The below article contains some parts from an interview article written by Dr. Zille Anam (Program Coordinator, Paksh) for IndiaBioscience. The article can be accessed here: Building an international mental health support group for people in science - IndiaBioscience
I have been in love with plants all my life. As a five-year-old playing in my Grandmother's terrace garden, I dreamt of spending my life understanding and appreciating plant lives and learning from them as much as I can. I am lucky enough to be able to do exactly that now as a plant scientist, still working in academia. But being able to say this today has been a journey, which stems from Paksh.
The word “Paksh” is a Hindi word which means to be by “one’s side”; to be of support. The logo, if you notice, shows two flowers coming together to show support to one another. This is not a coincidence. It integrates my love of plants, and what they taught me on being altruistic and empathetic. The story behind Paksh is also one of support.
It was established because of a conversation when two people on the opposite sides of the world empathized and helped each other through a difficult time.
Paksh also reinforces that every journey, every experience needs to be acknowledged, talked about, and shared. Stories matter and storytelling can be an incredible way of empowering and encouraging people to stand up to whatever struggles they are facing. So here is the story behind the conception of Paksh, what it stands for and what we aim to do!
What motivated us to establish Paksh?
As a masters’ student, I harboured a dream of going abroad to study. Apart from experiencing a new culture, I wanted to explore the world. A lot of international students have the same dreams. I ended up moving to a country where I did not speak the language and did not know anybody except for my supervisor whom I had met only once before. The culture shock was huge. I had a very hard time dealing with people and integrating myself into a completely different environment. I was the outcast: the only woman and the only non-French student in the lab.
I just felt this pressure and I thought I needed to keep going to make myself believe that I was doing a good job. What I didn’t realize was that my mental health was gradually deteriorating as a result.
I realized towards the end of my PhD that I was not the only one suffering. Being in academia brings some common challenges that people don’t talk about. Along with homesickness and the anxiety of finishing my PhD, I was also facing the problem of having no one to talk to about my problems and challenges. I knew I was not the only one struggling, but it was difficult to find a safe, non- judgmental space to share our vulnerabilities within the walls of academic institutions.
While I have finished my PhD and am no longer in that mental state, I know that many PhD students continue to suffer in silos. They think their journeys, problems, thoughts are not valid or worth being discussed or asking for advice over.
But the biggest lesson from my PhD stems from our understanding that the greatest benefit comes from our evolution: The ability to help each other and to be kind to each other.
Following this amazing life lesson from plants, I wanted to help these people and didn’t want anybody to ever go through what I went through myself.
The initial idea of Paksh, a support system created for researchers, by researchers, came to me when I was writing my PhD thesis. When I approached people with the idea, many supported me in private but didn’t come forward in public. I approached heads of labs who felt that this was not a strong enough idea for people to be spending their time and resources on. Other major hindrances were the fear of losing my career path, the fact that mental health was not a common priority, and fear of judgement. Later, unexpectedly (thanks to social media), I met Dr. Roopali Chaudhary, CEO of Lotus
STEMM, and that one conversation changed everything. Although having completely different academic backgrounds, international experiences, and even time zones, we instantly connected. Despite the differences, we both had faced certain mental health struggles during our academic journeys, which we could empathize with each other about. So, together, we set out to be allies, advocate for mental health and create what we thought was an essential need for the mental well-being of researchers, Paksh.
So what is Paksh?
The core idea behind Paksh is creating a safe space, a no-judgment community for academics to freely express their thoughts. People from all walks of life share their experiences, thoughts, and opinions. It is a community based on kindness. They help and support each other. I translated everything I learnt during my PhD about altruism — the ability to help one another without thought of personal gain — into Paksh. I learnt that people form bonds with each other; they can empathize with and support one another no matter where they are from.
Paksh was initially created for students who are living abroad. But knowing that there are many students who are living in their home countries who are also going through the same academic challenges, we decided to make this community open to graduate students and postdocs from across the globe.
At Paksh, we see people coming together irrespective of backgrounds. We need to understand that people can form groups, become part of something that is bigger than themselves, and these groups can be kind and cooperative under stressful circumstances, a pattern highly observed in nature!
We tend to find ample reasons to divide people and create borders between them. But at the end of the day, we are all from the same species and what connects us together is the love for what we do. Nobody should struggle while doing what they love. And as a true testament to the idea, we have a wonderful community of past members continuing to stay in touch, cheering and rooting for each other’s successes. We also have some truly amazing team members helping make Paksh happen.
The major learning from Paksh for me, had been that if you want to bet on collective human kindness, you can, and I think Paksh is evidence to that. I have also learnt that if humans can come together under the right circumstances, they can become an altruistic community, which is the most stable strategy in the long run for the survival of any species.
Building upon this idea, over the next phases, we would like to expand Paksh and bring it to academic institutions where peer support structures for students are currently scarce. In the last three years, we have begun to fathom the cultural and systemic barriers surrounding the highly unmet need for mental health support for researchers across the spectrum. Through Paksh, we want to continue to reach out to as many researchers as possible and ensure adequate, equitable and timely mental health support is provided to them.
Dr. Harihar Jaishree Subrahmaniam
Program Developer and Lead, Paksh
Paksh phase 3 launches on October 10th, 2022. To all those who would like to be a part, please keep an eye out for the registration forms on Lotus STEMM webpage and social media. To learn more about Paksh, you can visit: https://www.lotusstemm.org/paksh