Tuesday, January 3, 2017

AAS 229 Information

Hi, everyone! 

As AAS 229 gears up, we wanted to post a few notes about access and WGAD. First, WGAD will be there! From the coordinating committee, Alicia, Jackie, and Jason will be at the meeting. We have space at the AAS booth (317) and will be presenting poster 157.01 in the Wednesday evening poster session. If you are unable to attend, we've posted an audio version online at: http://tinyurl.com/AAS229-WGAD

The venue has posted online their accessibility features: http://www.marriott.com/hotels/fact-sheet/travel/dalgt-gaylord-texan-resort-and-convention-center/#accessbility
If you have any comments on how the hotel can improve, please contact them; if there is anything we can do with the AAS to improve meeting accessibility, please comment on this google form (linked here).

Lastly, you can follow along on twitter with the hashtag #aas229 and any comments for WGAD specifically, please use #aaswgad.

Have a great meeting!

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Living with Anxiety Disorders in Astronomy

Today's guest post is written by Angela Zalucha, Principal Investigator at the SETI institute (website, twitter: @plutoprincessz). When Angela isn't using general circulation models to study planetary atmospheres, she is actively working to eliminate stigma surrounding mental health discussions to make our community more inclusive.

This is the second in a series of blog posts about what one astronomer has learned while dealing with mental illness (click here for part 1). It not be a substitute for help from a professional therapist or physician. If this is an emergency, call 911 or go to your local emergency room.  In the U.S. you may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or click here for a listing of international numbers.

In a few hours, I have to get on an airplane. I'm afraid to fly. Right now, I am logical. You can give me statistics about how flying is the safest way to travel, teach me the physics of lift, familiarize me with the safety protocols of the Federal Aviation Administration, or show me how a jet engine works, and I will think these things sound quite reasonable. But once I'm on the plane, I lose all rationality. Scientific reasoning in my brain shuts down. This type of anxiety is what would be classified as a “specific phobia” below.

The American Psychological Association1 defines anxiety as, “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH)2 further explains, “Occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. You might feel anxious when faced with a problem at work, before taking a test, or making an important decision. But anxiety disorders involve more than temporary worry or fear. For a person with an anxiety disorder, the anxiety does not go away and can get worse over time. The feelings can interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships.” Interference with daily activities, whether physiological or psychological, is a flashing sign that some form of professional help should be sought.

The NIMH states that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults age 18 and older, or 18% of the population. There are different kinds of anxiety disorders, as well as other disorders that are closely intertwined with anxiety. People with generalized anxiety disorder display excessive anxiety or worry for months and face several anxiety-related symptoms2 (3.1% of the U.S. population; women are twice as likely to be affected as men)3. People with panic disorder have recurrent unexpected panic attacks, which are sudden periods of intense fear that may include palpitations, pounding heart, or accelerated heart rate; sweating; trembling or shaking; sensations of shortness of breath, smothering, or choking; and feeling of impending doom2 (2.7% of the U.S. population; women are twice as likely to be affected as men)3. People with social anxiety disorder (sometimes called “social phobia”) have a marked fear of social or performance situations in which they expect to feel embarrassed, judged, rejected, or fearful of offending others2 (6.8% of the U.S. population; equally common among men and women, typically beginning around age 13)3. Specific phobias (such as fear of heights) affect 8.7% of the U.S. population (women are twice as likely to be affected as men; typically begins in childhood; the median age of onset is 7)3. Other conditions such as depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) have a significant anxiety component in their symptoms3.

Back to the airplane example: my anxiety about flying was at one time more than just a minor inconvenience where I couldn't work or sleep on a plane like some people can, thus not making the most efficient use of my time. Before my my anxiety was managed, I would be looking at weather maps days in advance and worrying about atmospheric conditions. When I got off the plane I often hadn't eaten because I was so scared, and I had to spend the rest of the day in bed because I felt sick to my stomach. This anxiety was intruding into my work and personal life, which was a signal that I needed to see a mental health professional.

Like any profession, astronomy is stressful. Exams, a PhD thesis, job applications, proposal deadlines, public speaking, travel, and socializing in the workplace and at conferences are things we must do to advance in the field. For some people, any of these things alone can cause an anxiety disorder or compound a preexisting condition. Here I'd like to point out some anxiety-causing situations that I have encountered both personally and as an anonymous third-party that are associated with the profession of being an astronomer (in no particular order).

