re in and our expectations of ourselves, which does play into this.
[00:36:43] Jack: Yeah. I agree. I think it all comes from the… you know, we have peer review for everything. And you see, you’ll get a referee report for an article and you’ll have one good comment and then 50 bad comments in there. And I think that doesn’t play into it because you’re like, “I’m so stupid. I’m so stupid.” It’s like, I remember my very first referee report and it was… literally one of the comments was, “Can you get a native English speaker to read this?” I come from Manchester. Yeah. It’s like do I write like I speak or something like this? So I know I remember this is Christmas Eve in 2015 or something. And I was just like, “Okay. So this is how it is.” And you know, I’ve been used to being fairly good at undergrad, and then you go into academia and you’re doing something new and you know, these sort of comments can get you down.
And I think I think as you said, Daniel, having the supervisors wary of that, but also ensuring that the supervisors instil this constant positive reinforcement in what you’re doing is key to try and eliminate this imposter. Not to make the student complacent, but to try and eliminate it. Because I’ve got students now who are learning Python, like computer programming. They’re learning how to write papers, and they’re trying to do research all at the same time. And that is a huge step that many of us established researchers will take that for granted. And I just have to make sure that, you know, the students are getting the positive support. Saying, “This is great. You’re doing well.” And I think that needs to be instilled all across academia and that would hopefully break down some of these kinds of negative barriers that seem to sometimes be instilled there.
[00:38:37] Jacinta: Yeah, I think that’s a great point, is that we have such a strong negativity bias, and we almost assume that the good things are known. So we don’t often readily give compliments, like give positive feedback to students and to colleagues and to, you know, anyone. We’re always like, okay, well we’re helping you by giving you constructive criticism, but we forget the positive aspect. And so the students they’re thinking, oh my goodness, all of my writing is terrible. And you’re there thinking, no, all of your writing is great, but these are some things that you can improve. And so, yeah, it’s kind of like a communications kind of issue.
I don’t want to give a very negative overall impression of, you know, academia and astronomy, because of course there are a lot of positive things. I think the point is just that we have look out for the holes, which any profession and any field has, and our blind spots with regards to mental health. And certainly we can improve that. But what do you do Jack, to make sure that you’re okay mentally? How do you look after yourself?
[00:39:43] Jack: Probably very badly. So my sort of way is ensuring that I sleep and ensuring that… so as soon as I had this issue and in my PhD, I’ve never worked a weekend. So ensuring that I have that time off to just recharge and chill, go and see friends, do things. And I think for me, that’s definitely a key, just to make sure that you give that time for yourself. So I do a lot of sport. I sound so British saying this – I play snooker quite a lot. From zero to Great Britain, snooker is pretty up there. And play tennis like three or four times a week. And that’s really helped. But also making sure that I, you know, you eat properly, you make time to sit with your family.
So, you know, another thing that was my stressor during my PhD, and this relates to your comment Jacinta about always moving, is that I was long distance to my now wife for four and a half years. So she’s originally from Indonesia, but she lived in Australia most of her life. And she has an American accent. But yeah, we were long distance. So South Africa is where we came together and that helps immensely. We were seeing each other three times a year because it was so expensive because PhD students don’t get paid an awful lot. And that’s definitely helped. It’s just making sure we have that time and yeah, we’ve got our two baby dogs, which are snoring in the background here. So I hope you can’t hear them.
I think, yeah, as I said, the key thing is to make sure that you have time to take out for yourself to do these things. And regardless of how much work you have, just to go and ensure that it doesn’t encroach onto those other things because they’re equally as important. And I’ve seen… and I’m about to become a dad… So I’ve seen that, you know, people’s priorities definitely change when you have a kid. I’m sure Daniel can attest to this.
[00:41:52] Dan: Congratulations. That’s very exciting. Yeah, no, I can certainly attest to your priorities changing and your sleep being challenged. I mentioned already that sleep was a big challenge for me, and with children that certainly became more of a challenge. I’m very fortunate that when my youngest son reached about three, and he still wasn’t sleeping through, I stepped out and said, you know, “I need to sleep now.” And my wife nobly took it on. I can report now that he does sleep through. And that the whole household is a lot happier. But yes, kids are definitely a challenge.
