April 14, 2017
Since, I decided to tackle the light topic of race and ethnicity last time, I thought I would continue with the theme of a light hearted discussion and talk about the existential crisis we each face on a daily basis.
If you’ve logged onto the World Wide Web, you’ve probably run across the comics in Figure 1 and laughed, and laughed… only to cry and laugh some more 1,2. Why do these comics elicit the same response in every grad student I’ve met? Well, it probably has something to do with our collective need to be better than the best, and maybe even perfect.
First anecdotal piece of evidence, my inability to put out a second blog post after the resounding success of my first. You see, I’m supposed to submit a post weekly and while I had something written last Wednesday, every time I made another pass at it, I just couldn’t find it possible to actually submit. It just wasn’t good enough. So I let the deadline pass and the eventual guilt set in and robbed me of an afternoon of self-worth. Was it perfect? Most definitely not. Was it good enough for the tens of readers? Absolutely. So why was it that each time I went to hit “send”, I broke out in a cold sweat and just literally could not click the button? Part of me wants to blame my diagnosed anxiety disorder, another part of me knows that it has something to do with the greater feeling of not being “enough” for UMich, but I know that these things are all intertwined.
A recent study reported that one in two PhD students experiences psychological distress while one in three is at risk for common psychiatric disorders 3. This is in stark contrast with the roughly 20% of the population that experiences some form of depression and/or anxiety 4. While the reasoning behind why PhD students are so much more susceptible to psychological distress and disorders is the center of much debate, we as graduate students still have to live every day in this reality, and it does not appear that anything is going to change soon. What can change immediately though, is how we as students talk about it.
I believe the first step to actually changing how we talk about depression and anxiety within the realms of graduate school and academia is to actually start talking about it. Revolutionary, I know. Try to take me seriously for a second though. Other than the obligatory CAPS mention at a seminar once a year, mental health is rarely discussed amongst colleagues, even though (according to the study) the majority of us are struggling with it. Or as one friend rephrased the startling statistic “one in two students struggles with mental illness and the other one is lying about it.” The bottom line is that graduate school is hard, harder than most of us realized it would be, and this is often complicated by other qualifiers such as being a first generation college student, a person of color, queer, or anything else that labels you as a minority.
That is why we need to help each other out a bit more and be real about our struggles. Everything is not fine, life happens, and it can sucks sometimes. But don’t try to normalize your suffering by ignoring its existence. Even though all your laundry is done and your apartment is the cleanest it’s been in months, that poster is still due and you’re still worried about it. So, yeah, don’t let that sense of overwhelming dread consume you, but don’t ignore it. Call up your BFF and have that “my day sucked and I need to vent” talk, or ask the post-doc in your lab how best to attack that experiment that has been failing again and again, week after week. Just try and be kind to yourself and realize that while you demand perfection of yourself, very few people (if any) do.
Lastly, while it may be incredibly cliche and you have heard this same, vague “help is out there” tidbit a hundred times… Well, I have to mention that help is out there. Sometimes the dread, the work, the anxiety, the depression is just too much for self-care and friends and you need capital H, Help. As grad students at UMich, we are fortunate enough to have access to some top notch resources (like CAPS5 and GradCare), and as someone who has taken advantage of them, let me tell you, they’re awesome. I struggled for years trying to ignore the fact that what I was dealing with was bigger than me. Once I was open with my counselor and even my department about what was getting in the way of my work, I actually started to progress because I realized that I had people who had my back. Better yet, I was finally able to feel comfortable around my colleagues (even though they seemed “more” successful) because I accepted the fact that the playing field wasn’t even between us.
So next time someone in your cohort asks you “How’s it going?”, be honest! Let them know that your experiment failed and you are two weeks behind in your readings because they probably have been in the same boat at some point (if not at the exact same point) in time. Let them know that some crazy girl writing a blog you read inspired you to be more open about your struggles! Okay, I realize I am now way overreaching, but still, let’s dish out a little more empathy between fellow students. We can all do with a bit more support and understanding in this ivory tower known as grad school.
Author: Marissa Torres
1. “Busy Work”. Ep. 59. Webtoon. http://webtoons.com/en/comedy/bluechair/ep-59-busy-work/viewer?title_no=199&episode_no=61
2. Gunshow comics. KC Green. http://gunshowcomic.com/648
3. “Work Organization and Mental Health Problems in PhD students.” Gisle, et al. Research Policy. May 2017,
4. CDC. https://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/data_stats/depression.htm