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  • Writer's pictureBecca Dzombak

Mental health and geoscience field requirements

I recently wrote this article about how field requirements in geoscience programs are ableist and exclusionary, for (a quick summary of) the following reasons:

- Those with physical limitations are not typically able to participate without significant, separate accommodation.

- Those who have chronic illnesses to manage face stress planning to be in the field and do not always have the option to be out in the field/away from healthcare.

- Those who can't afford tuition for extra semesters, need to work, or are primary caregivers, can't attend.

- Those who are from socioeconomic or cultural backgrounds that didn't allow or encourage experiences that would make them comfortable hiking and camping in rural parts of the country. (Most outdoor spaces are white spaces.)

I won't re-write the whole piece, but the gist is that while we're revamping field-based courses to work by remote instruction, we should be thinking about how we can continue to offer these non-traditional options even once the pandemic doesn't require it. (And to stop thinking of them as "alternatives," but rather equal options.) Then those who still want the traditional field experience can have it, but those who would be previously have been excluded could fulfill the requirements through inclusive options.

But one thing that didn't make it into my piece was how mental health can affect a field experience, and vice versa. Physical health plays a role in that - chronic illness and anxiety often go hand in hand - but mental health is always worth considering on its own. Students struggling with anxiety or depression, body dysphoria or eating disorders, or any number of mental maladies can be very distraught in an environment that is physically strenuous and emotionally taxing. Existing problems can be amplified and, if students are away from healthcare facilities (and healthcare coverage), proper treatment may not be available.

Field camp is an intense environment, with little privacy or time for relaxing or collecting yourself. The pressure to be "on" for most of the day, to learn quickly, and to be sociable is intense. (Instructors aren't immune to this pressure, either.) If someone finds themselves falling behind (physically), or not picking up on a concept at an outcrop as quickly as the others, or not feeling accepted by the group or that they "belong," mental health can decline, which can in turn affect their performance in class, which can demotivate them... and so on.

At field camp, if you sprain an ankle or break your arm, you (hopefully) quickly receive care. It's an obvious, physical injury that's easy to understand; you can't explain away a bone fracture or ignore it. Mental health is not afforded the same treatment - figuratively and literally - especially in a traditionally hypermasculine field like geology. A student is far less likely to raise concerns about feeling depressed as opposed to, say, having a fever when the class is prepping to head to the field for the day, even though someone having a bad depression day is just as unable to function as a student with a fever. It's just easier - and more socially acceptable - to say, "I have a terrible cold and a chills and I need to sleep" than "I am very depressed and only feel capable of laying on the floor and my mind will not turn on." Neither person should go into the field, but the former is more likely to speak up and really be heard.

My point with all of this is that as we carry on this conversation about making geoscience more accessible and inclusive, we need to remember that part of that is normalizing the discourse around both physical and mental health. This has definitely been on the upswing; it certainly feels like there's more university-level dialogue around and support for student mental health, and graduate student mental health is certainly a hot topic. Hopefully, if our students hear faculty and graduate students honestly and non-judgmentally discussing mental health, they'll feel more comfortable and safe communicating their concerns when they arise.

We have to be sure that our programs offer mental health support and safe environments both on and off campus.

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