Do you need help with suicidal feelings, or do you feel concerned about someone? In Belgium, you can call 1813 (the suicide line) or visit their website to chat (www.zelfmoord1813.be). Internationally you can call the Community Help Service 02 648 40 14
Gwendolyn Portzky is associate professor Medical Psychology at the Faculty of Medicine and Health Science of Ghent University. She is director of the Flemish Centre of Expertise in Suicide Prevention (VLESP) at Ghent University. VLESP is the official partner of the Flemish Government for the prevention of suicide in Flanders and coordinates the development and implementation of the Flemish Suicide Prevention Action Plan. She is director of the Unit for Suicide Research (Ghent University). She is also responsible for the prevention of burn-out for residents and health professionals at the Faculty of Medicine at Ghent University and the University Hospital Ghent. As a clinical psychologist and cognitive-behavioural therapist she is attached to the Department of Psychiatry of the University Hospital Ghent, where she is specialized in the treatment of eating disorders, burn-out, depression and suicidality.
Steven is a Neurologist and clinical professor at the department of neurology of the Sart Tielman Liège University Hospital.
His book about 'no nonsense meditation' is available through Borgerhoff Lamberigts.
Gwendolyn: We have dental hygiene, in which two times a year we should go to the dentist and just have a checkup. Why not have mental hygiene?
David Chan: Welcome to Unpublished a podcast about mental well-being at work. [00:00:15] The podcast has been created by Trustpuntt. That's the confidential advisor service at Ghent University. Now in the series, we focus on topics related to academia and the research community. But there's a wealth of information in the series [00:00:30] that will be inspiring whatever your walk of life. My name is David Chan. I'm a lecturer at Ghent University, and I'm the host of Unpublished. In each episode, we tackle a topic about mental well-being in the workplace. The topics are sensitive [00:00:45] and often seen as taboo. They include phenomena such as impostor feelings, cultural differences, and loneliness. Now, for each of these topics, I talk to an expert in the field who gives fascinating insights based on their research and professional [00:01:00] experience. Alongside our main guest, you'll hear clips of individuals in academia sharing their own personal stories. With this podcast, we hope to create a greater openness towards the issues we cover and to help create a safe, comfortable [00:01:15] space in which to talk about mental well-being in a positive way. Hello, Noona. Welcome. Hi. Now you work for Trustpunt. Can you tell us a little bit more about yourself and about Trustpunt?
Nona: I'm Nona. I'm a confidential [00:01:30] counsellor at Trustpunt. Trustpunt is a department for psychosocial wellbeing at Ghent University, and people can come to us if they want to talk about any issue related to mental well-being at work. This can be discussed with us during a confidential conversation.
David Chan: Well, [00:01:45] now we're making a podcast to discuss a number of taboo topics about mental well-being at work. In this episode, we're going to talk about mental well-being in the workplace. There are actually two sides to this, which we'll discuss in the podcast. On the one hand, it's about feeling [00:02:00] well, feeling positive, feeling happy at work, and on the other hand, we talk about experiencing mental difficulties, perhaps even suicidal thoughts. No, no. Why is it important to talk about mental well-being?
Nona: Well, despite the fact that we have come a long way already, [00:02:15] I think there's still a lot of taboo regarding this topic. It's still easier to talk about successes, and about feeling happy than it is to talk about mental difficulties or negative experiences in your life. And this is also the way social media works. We [00:02:30] tend to only share the positive side of things, but it is much harder to, for example, post a picture of less happy moments in your life, and the biggest taboo of all would be suicidal tendencies or thoughts. There's still a lot of guilt or shame [00:02:45] involved when this topic comes up, and there's also this long-standing myth that things will get worse if we talk about it. And in this episode, we will try to break this myth, and we really want to normalize the whole continuum of mental well-being.
David Chan: I have the impression [00:03:00] that nowadays in our society there is a lot of pressure out there to feel happy, almost constantly honest.
Nona: Yeah, indeed. I think that is also a myth. The idea that you have to feel happy all day, every day. I think somewhere along the road everyone will feel a whole [00:03:15] spectrum of emotions, also the more negative ones.