Graduate school can be a high anxiety situation, with the large teaching and research workload, comparatively low pay and insufficient benefits, high cost of living near a university, perhaps living far from family, pressure from other scientists (“so, you're in your fifth year, shouldn't you be graduating soon?”) or family (questioning your career choice), tensions between advisor or other people, intense qualification exams, writing the thesis document (dauntingly large for some), preparing for the defense, the defense itself, and post-PhD job search stress. My psychiatrist in grad school often asked me if I felt depressed (not technically anxiety, but related) after I successfully defended my thesis, because even if writing a thesis is a high anxiety event, when such a major aspect of your life is over, feelings of emptiness can occur (e.g., postpartum depression).  I also remember many fellow graduate students being immensely emotionally burdened during the uncertainty and competitiveness of post-PhD job search.

Conferences are another high anxiety event for two reasons: those associated with research itself and those associated with social anxiety. It seems that most of us work in a frenzy to get our presentations or research done right before the conference (or at the conference itself). Few people are comfortable with public speaking, and I feel the level of preparation (e.g. formal training) varies widely due to everyone's different educational and workplace background (it may or may not get better with time). On top of the stress of traveling to a conference (which might leave us jetlagged or not on our normal eating diet and schedule), socialization is necessary to build collaborations or make yourself known to employers. For first-time conference-goers or when at a conference outside your field (or a very specific case for me, where my PhD advisor and I are not in the same research field), trying to mingle with strangers, especially a group of people who have been great friends for 20 years, is frightening. We also have a societal pressure to drink alcohol (leaving some who abstain uncomfortable), but not to drink so much so as to lose professionalism.

Preparing job applications (including undergrad research positions, graduate school, postdoc positions, and faculty positions) and writing grant proposals are very time-consuming. Depending on the institution, your current position may not pay you enough or at all to write these applications, so you are trying to them on top of your normal work. For me personally, rejection leaves me so devastated that I experience a panic attack. People experience panic attacks in different ways, but the way I experience them is I feel like the room is spinning, my life is out of control, and I have to lay down and stare at the ceiling fan. Sometimes they are a result of a specific trigger I can point to, sometimes they just seem to hit out of nowhere.  If I fall asleep, I wake up feeling calmer, but I've just wasted two or three hours that I could have been working, doing chores, or having fun.  I would say more often than not, I need a “panic-resolving nap” in the afternoon.  I usually feel groggy the rest of the day. On a non-panic attack day, my anxiety increases as a function of time of day, so that late at night I am completely wired (coffee is off limits for me at any time of day). Even if I'm sleepy, I need medication to calm me down in order to sleep.

Not everyone may feel anxious in the situations, and I have probably left some out. Like other mental illnesses, we don't talk about anxiety disorders in the open, and so people do not get the support they need. When members of the field suffer, the productivity and potential achievements of the field as a whole suffers, and we need to recognize it. Anxiety disorders are not a mere inconvenience, but detrimental to our well-being. Like many mental health conditions, they serve as a barrier to access and engagement with our science.

1. American Psychological Association, Accessed 4 October 2016, http://www.apa.org/topics/anxiety/
2. National Institute of Mental Health, Accessed 4 October 2016, https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml
3. Anxiety and Depression Association of America, Accessed 4 October 2016, https://www.adaa.org/about-adaa/press-room/facts-statistics

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Standing Rock Solidarity Statement

We stand in solidarity with the Native American tribes who oppose the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

As members of the AAS working group on Accessibility and Disability, we recognize that a truly inclusive and equitable science community cannot be achieved in an American society that ignores when people of color and other marginalized groups face brutality at the hands of the police. We support the indigenous astronomers in our community, and accept the challenge from our colleagues at Astronomy in Color to advocate for our indigenous colleagues, and to work actively and with a continued focus on intersectionality to advocate against systemic racism in our field and in our communities.