And yeah, I mean, as you said, like reprioritizing. So I too really try very hard not to work evenings or weekends. And, you know, make that time for my family and for myself. Make sure that I’m running. Even if I have to wake up before five o’clock like I did this morning to try and squeeze it in. It’s important. And it really does make you feel normal. You, you know… it’s a form of socializing too, you know, running with friends or playing tennis with friends or playing snooker, or whatever you do. It’s not just about the sport. It’s about being out of your work environment amongst other people. And it’s incredibly refreshing and rewarding.
[00:43:11] Jacinta: I know that you have to go soon Jack, to go and do your many other… to go give a lecture, in fact. But do you have any final messages for listeners before you go?
[00:43:21] Jack: I guess the main thing for all the listeners here is academia isn’t all this stigma gloom that we’ve spoke about, but this is just identifying some of the problems. And even if you go into corporate, they’re going to be these same issues. So, you know, we’re doing amazing things with premier telescopes, new discoveries all the time. And people who are listening, who may be thinking about going into academia and doing research, there is all the good side of things. There are the good supervisors who look after your mental health. So, you know, Jacinta and myself have had good experiences. My supervisor was extremely supportive over that period.
And also there’s these mechanisms that are in place, as Daniel has said, with the… He’s changing this from the top down and people in the other end are going to change it from the bottom up. And mental health is becoming accepted. So for those who may be listening here, and some of the things have echoed with them, you know, they’ve seen signs in their own workplace or their degrees, just don’t be afraid, go and get help or talk to someone close to you. Or even just go and find that number so that when you feel that the time is right, is to go and get help, because there’s no point, you know, in feeling this way for too long.
For me at least, I look back on those times and I was like, “Why didn’t I get it earlier?” And it’s because I didn’t know the signs. So, you know, knowing the numbers and knowing the things that you’re covered for, or the therapists, and having those on the hand for when you feel it gets too much, is key.
And making sure that someone there is out for you is definitely the way forwards to go. So, yeah, I guess that’s my message for people and just make sure that you have a good work-life balance. Don’t let it dominate your life.
[00:45:20] Jacinta: Absolutely. Yeah, I agree with you and I echo that, you know, early intervention is kind of key. And I guess, I wish that I hadn’t waited until it got so bad that I had to do something about it. I wish I had kind of taken it more seriously earlier. Like I did take it seriously, but I think that I didn’t necessarily believe myself. And so it’s important to listen to your body, to listen to your mind, to validate that, and to do something about it. Trust yourself, and to try and work through the prejudice because even the most open-minded people, I find, still take quite a long time to come around to the idea of seeing somebody to help their mental health, even though you wouldn’t really hesitate to go and see a doctor if there was something physically wrong with you.
So that’s definitely something I would, yeah, encourage and learning about the science behind it. For me as a scientist, that made it a lot more real and a lot more valid, you know, learning a little bit about the neuroscience, and it’s also absolutely fascinating. But I’ll rant for a long time. So I’m going to stop there. Dan, did you have any final questions or messages?
[00:46:35] Dan: Yeah, no, just thanks so much for joining us, for sharing your experiences and being willing to talk so openly. It really is greatly appreciated. It’s something that we should definitely all be doing more of, and we really appreciate your time.
[00:46:48] Jack: Thank you.
Thank you for having me on. I’m glad to be part of this podcast. I don’t know whether I’ll listen to myself. It’s one of those things where you’re like you sound much different than you do in your head. Thank you so much, both. And then thank you as well for sharing your experiences. Because, you know, being able to do this conversation, I think is, you know, the least thing we can do to at least help some of the listeners maybe here who could be struggling. And just to make them comfortable that they’re not alone in this. I think that’s the prime thing. And to not feel bad that they’ve got into this either. I think that’s one of the key things is to be kind to yourself as well.
[00:47:31] Jacinta: Thank you so much, Jack.
[00:47:32] Dan: Thanks, Jack. And all the best. Good luck with the little one.
[00:47:35] Jack: Cheers. Thanks a lot. I got to bank up my sleep, but I don’t think it works well that way.
[00:47:48] Jacinta: It was so awesome to have a chat with Jack about that and to hear him very openly sharing his experiences. I think that is just so, so important because I think so many of us are going through the same thing and we just don’t realize that each other are. And so we keep silent, but it would actually be so much more helpful if we could actually just open up and help each other.