David Chan: Well, for this episode, I talk with Professor Gwendolyn Portzky. She's a professor in medical psychology and an expert in the field of suicide prevention. I wanted to begin with this [00:03:30] idea. Just get a more detailed picture of this idea of mental well-being for some people. You know, as soon as you mention the word mental as a prefix for anything, it's, oh, that's not really me. That's somebody else. What [00:03:45] do we mean when we talk about this idea of mental well-being? What is it?
Gwendolyn: There are different angles to look at it, different ways to describe it. You could say when we talk about mental health, mental well-being, it [00:04:00] kind of refers to our thoughts, our cognitions, our feelings, our emotions, our behaviour, and actually the interaction between those three elements. You could say that's a big part of our mental health, how we look [00:04:15] at things, how we see things, things we experience every day, how we think about how we feel about them. And a lot of people also refer to mental well-being as the absence of mental health problems. So if you don't have any [00:04:30] psychological problems, then you actually have a good mental health.
David Chan: There are so many elements that can influence this idea of mental well-being. I think many people feel that it's something you either have or you don't. You know, it's a very they can often [00:04:45] it can often be perceived in a very black and white way. But from what you're saying, it's something much more complex, much subtler than that, probably more constructive to see this as a continuum rather than an either or situation.
Gwendolyn: It always was like divided. You [00:05:00] have your physical health? No, we are one and the same person. Of course, how we feel physically has an impact mentally. But there's also the other way. How we feel mentally has an impact on our physical health. So we [00:05:15] really should be aware, like every day it's about mental health. Every day we experience events, and often it's really small events, not big issues, but small events. But we have thoughts about it. We have [00:05:30] feelings about it, things that happen at work, things that happen with friends and relationships, and we can have a bit negative feelings about it. We can worry about things, and that's not a big psychological problem, and we are not aware of it, [00:05:45] but we have thoughts about it, and we have emotions about it, and it will reflect on our behaviour and how we behave. Will also have then an influence on others and on our own thoughts and feelings. So actually every [00:06:00] day is mental health.
David Chan: Every day is mental health. I think that's a nice way of encapsulating that idea. And I think a key word from what you've said, there is this idea of awareness actually [00:06:15] being aware of the state of your mental health. Quite often you might not be aware, simply aware that things are building up and moving in a negative direction, or you might be in denial about it. Perhaps in [00:06:30] each episode we also listen to a testimonial of a researcher in academia. Today, we listen to Steven Laureys. He's a clinical neurologist and conducts research about mindfulness. He also uses mindfulness in his own [00:06:45] personal life as a coping mechanism. He experienced a difficult period in his life, and mindfulness helped him to navigate these stressful situations. And he went on to write a book about it, the no nonsense meditation book.
Steven Laureys: I wrote the No Nonsense [00:07:00] Meditation book after our research on a Buddhist monk that is mature. Erika is actually a scientist, and I met him in 2013, and it was a very difficult period in my life because [00:07:15] I was going through a separation, very painful, being alone with three young kids, and I was emotionally exhausted. And I guess he sensed that and invited me for a retreat, [00:07:30] which was an eye-opener for me. And it changed me as a person. Also, as a health care professional, I now prescribe meditation and as a scientist because I said we now have a number of projects [00:07:45] where we try to understand, well, what is the impact of meditation, mindfulness, all these techniques and our brain, mind, body, what I felt was of course the stress and [00:08:00] you know, these thoughts. And as scientists we think a lot, and sometimes we think too much. And so that was just spinning around, preventing me to get sleep to, you know, [00:08:15] be inspiring dad. And so I got anxious was drinking, smoking, taking sleeping pills, anti-depressants. And that was not the inspiring dad or doctor or professor I wanted [00:08:30] to be, neither for my family nor the patients, the students. Now, as a physician, I also notice it's often only when you hit the wall that you're paying attention to your mental [00:08:45] well-being. And that is a pity. I think we can invest more in prevention and give us the tools to become more resilient, to find ways to deal with stress differently.
