Why We Need to Talk More About Mental Health in Graduate School

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Photo by Ian Espinosa on Unsplash

By Kathryn R. Wedemeyer-Strombel

In my first year as a doctoral student, I read a lot of online parodies about graduate-school life. Dark humor was a coping strategy for me and my cohort, which is why we regularly read Tumblr sites like Lego Grad Student and What Should We Call Grad School, as well as PhD Comics.

I always appreciated the humor because it drew much-needed attention to the struggles of graduate study. Yet such parodies also scared me because, collectively, they sent the message that misery was just a normal part of graduate school — i.e., get used to it. I was afraid that if I questioned the doctoral-training-as-misery norm, I would be seen as weak or somehow "not academic enough."

What I didn’t know at the time: "Graduate-student struggles" is often code for "mental-health struggles."

Thanks to fairly recent studies (reported here, here, and here), academe itself is learning more about the "mental-health crisis in graduate education" — and specifically, how doctoral students disproportionately experience anxiety, depression, and other forms of mental illness throughout their training. Sometimes we share our struggles with fellow students, partners, parents, and Twitter followers, as I eventually began to do. But other times, we can’t or won’t, and end up feeling isolated and alone.

I was unprepared for the way that graduate school revealed my mental-health struggles — that was definitely not listed in the orientation packet. I’m sharing my experiences here — along with some advice for graduate students, advisers, and departments — so that other academics-in-training know they don’t have to suffer in silence.

Was I doing enough? My first year of graduate school I rarely slept through the night and was plagued by anxiety attacks (although I didn’t know that’s what they were). I regularly worked more than 12 hours a day yet worried constantly that I wasn’t doing enough. My cohort and I tried to binge-drink our fears away on the weekends, which led to a host of repercussions, some of which are still affecting our lives.

It wasn’t until after my second year of graduate school that I finally went to student psychological services, prompted by a professional and personal crisis. A few of my friends had sought counseling regularly, but I had never seen a therapist and was anxious about doing so. I worried how that would be perceived by my adviser and lab mates. (Spoiler alert: When you find the right work environment, they don’t count mental-health issues against you.)

I felt bad that I even needed this kind of help. After all, wasn’t higher education a place where we are supposed to put pressure on our brains? Maybe I really didn’t belong here. Maybe I didn’t have what it takes.

Ultimately, therapy showed me that wasn’t the case. It also helped me deal with the fallout of leaving a toxic lab environment and switching advisers. Getting the mental-health care that I so desperately needed was the best thing I ever did for myself. It helped me realize that what I had been experiencing in the lab was not just "in my head" — that people in power had behaved inappropriately. I needed help working through the toxicity that I had internalized and passed off as "just the way things are in academe."

Things were going well until they weren’t. A year into my therapy, my new adviser moved her lab across the state to a different institution. I was in a healthier work environment with a supportive adviser and a fresh start. I felt good. I had made it through the crisis. I didn’t know enough about mental health then to understand that I would need regular checkups. So, since things were going so well, I stopped seeing a therapist.

Not long into my "fresh start," I fell back into a lot of bad habits — overwork, self-doubt, isolation, burnout. This time, however, I recognized that I (still) needed help, and sought out mental-health care at my new university. I resumed seeing a therapist and focused on letting go of others’ expectations and prioritizing myself and my needs.

During that same period, one of my professors, unaware of my situation, actually offered me this advice: "Don’t work with someone who has a mental illness." Looking back, I don’t resent the professor for making that comment — after all, there was a time when I, too, naïvely thought it was easy to just "think positive!"

But the remark did leave me feeling angry that, as academics, we emphasized transparency in our research methods but not in our actual lives. Gradually, I started to share my mental-health struggles and connect with other academics doing the same. Through those conversations, I found camaraderie, compassion, and support.

And plenty of other academics have, too. Last spring, I asked via Twitter: "Please raise your hand if you sought out mental-health care in grad school." To date, that tweet has resonated with more than 7,000 people, many of whom also tweeted about their experiences. If you’re looking for guidance on this front, you’ll find plenty of it on the Twitter thread.

Advice for graduate students. I am not a mental-health professional. I’m just a graduate student who finished my Ph.D., in part, because of the support I received from mental-health care professionals. But I do have some advice for graduate students with mental-health needs:

  • Take a deep breath. Know that you are not alone, and that these struggles do notdisqualify you from academe. It is OK to struggle. It is OK to need help. It’s OK to ask for it.
  • Find out what mental-health services your institution offers to graduate students — and then use those services. When you make an appointment with a campus counseling center, you can request to meet with a counselor who is familiar with graduate study and its pressures. And if your first counselor is not a good fit, ask to switch to another.
  • You do not owe your story to anyone. Yes, speaking out about mental-health struggles in graduate school helps normalize these problems. But if you’re uncomfortable sharing your experiences, for whatever reason, don’t feel pressured to do so on Twitter or in other public venues by anything I’ve said here or that you’ve read elsewhere. In going "public" with my own mental-health issues, I had the support of my supervisors and colleagues; not every graduate student does.

Advice for advisers and institutions. My Twitter thread showed that plenty of students have sought out mental-health care in graduate school. But it also showed that not all of them did so successfully. Some reported that they tried to seek care, but their universities didn’t offer free or low-cost counseling to graduate students. Others reported monthslong waiting lists, and/or care that was only available to students in crisis.

We need advisers, doctoral programs, and institutions to do better. Among other things, they should:

  • Provide affordable and accessible mental-health support to graduate students — regularly, not just when crisis hits.
  • Normalize open discussions about mental health in graduate school. Talk about it in the same way as you would discuss the importance of annual physicals. Just as athletes need personal trainers to maintain their physical condition, so, too, do academics need mental-health trainers (i.e., therapists) to keep our minds in good shape.
  • Don’t promote self-care as a reward. Make it part of normal graduate-student life.
  • Stop promoting binge drinking as a reward.
  • Do not say things like, "Don’t work with people who have mental-health issues." Do not use mental-health terms as an adjective to describe students when you don’t know what’s really going on with them. For more on that, read Katie Rose Guest Pryal’s Life of the Mind Interrupted: Essays on Mental Health and Disability in Higher Education.

Kathryn R. Wedemeyer-Strombel recently earned her Ph.D. in environmental science at the University of Texas at El Paso as a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellow

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