By Christopher Kelly-Bisson
An important lesson I have learned in therapy for my struggles with anxiety and depression is knowing what I can control and what I cannot. Everyone’s mental health struggles are unique and no mental health advice is appropriate for everyone. However, I feel like focusing on what I can practically accomplish, speaking openly about such struggles, and sharing strategies to deal with them is a positive step to address what I understand to be a crisis that is still growing on university campuses. Praxis has covered the topic of mental health before in the context of the academic job market. However, in this article, I will be discussing realistic and immediate mental health strategies for graduate students to consider following during the course of their studies.
The following are five suggestions that a grad student can realistically do to help with anxiety and depression.
1.You are not alone: Talk to your peers
There has been no shortage of articles that have recently been written about the mental health crisis currently facing grad students. The likely reality is that there are several other students in your cohort, office, seminar, etc. who are also going through the same thing. It is hard to open up to others when you are anxious about how they feel about you or when you feel like you are not good enough for grad school. However, I have found that when I share my struggles with my peers they become very open about theirs, and I have developed great friendships supporting one another. Consider that this is not just good for your mental health, but it is a great way to find community and build your academic network. Its a leap of faith, but speaking openly about what you are going through with peers will probably result in the opposite effect your anxiety is telling you.
2. Seek help: Counselling and medication really do help
Universities are starting to get better at offering free or more affordable services for students facing mental health challenges. You are obviously really busy and life may already feel too overwhelming to take on a new commitment like a weekly counselling session. However, you can go at your own pace and set comfortable goals for yourself to get the ball rolling. When I sought councilling on campus I convinced myself to spend five minutes to write an email to the councilling centre to see what they offer. Next step is that I followed-up and said what I am going through. This led to a very accommodating and supportive uptake process, which eventually resulted in me developing a routine of bi-weekly sessions. This gave me so many tools to work with to make myself feel better about myself, my work, my relationships, and life in general.
I also, eventually, spoke to my doctor about anxiety medication. I had initially feared the idea of medication because of myths and stigma. However, once I started taking medication I found that my baseline level of dread, low motivations, and negativity reduced. I also found that it actually made me a better student, writer, husband, and father.
3. Develop firm boundaries and routine for your work
I have two young children, which may not seem like it should help to cope with anxiety while doing a Ph.D., but it has forced me to go through my program with built-in structure and routine. I drop off the kids at school and daycare in the morning, which gets me in my office working at a consistent time during the work week. Because I have them at home during the weekend, I simply have no choice but to confine my work to the workweek. I really don’t recommend having kids solely for the purpose of controlling your anxiety. Realistically, my kids contribute to at least half of my stress load at any given moment. However, it really helps to deal with the base-load of anxiety when you build firm boundaries to your work that are routine and predictable.
For some reason, I get the sense that there is an expectation of grad students to be up all night and cloistered in libraries all weekend working on their comp readings or dissertation writing. However, when I compare my time working on my master’s thesis before kids and my dissertation right now I find I spend more quality time working when I only have a limited time to do so. I did not think it would be possible, but I have managed to be on time with all of my program milestones so far because I take time off for my evenings and weekends.
4. Demand that mental health be taken seriously
It is not acceptable for any professor, supervisor, or department to demand that you sacrifice your mental health to complete your graduate program. Full stop.
We need to call these sorts of actions for what they are: bullying, hazing, harassment, a cycle of abuse, etc. And none of this belongs in any workplace or place of learning. So don’t let anyone convince you otherwise.
There are a number of things I simply require to do my work without facing my anxiety escalating into a panic attack or depression slump. And frankly, they are perfectly reasonable things to expect from those you work for. When I wrote my comprehensive examination I demanded clarity of expectations, deliverables, timelines, and format where it was lacking. My department and examination committee was–of course–all happy to oblige. However, if I had not advocated for my needs I would not have received these forms of support.
If you find that you are struggling to receive the support you need as a student never hesitate to talk to your TA/RA union or student association about what your rights are and how they can advocate on your behalf.
5. Go easy on yourself, you are good enough
A lot of people facing general anxiety disorder struggle with issues of imposter syndrome and perfectionism. This can result in a tendency to overwork yourself taking on more than you can reasonably expect of yourself. However, there are also many very real material reasons why grad students overwork themselves like precarity of employment and funding. These factors are difficult to deal with by yourself and require a group effort to change, which is a matter for another blog post. In the meantime its worth considering that the one thing you can control is your personal sense of empathy.
There is nothing wrong or weak about the fact that you are challenged by mental illness. There is also nothing wrong in valuing yourself, recognizing your struggles, and asking for help and support.
None of these suggestions will cure your mental health challenges. That is a long-term struggle that will gradually get better. But it will, hopefully, help you get through grad school without your mental health getting worse, which is a good first step given the current mental health crisis on university campuses.
Christopher Kelly-Bisson is in the fourth year of his Ph.D. in Canadian politics at the School of Political Studies and the University of Ottawa. He struggles with intermediate depression and panic disorder resulting from general anxiety disorder. He has dealt with these challenges ever since high school and feels like after five years of therapy and two years on medication he is finally learning how to live a healthy life that works with his condition.