David Chan: I remember a number of years ago [00:09:00] for myself what happened to me. I was working very hard and lots of different pressures, the sorts of situation you're describing, and I suddenly became aware, but this is after weeks and weeks suddenly became aware that I was sort of on autopilot. I'd stopped [00:09:15] thinking. I was just focusing on the work, and it was very little going on mentally, emotionally, outside of that. At that time, I didn't really have that facility to monitor myself. I drew myself out of it and a person can close down [00:09:30] and be unable to think about, Well, what's my state right now? Well, what might I do to make this better? I would imagine that the more we talk about this, the more there is a dialogue about mental wellbeing, the more it becomes normalized, [00:09:45] as it were, and not something that somebody else talks about exactly that we can share, that it's more likely that we will have this sort of self monitoring facility. To what extent do you feel that the conversation about mental wellbeing is? Coming normalized [00:10:00] is becoming something that people generally are comfortable talking about. How far do we have to go, do you think?
Gwendolyn: Oh, I think we can go really far. What we think is that mental health should be as basic in our life as any other issue. [00:10:15] And I always think about the words of my mentor, who made a really good saying: we have our dental hygiene in which two times a year we should go to the dentist and just have a checkup on her.
David Chan: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Gwendolyn: Why [00:10:30] not have mental hygiene? And maybe just two times a year people can go to a psychologist or a counselor and just. Yeah. For ourselves, have a talk with [00:10:45] someone who has an objective view on it and have a talk about our mental state.
David Chan: So in terms of people being aware, what are the kinds of signals that they might watch out for, you know, in terms of know moving mentally in a negative [00:11:00] direction?
Gwendolyn: Of course, there are a lot of differences between persons, but in general, common signals are, for instance, that people notice by themselves some kind of social withdrawal. Also noticing [00:11:15] that the thoughts, how we think, how we look at the things are becoming a bit more negative. So maybe also feeling less confident about ourselves can sometimes also be [00:11:30] a signal, also sometimes feeling more emotional about things, feeling more and more exhausted, feeling more tired, feeling like my energy is just a star today and it's okay. But just after [00:11:45] a couple of hours, my energy level just drops and or like okay, during beginning of the week I still feel okay, but Wednesday, Thursday, Friday I just feel so exhausted. That can also be a signal. Also, rumination. [00:12:00] A lot of people experience more and more sleeping problems because they go into bed, and they started to think about work, and they see the whole day flashing before their eyes, and they think about it, and then they think and start worrying about [00:12:15] the next day how's this is going to be? So an increase in worrying can also be a signal, but like I said, it's very different for individuals, but that's a bit of the common signals that we hear, and it's getting more and more [00:12:30] problematic.
David Chan: So it's important that we recognize these signals. Stephen talks about how he thinks we should handle mental well-being in academia. In his view, we should create more awareness and deal with this in [00:12:45] a more humane way.
Steven Laureys: I think being a researcher is the most beautiful job there is. I think it's incredible to have the freedom to think and push the boundaries of our current understanding. And it's incredible that I'm just being paid to do that. [00:13:00] But it's also a competitive job, right, as a scientist. There is a lot of expectation and pressure where we need to make discoveries, and we spend a lot of time writing grants [00:13:15] and they are very competitive, and we should lead by example. How can we be credible towards students when we talk about these values? When we ourselves, you know, we are so busy with defending our own [00:13:30] interests and, you know, a lot of ego in academia also, because actually we were never taught how to deal with this, how to do this in a more humane way. And before [00:13:45] things go wrong, learn the tools. How do I deal with this? It's not always, of course, the perfect life as a scientist or professor or student. You know, there's big, big challenges, and that's okay. But it cannot [00:14:00] be too long, too much, because then you just get exhausted and you, and you crash. Learning to listen to the signals. That is something I never was thought. And I think we should share that with each and every one working [00:14:15] in academia and society as a whole.
David Chan: During my conversation with Gwendolyn, we dug deeper into the possible signals of mental difficulties and the steps you can take. When these types of signals or symptoms [00:14:30] are apparent over a fair length of time, then certainly the person should be thinking: “Well, I think something's happening here”. I think we all have temporary dips, if you like, in [00:14:45] our day-to-day lives. But when it's when you see the trend is seems to be going negatively over a long period of time, then it’s probably time to talk to somebody.
