Mental Illness in Graduate School

…the unspoken rule

I’m the mental scientist and I suffer from depression. I first began experiencing depression symptoms when I turned 10 years old. So, no, graduate school did not initiate my depression (as it has for many others), but rather it exacerbated it.

It’s difficult to describe what clinical depression feels like to someone that has never experienced it. The wonderful author Libba Bray penned the best description I’ve ever come across (if you’re trying to understand what it feels like, or want comfort from someone that gets it, read it here). It’s like being stuck in a pitch black tunnel and not knowing, or sometimes caring, if you’ll escape.

Recently, quite a bit of attention has been given to mental illness experienced by graduate students and some scientists are even conducting research to better understand this phenomenon. There are several key factors common to many graduate school experiences that align to create the ‘perfect storm’ for experiencing depression (or worsening/triggering an existing illness):

  • Long periods of isolation (especially in the social sciences and humanities where graduate students are less likely to work in a lab setting with others)
  • Lack of structure in day-to-day life
  • Inordinate amounts of uncertainty regarding your future (This can be especially hard hitting when you feel like your education is something you put an incredible amount of effort into, expecting some amount of certainty and/or security in the end. The lifelong struggle for security is especially real for first generation students and those of us from low income/working class families)
  • A highly competitive environment (in many universities/departments) for research funding, TA/RA positions, jobs after graduation, grades
  • Sometimes a lack of people with similar life experiences you can connect with (Again, this is especially true for first-generation college students and international students)
  • Prolonged separation from friends and family
  • Extreme fear of failure, resulting in paralysis and inability to complete your research
  • Others? I know there are other contributing variables here. What have you experienced?

For me, these factors combined to bring about a major reoccurrence of my depression, after a year of relative calm and feeling like I might be getting better. I have contemplated ending my life at several points during the last few years and have planned out numerous scenarios. I am in the candidacy stage of my program and I am hoping that writing here will serve as a form of therapy for me, reminding me there is a reason to always keep fighting.

It is rather painful to think about working so hard, and being so unhappy. Many students in my program have left due to the issues above. This is not uncommon or restricted to my university or department, yet I see very little effort among graduate programs in the United States to address any of these problems. In fact, I would argue there is a culture of silence surrounding mental illness among graduate students. I suspect we don’t want to feel like failures and admit something is seriously wrong. There is also an underlying feeling that slogging through your program and existence is some sort of medieval rite of passage, that one must conquer in order to be worthy of the title “PhD.”

This situation is compounded by the fact that many graduate students do not know about, or have access to, mental health services. For example, my own graduate student insurance does not cover mental health services and counseling can be incredibly expensive, out of reach of most graduate student salaries. I truly think that the two most important steps towards helping graduate students (and others!) suffering from depression are: removing the stigma in saying “I’m suffering from depression” and making mental health services known and accessible to all. We entered our graduate programs hoping to earn a degree, and for many of us, to pave a path toward a life we desired. We are human beings and the fact that we voluntarily entered graduate school does not diminish our worth or our right to fight for more. What do you think? Are these tasks too large to take on? How can our generation accomplish them?

Although there are a multitude of other writings that pop up when one googles “graduate school depression” or similar, I want to contribute to the often ignored sentiment that anyone out there wrestling with these feelings is not alone. You are never alone. No matter how dire your situation may feel- someone cares about your life more than you do in this moment. Someone wants you around. Seek them out. Let them know you need some support. Even if you are isolated, with no family or friends near, seek out a counselor—call the national suicide hotline for someone to talk to when you feel you have no one else (1 (800) 273-8255). It helps to feel your pain is understood, so take refuge were you can find it.

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