Depression and Academia – Let’s Talk

by on 2014-03-04 in Duck- 15 Comments

Today, I fly to give a talk at my alma-mater.  As my advisor told me, it’s a victory lap.  It feels good – 5 years post PhD, great job, excitement about the future, and my family still intact.  However, the thought of going back also has me a little anxious: you see, I don’t have good memories about life in grad school.  My university was great, my advisors were fantastic, and my colleagues were super smart.  However, the whole experience was wrought with periods of anxiety, stress, and depression.   In short, my mental health really sucked in grad school.

And, for much of my academic career, I thought that was the way grad school - and academia in general -was supposed to be.  It’s grad school ; it’s not meant to be a cake walk.  It’s supposed to be hard  – like boot camp, the idea is that you have to break someone down to rebuild them the way they are supposed to be.   And, for many of us, we endure – we go through the process, with all its feelings of self-doubt and anxiety, and continue on the academic track.  Some of us even thrive in the environment.

However, as a recent The Guardian piece pointed out, this environment isn’t great for mental health and, sadly, few academics are skilled at recognizing mental health issues.  Few of us take time to care for ourselves and we may feel extremely guilty when we do.  And, unfortunately, these issues don’t go away once you get a PhD – life on the tenure-track can be every bit as taxing on a person’s mental health.  It’s time we stopped the silence – it’s time we were honest about the tolls this profession  can have on every other aspect of our lives and assess what – if anything – we can do to lessen the negative externalities.  A healthy life is way too important to sacrifice up on the altar of academic success.

  1. You aren’t alone.  Realizing that others – probably those in your own program – are also going through the same issues of self-doubt and depression can help.   It’s a “new epidemic.”  
  2. Talk to someone.  If they seem dismissive, talk to someone else.  We’re academics – some of us are just asses.  If an advisor, colleague, whoever, doesn’t take your concerns seriously, it’s probably their problem.  And, please, don’t just talk to political scientists.  Professionals can help and many university health centers are improving their treatment of mental health issues for graduate students.   And, contrary to your worse fears, health records are not part of your academic file.[1] 
  3. Step away from the computer lab.  There is a ton written about exercise and mental health.  There is also a lot written about the benefits of sunshine on mental health.  In general, try to find something – anything! – that makes you feel like you want to feel.  Feeling crappy for 5+ years to get a shot a job where you might make $60,000 just isn’t worth it. 
  4. A healthy you means that you will produce more.  Remember all that stuff you read in your IPE/CPE class about human capital mattering for economic development and output?  It applies to you as well.  Taking time out to care for yourself will make your work better. 
  5. Look out for those around you.  Now that I’m sitting on the other side of the seminar table, it can be easy to forget how hard grad school actually was. Professors may be busy dealing with academic issues.  However, that doesn’t excuse us from ignoring the human beings in front of us.  Sometimes a simple “how are you doing?” is enough to get a student talking – and, at least in my experience – pointed in the right direction.

I’m not an expert on mental health – I don’t think I ever even had a class in a psychology department.  However, I hope we can start a conversation in our discipline about how important mental health really is – it shouldn’t be normal to suffer through depression in silence, anxiety isn’t just “part of the game,” and things really can get better.  It’s up to all of us to ensure that they do.


[1] Of course, there are some instances where confidentiality isn’t assured, ie: imminent danger.

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  • SomeoneSomewhere

    Thank you for writing this and sharing it. As someone who is currently going through this and questioning if I am even allowed to feel down…thank you. I can not express enough how much taking time for yourself, not being afraid to find professional help, learning to ACTUALLY relax and finding mentors who you can be honest and open with is important.

  • notingradschoolanymore

    This is a great post. The stress involved in constantly being uncertain about so many things, like your employment prospects, whether your work is “any good”, where you will live, is not appreciable to people who are in a more stable position.
    I’m not sure that there is anything to be done about it, as the system selects in autistic workaholics.

  • xxx

    Thanks Amanda for opening this very important discussion. Coincidentally, the guardian has a piece on the subject today:

    I think one of the main reasons people in academia don’t talk about depression is because it makes you look weak. You’re supposed to strong and smart. Better pretend to be fine than incur the reputational costs of opening up about depression. Also, this is not to generalise but I think many academic staff just aren’t interested in dealing with student depression. It takes time and energy, and of course, they don’t have that, busy as they are with shit of their own.

