Grad School Survival Guide: The Mental Health Taboo

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It’s taken me longer to produce the next post in the grad school survival guide, and there’s a rather simple explanation that I posted about on Twitter.

So, there it is. A couple of weeks ago I realized I wasn’t okay, in the grand scheme of things, and that it was more than just me being bored.

What didn’t surprise me was the number of “Me too” responses I got. In fact, I was prompted to make this admission when a friend, Ian Morris, discussed his own bout with depression on a recent episode of the Abbasid History Podcast (it’s in the last three or four minutes of the episode). I figured if someone as brilliant as Ian could do it, I could too, and maybe if more of us say something, we can begin to normalize discussion about it.

Enough patting myself on the back.

The point, dear readers, is that mental health problems often present themselves in graduate school, and there is nowhere near enough discussion about it nor about what one should do. It’s time to change that.

The following post is not even close to a comprehensive listing of dos and don’ts, but random thoughts based on my own experience.

While mental health issues can hit at pretty much any time, they seem to cluster:

  1. At the beginning of your program
  2. Between the end of coursework and comprehensives
  3. After comprehensives
  4. After the dissertation defense.

What all four of these have in common is that they’re all major changes to the way your life is structured. The first usually involves trying to adjust to the change (especially if you’re returning to academia); the last three involve that feeling of drifting–when you’re going from a very structured, high pressure environment to having very little structure, pressure, or deadlines.

When you get to graduate school, assess the mental health services available to you.

It probably goes without saying that this is best done before you need such services, but I’ll be the first to admit I’m not that prepared. If you have the opportunity to assess these before you accept an offer of admission, even better (but, again, I’m not that on top of it. I actually thought my institution had a medical school when I enrolled. It doesn’t. Oops.)

Is there a student health center, and does it include mental health services? If there is not, what arrangements exist to address student needs?

Is there a student disabilities office, and if so, are mental disabilities included? (They should be, but policies differ from place to place). As an instructor, I have sent a number of students to the one on my campus because anxiety, depression, and test anxiety were all conditions that “counted,” so to speak.

If you’re a teaching assistant or assistant instructor, are you eligible to use your campus’s employee assistance program? This is a service that students often overlook because they don’t know that they’re eligible. If you’re employed by the university, an EAP can often help you find a counselor who accepts your insurance, which saves you a lot of extra research.

Avoiding Drift

There’s probably a better name for this, but it’s what I call that feeling when you’re suddenly on your own to read for comprehensives, or researching, or writing, and you’ve gone from meeting friends and colleagues on a regular basis with very little effort to being on your own, sometimes in a completely different city, without a support network.

During comprehensives and writing, if you’re stationed in your home base, a reading or writing group can help. Set up a regular meeting with friends or colleagues and discuss what you’ve been up to.

The caveat here is that this is likely to be most helpful if it’s more of a check-in with other people; if the way you’ve structured your group becomes something that requires you to do additional work above and beyond what you’re already doing, it quickly becomes an annoyance that you or your colleagues will start trying to avoid.

For that reason, I was pretty resistant to doing this during the writing stage–I work best on my own, and the idea of adding to my workload by agreeing to read others’ work and offer feedback on a regular basis was just a non-starter for me. If it works for you great, but, again, knowing your own working style will help a lot here.

And, if all else fails, a regular lunch or happy hour date once a week will get you out of your head for a bit. All work and no play only ever boosted Jack Nicholson’s career, and let’s face it: we ain’t Jack.

Self-care on the research year

I’ll discuss the details of my own research year in a forthcoming post, but let me offer the tl;dr version here: I had no funding and crammed it all into six weeks, and I absolutely exhausted myself mentally and physically. I had been in London for almost two weeks before I left my rented flat for a purpose other than going to the grocery or to an archive.

I cannot overemphasize this enough: do not do this to yourself.

While having a set schedule on research leave does help (get up at normal time, be at archives when they open, etc.), I did this six days a week–and that only because everything was closed on Sunday, or I would have done it seven days a week–and I failed to see the signs of burnout until I moved from London to Geneva and just couldn’t deal. I was only in Geneva for eight days … eight miserable days … but the change in routine, operating language (to French, which I can read but not speak), and the massive increase in the cost of everything caused a mental shock that I could barely deal with.

Part of the mistake here was the eight day bit. I wasn’t in Geneva long enough to really have the motivation to do much other than power through. Had I been there longer, I could have put in more effort to meeting people and getting out more. I’m an introvert, so that can be a bit difficult for me.

As it is, I have a very funny (to me) story about the Museum of the Reformation that I may share someday. (“The presentation on predestination is beginning. You don’t want to miss it!”)

If you’re on a fellowship provided by a local institution, you may well find yourself with a cohort of other fish out of water to form a social group with.

Don’t forget the existence of Meetup.org — need to find other expats? There’s probably a group for that.

But again, all work and no play … makes for a very lonely research experience. If you’re in a new place, remember to take time and smell the roses.

Be open and honest

This brings me around to the reason I posted about dealing with depression on Twitter in the first place: a lot of these battles happen behind closed doors, and there is a taboo around speaking about them.

Mental health resources were not discussed at my own graduate student orientation (either of them). It came up in conversation, and I only knew the answer because I was also a full time staff member.

Be open with yourself–this seems kind of self-explanatory, but, honestly, I didn’t really figure out what was going on until a few weeks ago. I’ve been in a funk since May; it’s now July. And, honestly, part of the issue is that my mental issues usually involve anxiety–depression is new, different, and weird to me.

Be open with those who need to know–your adviser (dissertation supervisor, if you’re at that level) should be in the loop.

If you’re still in coursework and don’t feel like having this conversation with multiple instructors, student disability services may be able to help–again, your situation may be different, but at the campus I’ve taught at, part of SDS’s job was to notify instructors formally of these things and we got a lot of training on confidentiality (‘Please do not approach the student in class and say, “SO! I hear you’re suffering from an STI!”‘)

And I’m pushing my own agenda here, but I really do feel like the more we talk about this, the more normalized it’ll become, and we can start moving away from the issue of mental health in graduate school being such a taboo subject.