Identifying and Supporting Postdocs of Concern
A postdoc’s life can be stressful. As a postdoc, faculty, staff member, or family member you may recognize a fellow Commodore in distress who may benefit from wellness support and professional resources.
We recommend the following process to help a Postdoc in distress:
You may also submit a Postdoc of Concern Form at any time.
Early detection and intervention is important. Identify a postdoc who may be in distress by noticing changes in performance, behavior, or demeanor. A combination of several changes is most likely to indicate that someone is in distress.
PERFORMANCE CHANGES, SUCH AS:
- Declining productivity or reduced work participation
- Incomplete work or missing deadlines
- Repeated requests for extensions to deadlines
- Increased nonappearance or tardiness
- Disruptive office/lab behavior
- Apparent memory loss or difficulty concentrating
- Poor organization skills or trouble with note taking
- Bizarre, aggressive, or morbid comments or written content
- Chronic fatigue, falling asleep in the office/lab
PHYSICAL CHANGES, SUCH AS:
- Poor or declining physical appearance, hygiene, and grooming
- Signs of intoxication, dilated or constricted pupils, or apparent hangovers
- Extreme fluctuations in weight
BEHAVIORAL CHANGES, SUCH AS:
- Expressions of feeling hopeless, helpless, guilty and/or worthless
- Nervousness, fearfulness, or tearfulness
- Inflated sense of self-importance and exaggerated behavior
- Suspected alcohol or drug use
- Erratic behavior, sudden mood swings, inappropriate anger, hostility, and irritability
- Withdrawal from others or loss of pleasure in everyday activities
- Social media posts related to mental and emotional wellness
- Talk of suicide or harm to self or others
EXPERIENCING TRIGGERING EVENTS, SUCH AS:
- Breakup in a relationship
- Incident of sexual assault or an abusive relationship
- Research difficulties/challenges
- Facing University or legal sanctions
- Death of a loved one
For more specific warning signs that someone may be contemplating suicide, the MAPS (Suicide Prevention) website may be useful to review. While the MAPS program is student focused, the principles are the same and thus can be applied to postdocs.
Once you have identified a postdoc who may be in distress, approach the postdoc to offer support. If they need immediate assistance, please refer to the “In Case of Immediate Crisis” section above. There is no one right way to initiate this conversation, however, the below steps are known best practices.
RESPECT THEIR PRIVACY.
- Choose a place where you may talk quietly without interruption at a time convenient for you both.
- Be honest and focus on the specific signs that alerted you to a possible problem.
- Remain calm, compassionate, and willing to listen. Use language that is non-judgmental and specific, such as “I noted that [indicate change in behavior that raised concern.]”
- If you suspect suicidal ideation, do not be afraid to ask if they are considering suicide. This is a scary question to ask, but many research studies have shown that asking the question does not increase the risk of suicide.
- Asking open-ended questions may elicit a response, such as “How are things going?”
- Avoid “yes” or “no” questions.
OFFER SUPPORT AND LISTEN.
- Convey your willingness to help.
- Be aware that the postdoc could respond in a variety of ways. Don’t interpret negative, indifferent, or hostile responses as a wasted effort. A decision to seek help often takes time.
- Reflect back to the postdoc what you hear to indicate you are listening.
- Do not promise confidentiality. If a postdoc asks you to keep something confidential, gently pause the conversation and tell them you may be able to keep some things confidential, but there are other things that you would need to take-action on in order to keep the postdoc or others safe. Refer the postdoc to the list of confidential resources on campus.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.
- Offering support to others can be challenging. You are not alone. Read below for how to refer a postdoc to the Employee Assistance Program, and for how to submit a Postdoc of Concern Form. Don’t forget to take care of yourself. Visit the Employee Assistance Program website for the health and wellness resources available to you.
Vanderbilt’s Employee Assistance Program is a central point of intake for postdocs to be referred to the best resources to meet their specific needs.
- Encourage the postdoc to visit the Employee Assistance Program website for information or provide the phone number – 615-936-1327 – to schedule an appointment. You may offer to help the postdoc make the initial phone call, or walk with the postdoc to the EAP during their office hours.
- Keep communication open by telling the postdoc you are always willing to listen. Continue to follow-up as appropriate by asking questions such as “How have you been?”
Faculty, staff, postdocs, students, community members, and family members can report their concerns pertaining to the personal, physical, or emotional wellbeing of a postdoc using the Postdoc of Concern Form. This form is not designed to be an emergency response notification. Postdocs needing immediate assistance should refer to the “In Case of Immediate Crisis” section above.
WHEN SHOULD I SUBMIT A POSTDOC OF CONCERN FORM?
You should submit a Postdoc of Concern Form if you identify a postdoc who is exhibiting concerning behavior related to their personal, physical, or emotional wellbeing and:
- You would like someone else to be aware of the issue;
- You believe the postdoc needs immediate follow-up;
- You believe the postdoc needs ongoing support;
- You have updated information about a previous report you filed; or
- You want advice on how to interact with or support the postdoc.
If you are unsure whether you should submit a report, please contact the Employee Assistance Program at 615-936-1327.
You may share with the postdoc that you are submitting a form to help them find support, or you may submit an anonymous form.
WHAT HAPPENS ONCE A FORM HAS BEEN SUBMITTED?
Once a Postdoc of Concern Form is submitted, appropriate staff in the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs and Graduate School will review and assess the information in order to determine the best course of action for follow-up. Follow-up is individually tailored in conjunction with the postdocs home school and, where possible, relationship-driven. It may someone reaching out to the postdoc directly and working with the postdoc on a success plan or appropriate referrals. Someone may also contact the reporting party for additional information. A reporting party may not receive any specific follow-up information due to privacy laws and regulations.
Resources & Training
We encourage all postdocs, students, faculty, and staff to take the Kognito and MAPS online training modules to increase your confidence in identifying postdocs or other
Commodores in distress and referring them to support services.
Kognito at Risk is an online interactive program that engages learners in simulated conversations with virtual, fully animated people who show signs of depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide. While the focus of the program is students, the concepts are the same and thus can also provide postdocs, faculty and staff with practice that is essential to increasing their confidence and ability to identify and refer postdocs.
The Employee Assistance Program gladly accept requests submitted by postdocs, staff and faculty for presentations, trainings and workshops on responding to postdocs in distress, EAP resources and various other topics as they relate to postdoc wellness.
College & School Liaisons and Deans
Each school or college has a designated point of contact who works with the Office of Postdoctoral Affairs to assist postdocs, faculty and staff in helping postdocs get the support they need.
- A&S – David Wright, Dean of Graduate Education and Research • 615-322-2636
- Blair – Melissa Rose, Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs • 615-322-7693
- Divinity – James P. Byrd, Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Research
- Engineering – Duco Jansen , Senior Associate Dean for Graduate Education and Faculty Affairs • 615-322-3521
- School of Medicine (VU) – Roger Chalkley, Senior Associate Dean for Biomedical Research Education and Training • 615-343-7290
- School of Medicine (VUMC) – Amy Martinez, Office of Research, VUMC • 615-875-0740
- Nursing – Mariann Piano, Senior Associate Dean for Research • 615-343-2936
- Owen – Richard Willis, Senior Associate Dean for the Faculty • 615-343-1050
- Peabody – David Dickinson, Associate Dean for Research and Strategic Initiatives • 615-322-8540