And I guess a lot of the reason why we don’t talk about it so openly is because of this, you know, stigma and shame, but I’m so glad that that’s starting to kind of dissolve a little bit. And in fact, I feel very confident talking about this. I don’t feel shamed at all because actually overcoming mental illness is the biggest achievement of my life. I am so proud of myself for doing that. And I am so happy with who I am right now. I feel better than I have for like nearly 20 years, the vast majority of my life. And so, although it was a very, very tough journey, in some ways kind of almost grateful because I’m so glad that I know what I know now.
[00:48:53] Dan: Yeah. I mean, I’m very proud of you too Jacinta, but then also very proud of myself and I feel exactly the same having been through what I’ve been through.
There were obviously times when, you know, I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy, but having come through the other side, I am incredibly grateful for what I’ve been through. I have a much better understanding of myself. I have a much better understanding of others and a lot more empathy. And while I’m still on antidepressants, I’m feeling, in the last year or so, happier than I’ve felt maybe ever, but definitely in a long time. And that quality of life is just incredible. You know, it allows me to enjoy all of my other achievements and every other aspect of my life that much more. So yeah. Also incredibly proud of myself for coming through this and yeah, choosing happiness.
[00:49:55] Jacinta: And I’m very proud of you too.
[00:49:56] Dan: Thank you Jacinta.
[00:49:58] Jacinta: It’s also important what we were talking about, like with early intervention, because although, you know, we’re very happy with where we are now, had we known what we know now, perhaps you would never have had to go through those things… perhaps you wouldn’t have had to go through such a tough time if we’d had the knowledge to reach out and access psychologists, to reach out and talk to psychiatrists and mental health experts.
And, you know, I wish that also that I had not been so prejudiced against medication. I’m also on antidepressants and I’m very happy with them, actually. I think that our minds are so incredibly powerful. I am absolutely in awe of them. And our conscious mind is only one tiny aspect of it. And there’s this depth there that we just don’t understand yet – neuroscience and psychology. We just don’t really understand it yet. And with great power comes great responsibility. And so, yeah, we really have to look after our minds because they are extremely powerful.
[00:51:00] Dan: Yeah, they sure are. And it’s a weird realization actually. We’re astronomers. So we used to the unknown. I think we know a lot more about the universe than we do about the human mind.
[00:51:08] Jacinta: Yeah, I think we actually do.
[00:51:10] Dan: You know, it’s a very hard thing to understand. You know, just these interactions, how things work, the chemical reactions that are going on. And I too, I mean, I’m very happy on medication. I think that there’s no reason for me to come off it if I’m stable, if I’m happy. Then I’m more than happy to continue feeling that. I don’t feel the need to try and wean myself off and struggle through. I choose happiness and it’s great. And I’m not embarrassed about that at all.
[00:51:42] Jacinta: No. And I found actually that, you know, at first I was a bit worried about opening up to people, talking about it. Because, you know, you always fear rejection, but I found that once you talk about it, people are actually really grateful to talk to you about those things. You know, everybody has feelings and emotions and struggles, even if they deny it to you and deny it to themselves, like every single person on the planet does have them. And so it’s important to kind of acknowledge that and look after that, after yourself.
I mean, another thing I just wanted to mention is that it’s okay to be not okay even though your life is okay. Do you know what I mean? So like I had had a lot of guilt over the fact that my life was great. It really was great. I had the job I wanted, I had financial security. I had great friends. You know, my life was really good. And yet I felt so kind of, at best apathetic. You know, it’s this term called anhedonia, which is part of depression where you don’t… we actually can’t feel anything. You just don’t really feel much joy or, you know, things are just grey and kind of numbing. And it’s okay to feel that even though your life seems great. And so you don’t have to feel guilty over feeling that.
You know, your brain is an organ. Like any other organ in your body, it can get sick and it’s not your fault. And it’s not necessarily any particular event that happened. It’s not necessarily any particular environmental factor. It can be so many things. It can be related to gut health. It can be related to genetics, and all of these things combined, which we don’t really understand well, can lead to mental illnesses.