Elisabeth Mills
Nick Murphy
Jacqueline Monkiewicz
Karen Knierman
Andria Schwortz
Wanda Liz Diaz Merced
Alicia Aarnio
Sarah Tuttle
Lauren Gilbert
Jennifer L. Hoffman

Lists of places to donate for the legal fund, representatives to contact and their contact information, etc.:

Contact the 17 banks funding the Dakota Access Pipeline:

Standing Rock Syllabus, for background on the whole situation:

--Cross post from the Astronomy in Color blog---

Solidarity with Standing Rock

Dear fellow astronomers,

Protests against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation have been met with unacceptable levels of brutality by the authorities, and unsurprisingly limited coverage by the mainstream media. These disturbing events are yet another reminder that people of color, particularly Native Americans*, continue to be treated as second-class citizens in this country. This is in stark contrast to the treatment of the Bundy ranchers, a predominantly white armed group who were acquitted after violently occupying a wildlife preserve in Oregon, and whose actions included the bulldozing of sacred grounds. We hereby express solidarity with the Sioux Tribe Nation, and any other Native American tribes facing threats to their sacred lands, resources and livelihood. 

Similarly, we wish to reassure every astronomer who identifies as indigenous that they can count on our unconditional support. The field of Astronomy has faced similar situations, in relation to the construction of observatories in Mauna Kea and Atacama. During such crises, astronomers have a choice: to react in hateful ways that alienate indigenous astronomers, or instead to reject our shameful history and present-day oppressive structures, and support the few indigenous astronomers in our community.

We invite all astronomers to educate ourselves and reflect on the reasons why the underrepresentation of Native Americans and indigenous people in US astronomy is so severe, and to challenge our preconceptions on systemic racism and colonialism. Although these ideas might be new or seem foreign to some of us, they have real life consequences on many of our colleagues. Lastly, we invite you to get to know, to reach out to, and advocate for the advancement of the few indigenous astronomers in our field. The undersigned value scientific discovery. However, we value our fellow astronomers more! We reaffirm our commitment to ensure the inclusion, support, and safety of every indigenous person in astronomy. 

We support Standing Rock! No DAPL!

Prof. Jorge Moreno (Indigenous: Southern Texas and Northern Mexico)
Charee Peters (Indigenous: Yankton Sioux)
Dr. Lia Corrales
Nicole Cabrera Salazar
Prof. Jillian Bellovary
Prof. Kim Coble
Prof. John Asher Johnson
Prof. Aparna Venkatesan
Dr. Jackie Flaherty 
Prof. Adam Burgasser

The above signatories are members of the AAS Committee on the Status of Minorities in Astronomy (CSMA). This statement reflects our own personal views, and is not an official statement by the CSMA nor the AAS.

*We adopt the term “Native American”, in lieu of “American Indian”, to avoid recognition of that first European colonizer who mistakenly assumed that he had reached south Asia. This terminology follows recommendations by the North Carolina Humanities Council.


The petition to stop DAPL:

A list of actionable steps for people to take: 

Decolonising Science Reading List:

SACNAS Column on the TMT:

CSWA TMT Statement (and links therein):

CSMA Spectrum Article (Why so few Native American Astronomers?)

Mahalo No Trash Blog (Mauna Kea and Atacama):

Native American Persistence in Higher Education

Indigenous Education Institute

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Improving Accessibility of Astronomical Publications

The AAS Working Group on Accessibility and Disability is pleased to release a set of recommendations for how to make astronomical publications and the journal submission process more accessible. Full text of the document is included below, and a pdf version can be found here: Improving Publications Accessibility.

Improving Accessibility of Astronomical Publications

Recommendations from the Working Group on Accessibility and Disability

Each individual copes, searches, thinks, performs, perceives, and interacts differently. Interaction implies a response to physical, cognitive, emotional, and other stimuli that have been processed by an individual.  In the interest of disseminating knowledge to the community in a fully inclusive way, we would ideally accommodate the coping and cognitive needs of every single human being. Well-designed user-centered interfaces take into consideration characteristics of the target audience to create a Human-Computer Experience that will not prevent access, frustrate, or serve to disengage the user. For the field of astronomy, where thousands of publications are generated each year, the number of articles published by a scientist is highly weighted in performance and productivity metrics. To publish and stay up-to-date on the latest research is mandatory to find the next job. However, the pervasive dependence on language and expressions that fit only one perceptual style suggests that our field has limited itself to the participation of only this perceptual style. This dependence forces people with other learning styles to learn or memorize using this particular style. To unwittingly deny people with disabilities the same amount and quality of information that is available to a traditional visual learning astronomer has the exclusionary effect of severing our links with the field and society.