Gwendolyn: People often ask us like, okay, when do you have to start seeing someone [00:15:00] professionally? But we cannot just say like this is an exact point when you have to start seeing someone professionally, and it doesn't always have to be someone professionally. In the beginning, in our own environment, family, friends look [00:15:15] for someone you trust and maybe just start there by saying, poof, I'm going to a really difficult time. Oh, it's its really difficult now. Or just saying when someone asks you, how are you feeling? Maybe we should be honest [00:15:30] and say like, okay, maybe not so good. But mostly when we get the question, how do you feel? It's like, Oh, I'm okay, I'm okay, everything's okay. And it's like so common to say everything is okay while we feel maybe I'm not feeling [00:15:45] so okay. So that should also be something that we could change. Like, just be honest, like, oh no, no, it's not the best time. And then if you talk with someone about it, first of all, that there can be the relief that can be like, okay, if you don't, you [00:16:00] do not hold it within you.
Gwendolyn: And we always say, because maybe that's a typical Belgian or Flemish thing, it's like we only feel strong when we do it alone, when we solve our problems alone. And this is really [00:16:15] something that we should change our opinion about it because there is nothing strong about going through problems alone. Yeah, it's strong to look for help. It's strong because when we are with two people looking at a problem, you [00:16:30] look at a different way, you get a different view of things. And when we look with three people or four people, you get another view, and we can change our thoughts then and maybe our feelings can change about it, and maybe we can look for other ways to cope with it. [00:16:45] And then, of course, there are the times that more professional help can be advised. And also here it's not like an exact moment that we can say, then you have to go see someone professionally, I think. But when psychological [00:17:00] problems continue, most of the time we advise to see someone professional.
David Chan: There are many ways of seeking help when you're struggling. Stephen found out that meditation and mindfulness works best for him.
Steven Laureys: I think the [00:17:15] key message is meditation is good for your brain. Just pay attention to your mental processes, and it's evidence based. You know, this is not a belief. In the book. I summarized the past 20 years of signs by top universities. [00:17:30] It was a discovery for me. I think many of our colleagues do not know that. I also talk about the translation, you know, to the medical reality. I now prescribe meditation, but also want to share, you know, do what you can. [00:17:45] I mean, our life is very different from the Buddhist monks. We studied very often, were putting the bar high, have a lot of expectations, and we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, also on others. And meditation is just [00:18:00] a mental gymnastics exercise to reconnect with yourself, your needs, your well-being and that of others. It permits you to deal with stressful situations differently, but it is so much more [00:18:15] than this tool that makes you more resilient. It makes you more creative, it makes you more empathic compassion. So depending on your needs and the exercises you do, you will train the different brain networks.
David Chan: Thinking [00:18:30] about the workplace. Now, you mentioned it's good to talk to family, to talk to friends, but quite often the pressures that might be contributing to how we feel are pressures that are from our job, from our workplace. But having that conversation at work, [00:18:45] particularly within academia, is often a difficult conversation to have for the reasons you've stated. And also the sense that some people might feel to admit to feeling this way is sort of an admission of weakness. What [00:19:00] might we do to improve how acceptable it is to have these sorts of conversations within the workplace?
Gwendolyn: The workplace, I think, is one of the most difficult environments to be open about our mental health. Like you say, the work environment [00:19:15] is the place that we have to function really well. And we do feel a pressure that indeed, if you would admit like, I'm not feeling too well, that it might be a sign of weakness.
David Chan: Yeah.
Gwendolyn: There are still a lot of stigmas that have to [00:19:30] be dealt with. But what we advise now is to look for a colleague that you feel a connection with. We often feel like, okay, this is someone that we can talk about mental health with or not, but [00:19:45] look for someone you can trust, look for someone you can talk to. But we do know that it's not an easy environment to discuss mental health, but we really advise that it would also be able the people would be able to discuss this. That [00:20:00] will also be really a positive change if people would be more aware of the colleagues and pick up signals that maybe they are not doing so well because it is difficult for the person who is experiencing problems [00:20:15] and who are going through mental health issues. So it's a really big step for them if someone else starts the conversation.
David Chan: What I'd like to do now is sort of shift our attention to the more dramatic side of the spectrum and the [00:20:30] idea of suicidal thoughts when things get so bad that the thought enters the mind of Perhaps I need to end this in the most definitive way. First, I'd be very interested to hear your thoughts on just the notion of having thoughts about [00:20:45] taking one's own life. Again, it's one of these things that we tend to think, Well, it's somebody who's in extreme circumstances. But possibly it's simply the idea of having those thoughts is not uncommon. [00:21:00]
Gwendolyn: Well, if we look at the studies also and Belgium and Flanders, then the results show that about 13 to 14% of the Belgian population has thought about suicide once in their life [00:21:15] and serious thoughts. So not just a passing thought by the serious thought that one out of ten who experienced once in life suicidal thoughts. So, like you said, it's not something rare are happening to other [00:21:30] people. So this is why we also say that also suicidal thoughts should be something that we talk about. And I think that's the mental health problem with the highest taboo. But [00:21:45] it's so important that we also learn to talk about it. And that's something that suicide prevention for quite some years now, it's one of our main topics to make. Also, suicidal thoughts.
