“Academia is supposed to be hard,” “science takes sacrifice,” “if you can’t hack it now, maybe you don’t belong” – these are things we hear throughout our scientific careers. If you are passionate and put everything you have into your work until it consumes you then that’s how you know you’re doing it right… right? Graduate school is tough under the best of circumstances. However, people don’t normally consider the additional challenge of facing the mental health struggles, which are far too common in our field.
As a first year graduate student, I was insanely excited to start my PhD program. The lab I ended up joining was the whole reason I even applied to my program in the first place. I was getting to study something I was passionate about. Soon though, after the death of a dear family member and an unexpected facility issue that ended up completely sidelining my thesis project, I started experiencing the most intense anxiety of my life. I chalked this up to the “grad school is supposed to be hard” mentality and ignored it. My peers seemed to have it together; I kept telling myself I should’ve been able to handle this. What I didn’t know at the time, even though I felt completely alone, is that graduate students experience depression and anxiety at alarming rates.
I’m particularly grateful that my husband was honest with me during this time and suggested (very gently) I that I might need to seek professional help, as neither of us was equipped to handle what I was experiencing. I was lucky to have this support system. Even luckier, my university had an amazing mental health center that I was able to take advantage of by getting counseling.
I started seeing a therapist, but it wasn’t a good fit and I stopped going. I immediately took this setback to mean that therapy wasn’t for me and I just needed to handle it alone – but of course this didn’t work. So, I went back, but advocated for myself that I needed to see someone different. This was a game changer. I think it’s important to mention that, like so many things in life, the path of dealing with depression or anxiety is not straight and is different for everyone. It wasn’t as simple as seeing a therapist, that relationship working perfectly, and my anxiety being cured. It took work and determination to figure out what was right for me, which wasn’t easy.
…the path of dealing with depression or anxiety is not straight and is different for everyone.
Something that was harder to admit was that counseling alone wasn’t cutting it. I would have a session, feel great for a couple days and then slump back into my anxiety-riddled routines. Even after going to therapy for months and being diagnosed with generalized anxiety, it was really hard for me to admit that I might need some pharmaceutical assistance. The “I can handle this on my own” mentality crept back into my thoughts. It felt like I was failing at handling my issues, but taking a pill would be accepting defeat. This idea was ingrained in me from a young age and probably something that most people can relate to.
Even now with me being very open about my mental health struggles and use of anxiety medication, people still make comments to me about how they could never see a psychiatrist, or how pills are an easy way of fixing problems. When deciding whether or not to start taking anxiety medication, a thought crept into my head: what other health issue would I feel this way about taking medication for? Would I feel like a failure for taking antibiotics if I had strep throat? Of course not – so I met with a psychiatrist (also provided by the university) and started taking medication. This decision was the most important one I made during graduate school and is undoubtedly responsible for me being able to finish my PhD.
Would I feel like a failure for taking antibiotics if I had strep throat? Of course not.
Like when I started therapy, the medication wasn’t a quick fix. It took work. I met regularly with my doctor to find the medication that worked best for me at the right dose. Around this time, I started to become more open with my peers and co-workers about what I was experiencing. I wish I had done this sooner – so many of them had also been silently handling issues like mine; we weren’t alone and it was freeing to finally talk about it. I never discussed any of this with my PI though, which in hindsight may have been the wrong call, but everyone is different. It’s important to have boundaries for who you let into your personal space.
Luckily people in science are talking about mental health more, particularly on social media and even in high-profile outlets such as Science or Nature. Tangible solutions to this issue are also being more regularly discussed. However, not all universities offer the resources that I was privileged to use – this has to change. We can’t just talk about the problem; we actively need to fix it.
Receiving your PhD isn’t a magic wand that makes these issues disappear.
There’s something else we all need to consider: mental health issues don’t end after graduate school. Receiving your PhD isn’t a magic wand that makes these issues disappear. While there aren’t many recent studies, postdocs also experience high levels of anxiety and/or depression. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is also true throughout the spectrum of positions found across academia and industry. Junior faculty positions, in particular, come loaded with the stress of running a lab for the first time, but usually lack adequate mentorship. Addressing mental health is necessary for the future of STEM in so many ways. We have to continue to have these tough conversations and end the stigma of people being open about their mental health struggles. We need to keep pushing for mental health resources to be available for all levels of people in science, because my experience shouldn’t just be a best-case scenario.