We recommend that journal staff consult User Centered, Universal Design specialists among other information access professionals rather than relying on a checklist for developers to follow to achieve “accessibility,” as the latter will lead to more complications than solutions. User Centered design considers all of the perceptual strategies of humans to design systems that will not disengage the user. This strategy lends itself to widen the participation of a large diversity of people by enabling their participation in tasks that have traditionally excluded non-visual learners. Astronomy and physics are very visual fields that often force people that do not fit that learning style out of the field.

Information Access (IA) technology (Assistive Technology, hereafter AT) is very expensive, which in itself excludes most people from efficient, effective and useful IA. Common assistive technologies used by people with disabilities are alternative keyboards, pointing devices, eye-tracking equipment, voice-recognition software and screen scanning options. Software in general is overcrowded and updates frequently change the way things are done whenever new features are added. Changes in software may frustrate users who are accustomed to a certain interface. This is a major challenge for people with disabilities.  On top of that, we note that accessibility is not a priority for our culture: for example, journal display typically prioritizes use of PDF generators that save space over ones that make it easy for people with cognitive, attention, and focus challenges. Technology used to improve accessibility should be compatible with freely available accessibility software; for example, the NVDA (NonVisual Desktop Access) screen reader is compatible with the Mathematical Markup Language (MathML). A culture where the use of words does not disempower people is mandatory if science is to become truly representative. Moreover, accessibility should be performed automatically and not as an exception.

Deaf and hard of hearing people are often assumed to not face difficulties when reading or navigating webpages. That assumption is far from reality, and excludes many individuals. Words commonly used in astrophysics often lack direct equivalents in sign language and so must be painstakingly spelled out letter by letter. Ideally every word used in a journal article should have a translation to sign language [1]. The Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD) and the International Astronomical Union Working Group on Accessibility and Inclusion are coordinating efforts to address the lack of sign language for astrophysical words at the professional level, and as needed to develop international signs. We advise the journal staff to seek their advice.

Below, the reader will find recommendations for improving the accessibility of astronomical journals. It is important to highlight that no user centered testing or focus group has been performed to gather the suggestions below. These suggestions should serve as a guide and motivation for the reader to perform a user centered study and deepen the research on how best to use technology to bring different learning styles on board. We mentioned previously that a list of steps for developers to follow is not the solution, even though our suggestions below may look like a list. Lists limit creativity, limit possible new solutions, and may be unintentionally taken as absolute, thereby leaving out the very important phase of continuous focus groups and usability testing. Good back-end and front-end design is guided by continuous usability evaluations. We hope that readers will gather help from experts on user centered design, human computer interaction, and disability in astronomy to enrich the field at all levels.

On the same token, there are many learning styles and disabilities, and we are not specialists [2] in all these learning styles. It is not our intention to leave any disability out, but if we did then please reach out to us with your suggestions. These suggestions were gathered from astronomers whose experiences are informed by our own disabilities.

In order to meet the needs of all readers with disabilities, we recommend that journals conduct focus groups with different users from the target audience (students and astronomers with disabilities). This will require approval of an Institutional Review Board. Studies with astronomers with disabilities have already been done while respecting their anonymity: the journals may also begin with the target audience doing a high granularity usability evaluation of the journal interface as it is, together with remote login to monitor the navigation and text-to-speech interface. This approach lends itself to widening diversity, identifying deeper situations affecting the target audience, and prioritization. It is important to develop new methods that will lead us to create robust and enduring interventions. The work to be done also comprises the design of a template where the article will be inserted; that may require additional unique expertise.

Procedural Recommendations

  • Form a committee to evaluate and improve the accessibility of astronomical publications. This could be done in partnership with the Working Group on Accessibility and Disability (WGAD), the Office of Astronomy for Development (OAD), and the Office of Astronomy Outreach (OAO). The knowledge gained should be shared openly with other journals and publishers.
  • Perform user-centered studies to deepen the research on how to best use technology to make astronomical publications accessible to people with different learning styles and disabilities.
  • Perform usability evaluations regularly to make sure that articles are compatible with accessibility software. However, assistive technology compatibility does not necessarily mean that information may be accessed by the reader.
  • Seek feedback from the astronomical community about the accessibility of journals, especially from students and astronomers with disabilities.
  • Provide space in astronomical publications for articles on accessibility, equity and inclusion, astronomy education research (possibly as a supplemental journal article or letter series).
  • Provide authors with guidelines on accessibility.
  • Ask referees to comment on the accessibility of manuscripts. Provide specific criteria for referees to comment upon such as the accessibility of graphics and captions, and the understandability of the manuscript. A side benefit is that referees will learn better strategies for accessibility that they may use in their next publication.
  • Provide accessibility training for journal staff.