David Chan: Discussable. It could be [00:22:00] friends, it could be family, it could be colleagues. But in what ways might those people approach somebody who might be suffering in this way, in the sort of language that they use in a way that will be constructive? Because I think [00:22:15] many people might fear that if I say something, I if I say the wrong thing, I'm going to make it worse. I'm not going to help here.
Gwendolyn: We do have some advice. First of all, I think it's important that the signals are noticed. And when you feel it's [00:22:30] maybe we always say, like, if your gut feeling says, hmm, I think he's not doing okay, then go to him and just try to be open and say, okay, maybe I'm wrong, but I'm worrying about you. I just kind [00:22:45] of noticed that lately. Maybe you're not feeling so well. So try to open up just by being open, what you see, what you hear. And if the person says, Yeah, I really don't feel well lately, then go into that and ask questions [00:23:00] like, What do you mean? How bad are you feeling? And if they start to open up, then really try to open up and even mention openly like, does this mean that you have thoughts about ending your life? And then we do know [00:23:15] that a lot of people, they get frightened and they are scared like, Oh, I'm going to say something, and I'm going to say the wrong thing. But actually what we hear from people who are suicidal, that actually there's one important thing at that moment [00:23:30] that we listen to them, that they get a feeling like, okay, somebody is really listening to me, they are hearing me.
Gwendolyn: So do not start by trying to look for a solution. They don't want that [00:23:45] solution because they know at that moment we cannot find just easily a solution. That's not what they want. They just want to be able to talk about it. So try to listen, ask some more questions about how they're feeling and if they feel [00:24:00] recognised, and they feel heard at that moment. That's the first important thing that they need. And later on then maybe then we can ask like, okay, what do you think could help? Have you maybe [00:24:15] thought about looking for professional help? Can I help you in your search for professional help? But that's more at the end of the conversation. First of all, listen, ask questions and of course, do some follow up, [00:24:30] not just that one conversation, but ask if maybe just also ask, is it okay that I continue to check up on you? Is it okay that we have from time to time a talk.
David Chan: That would be so reassuring [00:24:45] for many people that one of the most important things you can do is simply, simply listen when the person can simply verbalize what it is that's going what they're feeling, what their thoughts are, that that in itself can be a huge help. It's important [00:25:00] for those people to know if you're in that position, there is a way out.
Gwendolyn: But I think a key issue is finding hope again together.
David Chan: Thank you for that. I mean, it's this idea that there is [00:25:15] a path, a process, you know, alongside professionals that can guide you along a path that's more constructive. And I would imagine its a long process. But the fact that there is hope, as you say. Absolutely.
Gwendolyn: Absolutely. And [00:25:30] I think that's also something that we why we need to discuss even suicidal thoughts, because if there is one psychological problem, which frightens a lot of people, and we know this, a lot of people have a hopeless feeling [00:25:45] themselves about suicidality. They think like, oh, once a person thinks about ending his or her own life, then, oh, it's hopeless. Which is not. Case. And that's something that we really have to focus and emphasize [00:26:00] that there is always hope and that we can help the majority of people. There's always hope.
David Chan: That's a fantastically positive message on what many people would think is a very dark topic, and it's good to hear a very positive [00:26:15] and optimistic sort of view behind that. Steven's way of looking at the situation also evolved from a more negative point of view to a state of acceptance and hope.
Steven Laureys: I also [00:26:30] think I changed a lot since I started to pay attention to, you know, my mental well-being and started to meditate. It definitely is okay for us to have times when it's more of a challenge. [00:26:45] And this part of acceptance was really, really wonderful. And we still fight at home. And I'm not the perfect dad or perfect professor or perfect physician, but [00:27:00] at least I do things differently. And there is room for improvement. You know, this is a life's journey.