  • Amelia Hoover Green

    Thanks for this! I would add that this is an equity issue. It’s not just that some of us are “just asses,” per #2 above (though some of us certainly are), and it’s not just that some of us have bad-luck brain chemicals. Rather, setting up grad school (and academia more generally) as a test of mental or physical toughness systematically benefits some people and excludes others.

  • Jane Winzer

    VERY important points. If I had known what I was going through was Severe Depression – I could have shaved YEARS off my gradual school experience through appropriate treatment. At least I had a supportive group that got me through and DONE!

  • Justin Esarey

    Thanks for writing this, Amanda.

  • abbayram

    Thanks, Amanda, for this great post.

  • Emily Ritter

    Nice work, Amanda.

  • RedWell

    Much appreciated, but here’s the problem: notingradschoolanymore is correct that the system is structured badly. You can’t just focus on your work because you have to think about funding, publishing, teaching, networking and so forth. Being aware of and dealing with stress is just not good enough. PhD programs let in too many people and don’t leave them with skills to function outside academia. Maybe that’s the job of the student to figure out, but the point is that there is no way to fix the stress of grad school because the system is distorted from an earlier and, I suspect, more reasonable–if more elitist–set of expectations.

  • deRaismes Combes

    I guess I’m lucky in some regards because I went through horrible depression as an undergrad and was forced to deal with it back then. Now as a PhD student, despite the stress and the continuing bouts of depression, I at least know how to deal with it in ways that don’t get me thrown into mental hospitals.
    I have a few observations though: I was horrified at the lack of support offered at my current school for people struggling with mental health issues (so horrified in fact that at the beginning of my first semester, I threw a hissy fit at the once-a-month psychiatrist who subsequently had me summoned to the Dean’s Office… whoops.) Maybe it’s better for undergrads, but there is absolutely no awareness or discussion of it for us as grad students purely on the “these are resources you might want to know about” level. I spent two months off meds and desperately trying to find a therapist ON MY OWN who could a) take my health insurance and b) had space for a new client. One guy – no joke – told me he was too lazy to take me as a patient. This is ridiculous and needs to change. I guess that’s why I’m so open about my own experiences.
    My second observation is that I have also had extraordinary luck being honest with my advisors. Granted, it took me a long time to get over feeling that my depression et al was a character flaw, and I understand it isn’t easy for a lot of people to even talk about it. But my fellow students and professors have been quite supportive, and I always felt relieved knowing that it was out in the open – even if I still worry that others think I use it as an excuse for poor quality scholarship. More often than not, actually, profs open up to me about their own struggles.
    In any event, I think this is a hugely important issue

  • Potter

    Thanks for bringing this up – when I mentioned the problems that graduate students/scholars with depressions face, Charlie Carpenter wasn’t very sympathetic to the issue.

  • Megan H MacKenzie

    Great post Amanda- thank you! I’m glad to hear you had healthy relationships with your supervisor/committee because this is one aspect of grad school that is often particularly challenging (and emotionally exhausting). Trying to manage all the personalities, power dynamics, and straight-up politics within a department can be overwhelming (on top of everything else grad students must go through). I think when I was a student I put up with a lot of unhealthy relationships because I was scared, I didn’t want to stuff up my chances of getting a good letter of recommendation, and I didn’t always know what was ‘normal’ and what was unhealthy. Great conversation starter Amanda- has got me really thinking!!

  • Amanda Murdie

    Thanks, everyone, for your kind words. Yes, I definitely hope we can continue this conversation and focus on specific “triggers” of stress, like grad school relationships.

  • Jake Rabas

    So true. Let’s consider some of the structural conditions a person in academia confronts: 1) isolation 2) social alienation from family and friends (they have no clue what you are doing and may not even understand why, you are a little weird, quite frankly, unless you come from an academic family) 3) Dependence (socially and economically) on relationships with colleagues and superiors in a position of to judge you, or at least you feel that way 4) The perceived need to be an intense workaholic. That everyone isn’t taking Prozac is actually kind of the miracle here!

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