  • Organization of the articles, browser, and content should follow a consistent/standard format.
  • Use tags and links within documents to improve ease of navigation. For example, a table of contents with links to the different sections should improve screen reader compatibility. Use usability evaluations to refine how tags are used to fit the cognition and thinking styles of the target audience.
  • Ensure that people using screen readers and other assistive technologies are able to get the gist of an article, and can go back and forth between different sections at will. For example, imagine someone who only wants to hear the methodology section and has no need to hear the introduction, but the screen reader goes through it anyway. Readers should be able to easily jump between the text, table of contents, footnotes, and references. Documents should have a defined safe spot in case a reader loses orientation.
  • Speech recognition software may ultimately be a good option for navigating journal articles. However, speech recognition software presents its own problems (Hwang et al. 2003; Wobbrock & Gajos 2008) such as difficulty distinguishing between similarly sounding words.
  • Find and use resources such as MathML and/or Mathspeak that are compatible with free screen readers and other assistive technologies. It is important not only to read the variables and operators one by one in an equation (which is the equivalent to reading a sentence by spelling it letter by letter), but to know what the equation means and how it is being used (e.g., what graphemic symbol in the equation changed and how) to tackle the whatever situation the author is considering. The user should be able to recognize the equation and not to be forced into a memory overload.
  • The spotlight technique proposed by Lee and Oulasvirta (2015) brings important information to the foreground and may be used in PDF readers to accommodate people with attention challenges. A very useful resource is the Americans With Disability Act Network, Great Lakes Training Center library training session on “How do I know my PDF is accessible
  • Journals should provide users with accessible, time-effective, efficient, and useful ways to choose the settings to engage with the content. This should be possible without having to perform complicated movements with the mouse. Shortcut keys could be used, for example, to hear the spelling of a word or navigate within the document.
  • To aid users with motor impairments, avoid small clickable elements, mouse-dependent actions (Cannon 1987), and keyboard traps.


  • Provide articles with a logical and clear structure.
  • Research articles should be as understandable as possible for students and early career astronomers.
  • The written content should use richer (sensorial, verb, etc.) descriptors and expressions. Non-visual learners require more descriptive text. Publications should provide visual content to accompany text when possible for deaf and hard of hearing individuals.
  • Journal articles are notoriously dense and use many words that are beyond the everyday experience of some users with perceptual disabilities. Sensorial information (visual, hearing, touch, taste) is involved in the dissemination of knowledge through construction of analogy and development of relatable explanations. The sensorial information linked to linguistics and the creation of knowledge has been extensively studied. Journal managers should consult with professionals in linguistics and phonology. For a specific example, the recent LIGO gravitational wave detection news heavily circulated the analogy of “hearing” them for the first time; this is a fraught and technically incorrect description that misleads the general public and can be alienating or insulting to persons with disabilities (e.g., “we were deaf but now can hear”).

Layout and Style

  • Prioritize accessibility over other criteria in the design and layout of astronomical publications. Redesign format with accessibility in mind.
  • The display should be simple and accommodate the search and coping strategies of the diversity of possible readers.
  • Websites should allow users to easily change display settings related to accessibility. Provide high contrast and high visibility options, mouse-over text, and descriptive image captions. Allow the fonts and font size to be changed.
  • Maximize accessibility for people with dyslexia. Use dyslexic accessible fonts (including but not limited to Helvetica, Verdana, and OpenDyslexic) at a reasonably large font size (12 pt) with sufficient space between lines. Avoid crowding [3], and follow best practices related to the length and arrangement of sentences that are displayed. Many potential astronomy students have dyslexia (Schneps 2006), and some people with disabilities excluded because they feel incompetent when the situation is mostly related to access to information.

Multimodal Access

  • Provide multiple modes of access to the information contained in journal articles. Possibilities include podcasts, presentation slides, and videos to complement research articles. Options should be made available for embedding varied media formats (audio, video).
  • The format of articles should allow Braille embossing.

