Stop me if any of this sounds familiar. Right now, I’m powered by self-loathing and coffee. My feelings of inadequacy are directly proportional to the amount of time I spend reading. If I got a penny for every time I felt stupid, I wouldn’t need funding. Grad school ““ where souls go to die. Grad school ““ abandon all hope ye who enter here.
Graduate school can be a stressful place. It’s got a highly effective combination of high and vague expectations. There are hard and soft deadlines, competitive grants, intense periods of frantic work, unknown requirements, and the constant threat of forces beyond your control derailing the whole thing. It’s a wild, wild ride.
The feeling is nearly ubiquitous. In my program, everyone is worried that the work they’re doing is just not good enough. An anonymous graduate student from a different program explained their experiences by saying, “An informal poll of my classmates earlier this year indicated to me that everyone in my class was unhappy, frustrated, feeling like a failure, questioning their career choices, and wondering if there was a light at the end of the tunnel. In many ways, the stress of the PhD is worse because it’s so isolating.” These feelings aren’t specific to a certain program or discipline – they’re everywhere.
And the thing is that everyone in graduate school acknowledges that it can be a difficult time, but there’s surprisingly little done to address the problem. YTG, a grad student at a big ol’ R1 university said it best when they said: “Grad students talk about it with each other, but it’s highly tinged with bravado and irony. “˜Oh yeah, well, you know, my dissertation’s making me completely insane, but I didn’t need that sanity or sleep or life anyway, right?’“ These comments, due to their “badge of honor” type bravado exacerbate the problem.
The conversation around mental health needs to change. While I appreciate being able to let off steam like that with my fellow graduate students, having a sincere conversation about what we’re experiencing and the obstacles we’re facing would make me feel less isolated and alone. Feeling extremely stressed out, miserable, or on the verge of total burn-out should not be seen as a normal part of graduate school – it should be seen as a problem.
And how does the administration respond?
Well, the administration’s responses range from nada to small acknowledgements of the mental health services on campus, such as blurbs in departmental mass mailings or 8×11 paper posters stapled to bulletin boards. As far as I can tell, it’s not the academia doesn’t want to be supportive, it just not a top priority. It (and here I continue to anthropomorphize academia as a whole) figures that you need to find the support or help you need on your own time.
Even if there’s information about how to get mental health services, actually going through the process can be difficult and convoluted. At my university, you have to show up in person and wait for a slot to open up to get an appointment with a therapist. You take an online questionnaire about your mental health, and then wait for an undetermined amount of time until you can be seen. Once you’re in, you can schedule the next meetings through the therapist, and that’s usually very easy to do, but getting that first meeting can be hard. Anonymous’s experiences were similarly twisted:
I had to call and request a therapist, and then they scheduled a phone interview for later that day, which lasted an hour. And then they scheduled me for an intake 1 or 2 days later, and the counselor who did the intake was supposed to assign me to someone on the team at random, but we clicked so well that she requested that she could keep meeting with me.
This process should not be so difficult, especially given how important mental health services are. And, OK, I am sure that academia cares about students as people to some extent, but it definitely cares about students as productive researchers and for many, getting some mental health service is absolutely crucial to being a productive researcher. I’m going to let YTG explain:
I don’t think I would have been able to write my last chapter without therapy. Not one page”¦ I was pretty much the definition of “adrift,” and there was some considerable despair as well. Starting CBT [cognitive behavioral therapy] helped me break what I had to do into steps I could cope with, saw some purpose to, and could then execute. Also my self-confidence was completely shot, and therapy has helped me to get it back without quite as much utter dependency on the caprices of my faculty for validation.
Without mental health services, more people would quit graduate school, more people would take longer to finish their dissertations, more people would have a terrible, awful, unbearable time in graduate school. Mental health services can make such a positive impact on the graduate school experience, but they’re not discussed or emphasized enough.
The system must change. Anonymous shares an anecdote that expresses the problem with graduate (and in this case medical) school:
During my 2ndyear of medical school, we had a month-long course about the importance of or own health as future physicians, where we focused on nutrition, exercise, and stress management. I remember one presentation where the professor pointed out that the rate of clinical depression among 2nd year medical students is twice that of the general public, and angrily raising my hand to ask whether that pointed out a problem with medical education. The answer I received was unsatisfactory.
The way academia acknowledges and supports mental health services is unsatisfactory.
Thank you to all graduate students who gave their input on this piece.