Mental Health & Grad School

Depression has been my biggest enemy lately. While we still can’t figure out what is going on with the occasional limb jerks, pins and needles, ocular flashes, GI trouble, and mental slowness and difficulty, it was clear my depression wasn’t making anything better – and likely making things worse.

As I alluded to last post, I’ve taken to seeing a counselor and psychiatrist, which has been a great help. We’ve slowly upped my prozac to 40mg, and it’s like I can breathe again. I hadn’t realized how much my depression was weighing on me the past few years. Even in moments where I thought I was doing better pale in comparison to the interest and motivation I’ve felt in life again the past few weeks.

And its with all of this experience, the reaching a point of breaking down and not making any progress on my degree–in a resolve that my health had to come first–and finally coming up for air again that I realize how unhealthy graduate school can be.

Graduate school is a constant state of pushing. You are always pushing to be working, to be generating, to be doing better. Now, don’t get me wrong, there isn’t inherently anything wrong with pushing, it is good to be driven. But there needs to be reprieve.

But that doesn’t really come in graduate school. As any graduate student if they’ve ever felt “grad school guilt” and they will unanimously answer yes. It’s the guilt of not working on something academic or scholarly at every moment; the guilt of not working on your personal thesis/dissertation research even when you’re working on something scholarly.

It’s fed by some warped notion that you should be doing more. That even though you’ve spent all day working on your assistanceship, in classes, doing homework, working on your personal research, that you aren’t doing enough. And it’s perpetuated by a culture of “we’ve all been there, we’ve all done that.” You rarely get reprieve from advisers, committee members, or even peers. Everyone is feeling the push for more.

When you add this level of guilt to a high level of stress you build a recipe for poor mental health. Now, I’m not saying it’s terrible, but it is something we should be aware of and strive to make better.

As graduate students, we need to be kind to ourselves. We need to accept and respect our limitations and find a healthy way to balance our expectations with what we can do. And when we can’t do something, we need to accept that that’s okay.

Right now I am working doing that myself. I’m working on engaging more with academia and scholarly work. I’m focusing on baby-steps, reading a little here and there when I can, following educational news and other instructional designers on twitter. And when I can’t get something done I’m not beating myself up about it; I’m thinking positive about what I can do and what I did get accomplished. And I am so thankful I am learning the skills to do so, because honestly being easy and kind to yourself is one of the hardest things you can do.

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5 thoughts on “Mental Health & Grad School

    • You know, the Grad School I attend actually tweets a lot of messages that support graduate students and aim to address the contributing factors to the guilt. I’ve seen some great tweets recently. That said, I think the main problem is it’s just an underlying aspect of the culture. You get a bunch of people who like to challenge themselves, are competitive (lets face it, most grad students are to a degree), and are being mentored by people who’ve “survived it so you can too” and that boils into a a culture that grad school guilt is perpetuated in. And I think it is something really difficult to address, because SO MUCH of academia is “I do it this way because that’s what I went through” or “that’s how I learned, so that’s how you will.” Getting people out of that perspective is incredibly difficult, especially when the concepts of “rigor” is tied into it. I think it’s also compounded because faculty feel much of the same pressure–especially those without tenure, and in the current time of questioning tenure. There is so much pressure in academia to be researching, publishing, and doing more, that both faculty and the students feel.

      • That’s good that your is making an effort. It’s much needed. I just wonder if there’s a system that is just as productive and less sftressful to all parties that we’re overlooking. It may be hard to tell I guess.

      • I’ve actually seen a lot of good critique of academia, from a self-care/mental health/acceptance standpoint via twitter lately. This article on Self-Criticism and the Academy really hits the nail on the head. There is also a lot of discussion about Imposter Syndrome in academia – which I think stems from the self-criticism points brought up in the article above. If these hold true for established PhDs, then the apply even more so to graduate students whose entire goal is to prove they are not only worthy to join the ranks of PhDs, but who must strive to make the field better and stand on the shoulders of those before them. Which frankly is asking a lot of anyone. Add to that advisors who also don’t think they belong and are self-depreciating, and couple that with the cultural aspects I mentioned in the last comment and that’s an awfully deep pit to climb out of.
        If there is an effective system somewhere, I’d love to hear it. I think at this point it would take a pretty big cultural shift (and not just with academia) to change all the underlying conditions driving this. I think those of us involved in academia do need to be more cognizant of our own mental health and the mental health of those around us and be supportive of one another.

      • A lot of good points. I agree a big cultural shift would have to take place for anything to change. Maybe by talking about it more and acknowledging the problems, more entities will begin to experiment with making structural changes for the better. In the meantime, I guess we will just have to be more cognizant of our own health and support those around us.

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