Graphics and Charts

  • Use colorblind intuitive palettes for graphics.
  • Provide sufficiently descriptive captions for graphics.
  • Descriptions of charts should follow a standard form and use richer descriptors and expressions. Research should be done to create guidelines on best practices. For example, if a person or screen reader describes graphemic symbols one by one to a blind person, this overwhelms their memory and makes it difficult to recognize meaning. This situation is similar for many others with perceptual and reading challenges.
  • Data from plots and charts should be made available for sonification and/or audio descriptions. An example tool is xSonify.

In conclusion, we hope that astronomical publishers and journal staff find the information useful in the important task of making astrophysics accessible to all. WGAD is here to help in this process, and we appreciate your time and efforts. We are glad to be part of a community that values inclusion and access.
With our best regards, the coordinating committee members of the AAS WGAD:

Wanda Díaz-Merced (Co-chair) 
Nicholas Murphy (Co-chair) 
Alicia Aarnio
Jacqueline Monkiewicz 
Jason Nordhaus 
Sarah Tuttle


[1] Resources from the World Federation of the Deaf: 

[2] The reader may write to access-astronomy@googlegroups.com or to the chairs of the American Astronomical Society Working Group on Accessibility and Disability.
[3] Crowding is a perceptual phenomenon where the recognition of objects (or graphemes) presented away from the fovea is impaired by the presence of other neighbouring objects (sometimes called "flankers"). (article on crowding and vertical display on scientific American: Using Technology to break the Speed Barrier of Reading posted at researchGate)


  • Cannon, W.B.. The James-Lange theory of emotions: A critical examination and an alternative theory. The American journal of psychology, pp 567–586, 1987.
  • Hwang, F., Keates, S., Langdon, P. and Clarkson, J. Mouse movements of motion- impaired users: a submovement analysis. SIGACCESS Access. Comput. 77-78, 102-109, 2003. DOI=10.1145/1029014.1028649 
  • Lee, B., Oulasvirta, A. Spotlights: Facilitating Skim Reading with Attention-Optimized Highlights. UIST '15 Adjunct: Adjunct Proceedings of the 28th Annual ACM Symposium on User Interface Software & Technology, 2015.
  • Schneps, M.H., Thomson, J.M., Sonnert, G., Pomplun, M., Chen, C., & Heffner-Wong, A. (2013). Shorter Lines Facilitate Reading in Those Who Struggle
  • Wobbrock, J.O,. Gajos, K, Z. Goal Crossing with Mice and Trackballs for People with Motor Impairments: Performance, Submovements, and Design Directions, ACM Transactions on Accessible Computing (TACCESS), v.1 n.1, p.1-37, 2008

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

How a Blind Astronomer Found a way to Hear the Stars

Today's post features a TED talk by Wanda Díaz Merced. Wanda's research focuses on gamma ray bursts and the development of sonification techniques for analyzing and interpreting data. She is a fellow with the IAU Office of Astronomy for Development at the South African Astronomical Observatory; they are working on programs to bring astronomical data to students at the Athlone School for the Blind. Wanda is co-chair of the AAS Working Group on Accessibility and Disability.

From Ted.com: Wanda Díaz Merced studies the light emitted by gamma-ray bursts, the most energetic events in the universe. When she lost her sight and was left without a way to do her science, she had a revelatory insight: the light curves she could no longer see could be translated into sound. Through sonification, she regained mastery over her work, and now she's advocating for a more inclusive scientific community. "Science is for everyone," she says. "It has to be available to everyone, because we are all natural explorers."

The video runs about 11 minutes and captioning is available; we have included a transcript of her talk after the jump.

Monday, September 12, 2016

What is Mental Illness?

Today's guest post is written by Angela Zalucha, Principal Investigator at the SETI institute (website, twitter: @plutoprincessz). When Angela isn't using general circulation models to study planetary atmospheres, she is actively working to eliminate stigma surrounding mental health discussions to make our community more inclusive.


This series of blog posts is what one astronomer has learned while dealing with mental illness. It not be a substitute for help from a professional therapist or doctor. If this is an emergency, call 911 or go to your local emergency room.  In the U.S. you may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or click here for a listing of international numbers.

