What I've learned about mental health in graduate school

It makes my psychology major heart happy to see how the perception surrounding mental health has shifted significantly in recent years. However, there is still quite a bit of stigma associated with mental health. From the, "It's all in your head," accusation to the belief that anyone who struggles with mental health is "weak," we are still surrounded by a negative stigma when mental health is brought up.

Graduate school and higher education brings mental health struggles to a new level. Graduate school is not meant to be easy because it's the first step to learning how to become independent thinkers and scientists. But my experiences in my first year of graduate school were dramatically changed because it was the first time I would have first hand experience with severe anxiety disorder. Research is difficult. We often move from a place of familiarity to a completely new city (sometimes a new country). Many of us move away from loved ones and routines that are well established. We're placed into intensive classes and into new lab environments that carry with them different levels of stress and expectation. We do experiments every single day and they don't always work. When I started in lab I repeated the same experiments every single week for 9 months before I had my first success using the new technique we were trying  to develop in lab. Eventually, my boss decided that this project would most likely hinder me from graduation rather than help me to graduate so he advised me to begin a new project and turn my original project to a side project. This left me to start from scratch after a year of work. Throughout the majority of a PhD the thesis defense date and graduation date are indefinite. When people ask me how long I have left, my answer is always, "That's a good question," because the reality is that I still have no idea how much longer I have until I defend my thesis. 


My anxiety seemed to come out of nowhere. Suddenly, I was struck with fear of the chemicals and reagents we were using during my lab rotations and the things I would be exposed to while running experiments. I started to fear for my health and suffered intense hypochondria, going to the doctor frequently out of fear that any little ailment was a much greater health problem. I started to feel like I was struggling in lab once I settled on a lab to join because I was so busy with classes it was difficult to feel like I was really contributing to the lab through doing experiments. I felt guilty for not having data to show to my boss because I had been busy studying for the next exam. I confided in my boyfriend, but he wasn't sure how to help and hadn't experienced the same predicaments I was going through. We would always come to the conclusion that my fears were irrational, but somehow I couldn't seem to push through the fear and behave normally. From my own rudimentary training in psychology from my undergraduate studies, I started to recognize my behaviors as those reminiscent of obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). I washed my hands so frequently at home and at work that my hands had begun to crack and bleed. I was spending over an hour in the shower twice a day because I didn't trust that I was clean even after five times washing and conditioning my hair and scrubbing my skin until it was as red as a tomato. I erupted in tears multiple times in the bathroom at work because I couldn't force myself to leave even though I'd washed my hands ten times. In psychiatric disorders, part of the criteria for diagnosing one with a particular disorder includes that the symptoms being experienced begins to interfere with normal life. Whether this is a heavy feeling of helplessness or sadness that can be associated with depression or invasive thoughts that compulsions that accompany OCD.

I eventually scheduled an appointment with a psychiatrist and I was prescribed anti-depressants (which are commonly used to treat OCD) after the first appointment. I gradually took a greater dose until reaching the dosage normally used for the treatment of depression. After consistently taking my medication I started to notice marked improvements in my day-to-day life and my ability to reason through my fears. For me, a combination of medication and counseling sessions to improve self-trust and coping skills were crucial to my improvement. I want to take this moment to say that there is no shame in struggling with anxiety or depression. In fact, there is great courage in coming forward and seeking help. We don't like being vulnerable and admitting the things we are struggling with. I think one of the most important things we can do is establish a network of support. In grad school we tend to feel isolated and isolation brings with it a whole array of challenges to mental health and well-being. If you are struggling, seek help from qualified counselors or other mental health professionals or even confide in a close trusted friend. There is always someone to talk to and you are never alone (at the end of this blog post there will be links to various articles on mental health in grad school, as well as resources available for anyone experiencing difficulties.)

“‘There is a deep, pervasive anxiety that seeps into every day of your life, a constant questioning of your capability, intelligence, and whether or not you are cut out to be here.’”
— Berkeley Science Review ("This is your mind on grad school")

For research, clarity of mind and resilience are crucial. Experiments fail often and we tend to take this failure and internalize it. We think the experiments failed because we are failures, which leads me to a dominant psychological phenomenon faced my many individuals in graduate school and academia: Impostor Syndrome. Impostor syndrome can be summarized as the idea that our success has been an accident and that we're not qualified in whatever position it is that we hold. I heard a Ted Talk on Impostor Syndrome and after listening to the speaker's words I realized my own words reflect the core of Impostor Syndrome. I am a student in Physiology and Biophysics who studied Psychology as an undergrad and has never taken formal classes in Physics and Calculus. When our department holds open houses for new PhD students I often tell people, "If I can make it into this program and pass the classes, anyone can." This mentality that I am not good enough, qualified enough, or smart enough to be in my program and that my being there is more an accident than an indication of my intelligence and hard work epitomizes Impostor Syndrome.

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The best advice I've heard about coping with Impostor Syndrome is to reframe our perspectives. For example, the mentality that, "I'm not smart enough to be here, if I fail they're going to realize they made a mistake admitting me," can be reframed as, "I may not feel like I know enough right now, but I am still learning." Negative self talk is one of the most detrimental mental dialogues to engage in and often leads to distorted ideas about ourselves. When I felt like I didn't belong in my program because of my educational background, I reminded myself that there are resources still available to strengthen my weaker skills, like listening to free MIT lectures on calculus rather than fearing the discussions of differential equations that are bound to come when we start doing kinetic modeling of our experiments. As graduate students, we may continually struggle with feeling unqualified, but the most important reminder I think we could hear is that we are students at our core and the reason we are here in graduate school is to learn and gain confidence and competence in our specialties. We all start here at the same place at graduate school and we all share mutual experiences. No two PhD students and experiences are precisely the same, they are all nuanced and unique and depend largely on our backgrounds and the environments we are working in, but we have similar milestones and share several commonalities during our road to our PhD's. Sometimes, the greatest resource we have during graduate school is each other, so reach out today and talk to your classmates, meet for coffee, check in with your labmates during the day and speak words of encouragement. By doing these things we can dispel the invasive ideas that we don't belong and instead learn how to view ourselves and our experiences realistically, gaining confidence along the way. 

“Rather than demonizing academia, action should be taken, the authors emphasize, ‘[w]e have had our share of struggles and challenges to overcome, but still think this is one of the most rewarding and meaningful careers one can have. So, if there is a problem, let’s do something about it and make this a great place to work again. For everyone.”
— Science Magazine ("Ph.D. students face significant mental health challenges")
Bree Watkins