So it’s important not to blame yourself when it comes to these sorts of things. I mean, I had three months off work, completely, to recover. Plus, you know, it took me nearly a year to be able to get back to full-time work. And so again, I would stress like if you can prevent yourself from getting to that point, please do, because I don’t want anyone else to have to go through that.
[00:53:52] Dan: Yeah, absolutely. And I think, you know, we did mention preventative care, and I think that, you know, look after yourself. There are avenues to seek help and, you know, we’ll post some links of places you can go and seek help if you are struggling, or if you need to speak with someone. And I think that at the end of this episode, I think we can definitely do your new little addition to the show. How are you Jacinta?
[00:54:19] Jacinta: Oh yes. That did actually work out really well, didn’t it? Our new tradition for ending the show. Thank you for asking Daniel. I’m okay. I’m a little stressed at the moment, to be honest. A little bit kind of on the edge of burning out. Quite a few stresses in my life at the moment, which individually, quite small, but add up to, you know, a lot. And a lot of things that I can’t personally do anything about – sort of not in my control. And so I’m just managing that and making sure I do a lot of self-care. Tomorrow, I’ve booked in for a splashing out on a massage. And my mum bought me a facial for Christmas, which I’ve never had one before. So I booked that in for tomorrow. So just like looking after myself, which is going to do me well for… it’s like investing in myself, in my future productivity, which I think is really important. How are you?
[00:55:12] Dan: Yeah. I’m well, thanks. I’m glad you’re doing well. Yeah, I’m also well. My running is going well again. My injury is healing and I’m feeling a lot better about that, which is very important, as I mentioned, to my mental health. It’s a huge part of my social life. And, you know, being able to see my friends and run with them is very important to me. Work is stressful as usual and busy, but again, managing that, trying to take the time I need. And I’ve got quite good at saying no these days and also just quite good at not replying to certain emails. I apologize if you you’re one of those.
[00:55:53] Jacinta: On the receiving end of that.
[00:55:56] Dan: Or the non-receiving end, as it may be. But yes, you know, I’m trying to prioritize myself and, you know, do as much as I can without negatively affecting my health.
[00:56:06] Jacinta: Yeah, absolutely. Alright. So I think that’s it for today’s episode.
[00:56:11] Dan: Yeah. Thanks very much for listening and we hope you’ll join us again on the next episode of The Cosmic Savannah.
[00:56:16] Jacinta: You can visit our website, thecosmicsavannah.com, where we’ll have the transcript, links, pictures, and other stuff related to today’s episode.
[00:56:24] Dan: You can follow us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, @cosmicsavannah. That’s savannah spelt S-A-V-A-N-N-A-H. You can also find us on YouTube, where audio-only episodes are uploaded with closed captions, which can be auto translated into many different languages, including Afrikaans, isiXhosa, and isiZulu. And now you can also follow along on our website with the script, along with the transcript.
[00:56:46] Jacinta: Special thanks today to Dr. Jack Radcliffe for speaking with us.
[00:56:50] Dan: Thanks as always to our social media managers, Sumari Hattingh, and our audio editor, Jacob Fine.
[00:56:54] Jacinta: Also to Mark Allnut for music production, Michal Lyzcek for photography, Carl Jones for astrophotography, Susie Caras for graphic design, and Justine Crook-Mansour for transcription.
[00:57:04] Dan: We gratefully acknowledge support from the South African National Research Foundation, the South African Agency for Science and Technology and Advancement, the South African Astronomical Observatory, and the University of Cape Town Astronomy Department.
[00:57:16] Jacinta: You can subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. And we’d really appreciate it if you could rate and review us or recommend us to a friend.
[00:57:25] Dan: And we’ll speak to you next time on The Cosmic Savannah.
[00:57:28] Jacinta: I can’t really hear you now because of the pillow.
[00:57:35] Dan: You can’t hear me at all?
[00:57:37] Jacinta: Because of the pillow. Yeah, just yeah.
[00:57:39] Dan: Okay. How about now?
[00:57:40] Jacinta: Okay.
[00:57:41] Dan: You can hear me?
[00:57:41] Jacinta: Yeah. That’s better.
[00:57:42] Dan: Okay.
[00:57:43] Jacinta: Yeah. Ready? 1, 2, 3.
[00:57:46] Dan: I think we nailed it.
[00:57:50] Jacinta: Sure.