Mental Health in Graduate School

I cried in my therapist’s office on Friday, wondering why I felt like such a failure. She looked at me with compassionate eyes, but I was frustrated that she couldn’t fix my problems. The stale air combined with the soft lighting made me tired. I wanted to run home, crawl back in bed, and sleep as long as possible.

Wanting to run away and crying to my therapist are not rare occurrences for me. But this week my feelings were triggered by a tough meeting the day before where I was bombarded with “feedback” (AKA criticism) about what my recent project was lacking. I know it was well-intentioned. I know they thought they were being helpful. Yet the gremlins in my brain told me “you suck” and “you aren’t good enough.”

As I approach my comprehensive exams my mental health has been struggling. I’m working hard to take rest when I need it, but it’s difficult to not feel guilty considering the amount of work I have to do.

I am thankful that I have had many conversations with fellow graduate students who experience similar self-doubt and burnout. It seems like academia has a unique way of beating you down, making you feel like an imposter, and telling you lies about your intelligence or abilities. We are constantly told we don’t know enough and we need to do more research. But at the same time we are expected to constantly have new ideas, breakthroughs, and ground-breaking insights. We are also expected to work consistently, and it’s impossible to feel accomplished when there is always more work to do.

It doesn’t help that the school calendar and graduate requirements put you through cycles of stress every few months. Starting a semester? Stress. Finishing a semester? More stress. Working on comprehensive exams, a prospectus, or publications? Endless stress.

Inside HigherEd recently reported that academia is experiencing a “graduate student mental health crisis” since graduate students are “six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population” (Flaherty, 2018). The article also found that women are at a higher risk for both anxiety and depression, and they feel less supported by mentors or advisors than their male peers.

Additional research has found that nearly half of all graduate students qualify as being depressed (see image below).

Despite the prevalence of mental health challenges in academia, there is still a stigma associated with it. Every time I have to skip class or cancel a meeting because of my depression and anxiety, I use vague excuses about “not feeling well” and “having health issues.” I worry that I will be seen as weak, or that someone will dismiss my problems as no big deal.

But this is a big deal. Lives are at stake. We need to be more open about mental health, not just in the academy but in wider society as well. I would not be where I am today if it wasn’t for the support of family, friends, regular counseling, and medication–all of which help me feel like life is manageable and worth living.

Check in on those you love, be gentle with yourself, and remember that mental health is just regular health. Take care.

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