David Chan: So that's the interview and many thanks to Gwendolyn Portzky. [00:27:15] So Nona, what did you make of today's episode?
Nona: Well, we are very glad that we could make this episode, and we believe that we can install real change by doing this. We also realize that we cannot break the taboo all at once, but we do hope to inspire [00:27:30] people to start talking about their own mental well-being. We are also very grateful that Stephen was willing to talk about a difficult time in his life. It's not easy to do so, but we are convinced of the importance of role models in academia who dare to show [00:27:45] their own vulnerability. In the end, we are all just humans and everyone struggles sometimes. So why not just acknowledge.
David Chan: You know, in your opinion? What. What is the takeaway message of this episode?
Nona: Well, the first thing would be: try to be authentic and dare to be vulnerable [00:28:00] around others, because if you are able to do so, you might attract like-minded people who also dare to be vulnerable around you. And if at some point you are struggling, then it can be a very important support base to have those people who you actually know very [00:28:15] well and who you can open up to. And on the other hand, if someone in your environment is struggling, don't hesitate to ask how they are. Because as Gwendolyn said already, you can do nothing wrong by just asking how they are. You don't have to solve their problems [00:28:30] for them, but just asking how they are is a really important way of being there. And last but not least, I really want to highlight this message of hope, because everyone moves up and down this continuum of mental well-being, and it's important to have hope that things [00:28:45] will get better. Even if you struggle with suicidal thoughts, you don't have to feel that way forever.
David Chan: And what would be your advice for people dealing with suicidal thoughts?
Nona: Well, if you do need help with suicidal feelings or if you are worried about someone in Belgium, you can [00:29:00] call the suicide line on the number 1813, and internationally you can call the Community Help Service on the number 026484014. Every call is free, anonymous, confidential, and you can reach someone 24/7. [00:29:15]
David Chan: So, Nora, thank you for that. Now, there's a little bonus at the end of this episode for those of you who would like to try out a small mindfulness exercise guided by Stephen Laureys. Keep listening.
Steven Laureys: So the exercise I would propose is a classic. We will [00:29:30] do one thing. So no multitasking. We will just breathe and we will focus our attention to this anchor of our breathing. So I guess you lay or sit or walk, [00:29:45] whatever. If possible, I would invite you to just sit down. But you can do this anywhere, anytime. But sitting is probably the easiest to start with, and you take a comfortable position and you put both feet [00:30:00] on the ground well grounded in all meanings of the term, and lay your hands on your legs and comfortably straight on your chair. You close [00:30:15] your eyes, and you just follow my voice where you focus the attention on the breathing. And when you do that, very probably thoughts will pop up or perceptions or emotions, and you [00:30:30] just let them float by. You become aware of your distraction and refocus on the breathing. That's the exercise where we inhale through the nose. That's [00:30:45] very good. And exhale a bit longer through the mouse. Doing great here in [00:31:00] hell. Exhale a bit longer. Doing [00:31:15] one thing, focusing on the breathing in. Out. Or. That's [00:31:30] perfect. Doing one more. Out. That [00:31:45] was great. You can open the eyes, reconnect with here and where you are. This is simple [00:32:00] yet powerful. If you do this, you can actually simulate what we call the parasympathetic autonomous nervous system. It makes your heart beat slower. Blood pressure goes down, stress hormones, cortisol, noradrenaline are [00:32:15] definitely impacted here. So try this for a couple of minutes. Can be in the bus, the train. Nobody actually even needs to see it during a break. That's [00:32:30] my favorite. And again, the message is: do what you can every minute of meditation. And this is one exercise. There's many for you to discover. It's like in the sushi [00:32:45] bar. Try it. You like it, you take more. If not, just let it pass by. Enjoy the journey and take good care of yourself.
David Chan: This was Unpublished, a podcast of Ghent University [00:33:00] to give insights about mental wellbeing to our local and international co-workers. Have you been affected by one of the topics in our episodes? Or then don't hesitate to contact a confidential counsellor of Trustpunt. Did you find this an interesting episode? Share it [00:33:15] with your co-workers. You can find more information about this podcast at www.unpublishedpodcast.be. In the next episode, I'll be talking to Piet Bracke on the topic of loneliness. Unpublished [00:33:30] is a podcast brought to you by Trustpunt from Ghent University and is produced by Chase Creative.
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