Hello, my name is Angela and I suffer from mental illness. What does that mean? Am I crazy? Am I insane? A mental illness is behavior or thoughts that prevent you from living an everyday life. Mental illness affects the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves, and it can impact your ability to relate with others and function on a daily basis. By no means are those with mental illness weird or abnormal--about 1 in 5 people in the US suffer from a mental illness (here are the stats from the National Alliance of Mental Illness). And those are only the ones that are diagnosed (see World Health Organization bulletin).

A few examples of living with mental illness include: washing your hands until they turn red, not being able to get out of bed due to apathy, or being so afraid of crowds that you become petrified. I'm not writing about “I got some super-glue on my hands once and tried to wash it off and it took forever,” or “I had worked really hard last week and just felt like lounging around on a Saturday in my pajamas,” or “I was tired and didn't want to go to the party.” I'm writing about “I spend so much time washing my hands that I'm late to work every day”, or “I couldn't get out of bed for a week and haven't paid my electric bill” or “my brother is getting married, but I've been worrying for weeks because a lot of people will be there.” These events (work, paying bills, family events) are things that we, our culture, or our society have deemed are necessary parts of life that we must do often, and mental illness serves as a barrier for engagement with life in fundamental ways. One in five people you know maybe coping with these issues; maybe that one in five is the reader: you are not alone, reader.

Academia exists within larger societal structures and is often rife with the same biases. While the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 disallows discrimination against mentally ill workers, the biases against mental illness are deep, and the reality is still very far from the ideal. Scientists and students who disclose their illness out of necessity may find that their credibility as a researcher is undermined by their need for accommodation. Too often mentally ill scientists are simply dismissed as “crazy,” or politely told that if they cannot do the required work, they should probably rethink their field of choice. This in turn leads to an unwillingness to disclose illness, which means that many mentally ill researchers struggle on without necessary medical help or workplace accommodation.

Untreated illnesses (and even treated, since that can take time) lead to cumulative detrimental effects on our careers: opportunities that couldn't be taken advantage of, lost time, and lower productivity; it's a barrier to access and ultimately, it likely means lots of talented people are lost from the field. (Currently, there are no studies of how many scientists and any level leave because a mental health barrier). Studies indicate we have a profound mental health crisis in academia, but the topic is so taboo that most of us don't even see the tip of the iceberg, much less the actual extent of the problem. (A collection of resources related to mental illness in academia can be found here).

What should you do if you feel like you might be suffering from a mental illness or maybe just want a consultation to determine if you are? It's pretty much the same as if you had a physical injury. The two main types of professionals are therapists and psychiatrists. Therapists are college-educated professionals (often PhD or equivalent) who usually use some technique such as talking, cognitive behavioral therapy, or meditation to treat your condition. Psychiatrists are medical doctors (or nurse practitioners) who can prescribe medication.

I will be honest, going to a stranger and spilling your innermost feelings is intimidating. But it's like going on a date. If you don't click with your therapist, you can go to a different one until you find one that makes you feel comfortable. Likewise, some people are afraid that drugs will change their personality, the things they enjoy. Many other patients are deterred by the strong societal stigma against medication to treat mental illness, though that has improved somewhat with time. While all medications carry side effects, prescription medications are meant to target a specific behavior, not turn you into someone you aren't.

In more urgent situations, at least in the US, if you are seriously thinking of harming yourself or have another urgent symptom, please consider calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, listed in the prelude to this point. You can also go to your local emergency room or call 911. (Depending your state of mind, it may be best to have someone else drive you). They can and will treat your emergency just as if you had broken your leg. There are triage nurses and doctors that can help you with your emergency. Each state has different laws, but in my state, Colorado, you can commit yourself to a psychiatric hold where you stay in the hospital for 72 hours. For your own safety, they take away anything you could use to hurt yourself and provide mental health care to treat the most urgent symptoms. Please be kind to yourself and get help and show compassion for others who are suffering, perhaps secretly.

As for long-term care at colleges, universities, and other institutions, mental health care varies by a large margin.  A long-term goal of the AAS WGAD is to assess availability on campuses of resources to astronomers at all career levels, and ensure it is widely known within institutions how to access these resources.

Significant contributions to this post were made by Alicia Aarnio and Jackie Monkiewicz. Future blog posts will focus on specific conditions such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, obsessive compulsive disorder, and other mental illnesses.