The academic life is a never-ending stream of new challenges that can trigger or exacerbate anxiety and depression. We’ve talked about some of those stresses here at TSW, from dealing with toxic mentors, to the job hunt (which could trigger Job Market PTSD), to the timing of starting a family, to feeling like you are falling behind even once you have your dream job. Mental health issues seem to be rising in academia and can seriously affect academics’ productivity and success – an insidious negative feedback loop.
The only way to break a ‘hidden epidemic’ out into the open is to talk about our experiences and acknowledge the pervasiveness of the problem. We are starting to talk more openly about mental illness in academia – even if there is a culture of acceptance around those issues. I’m not a psychiatrist, psychologist, or any other kind of doctor trained in diagnosing or treating mental health issues, but I can talk about my experiences as a way to continue the conversation.
When I moved across the country to attend a Ph.D. program, one year of out college, I was faced with something I wasn’t prepared for – suddenly being the small fish in a big pond, after 20+ years of being at the top of the class. I was hit with a major case of imposter syndrome at the same time I was dealing with some major life stressors, including being on my own in a new time zone and losing my first family member (a grandparent). This threw me into a severe case of anxiety-induced insomnia with a little depression mixed in (I was eventually diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder). I was sleeping less than 4 hours a night and lost a lot of weight because I couldn’t eat. That was the first of three times I’ve had to battle mental health issues (the others were when I had a toxic mentor during a postdoc, and when I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder the same semester as defending my dissertation). I count myself lucky because GAD is relatively minor in the grand scheme of mental health issues. However it still affected my happiness and productivity, requiring work and self-reflection to tamp down to a manageable level.
I find it hard to believe that the unique stresses of pursuing a career in academia didn’t contribute to the timing of my diagnoses with GAD – particularly in graduate school, where at least half of my cohort was also in treatment at one time for panic attacks, generalized anxiety, stress-induced migraines, or depression. The frequency of those mental health issues was a lot lower amongst my friends on more traditional career tracks (although it’s possible that academics are just better at asking for treatment, and can take advantage of often excellent mental health resources on campuses). In graduate school, and academia in general, it can often feel like you are never working hard enough, no matter how much time or effort you are putting into your job. Even if we aren’t actually working 80 hours a week, the sometimes difficult to reach and often poorly defined goals for ‘success’ in academia can contribute to mental health issues.
Talking about mental health issues
When I was first diagnosed with anxiety in graduate school I was both pleasantly and unpleasantly surprised by the response I got from peers, mentors, and family when I discussed mental health issues and my treatment. The worst reaction was from a family member who said that I should be able to just fight through it, since therapy and drugs are for the weak-willed. That was hard to hear, but it was much more common to hear the opposite – compassion (I’m so glad you are getting help), interest (what is therapy like, would it help me?), and most commonly, receiving other people’s stories in return. Many times it seemed people wanted to talk about these pervasive issues, either because they had faced them or had loved ones who had. Overall, talking about my mental health issues made me feel much less alone, which I think helped me get past the hard times more quickly.
As I’ve gotten further along in my career I have become more open about discussing mental health in academia, and I hope that I have created a safe space for students to talk to me about their issues. Talk to your friends, family, and mentors, and ask for their help, but at the same time don’t think that they can be a substitute for professional help and/or medication. I’ve been on the other side of the equation – being the confidant of someone with mental health issues – and I felt powerless that they wouldn’t get professional help when they obviously needed it. I felt like I had their health and happiness in my hands, which was a scary place to be.
Asking for, and accepting, professional help
It can be hard to admit you need to seek outside/professional help, like you are admitting that you aren’t as strong as you thought you were, or that a chronic mental health issue isn’t as under control as you thought it was. But if small (or large) lifestyle changes haven’t made a dent in your mental health then it might be time to talk to a psychologist or psychiatrist. Therapy, medication, or both can be very helpful in treating and managing mental health issues, and most academic insurances have decent coverage for them.
Once you have decided to ask for professional help, keep in mind that no therapist or medication is one-size-fits-all. Just because one particular therapist or medication works for someone else, doesn’t mean that it’s going to work for you. The best therapist I’ve ever had was recommended to me by a friend who didn’t like her at all, but thought her style might work well with me. Additionally, the most helpful medication or therapist in one crisis or time of your life might not work another time. Our body’s chemistry changes over time, which can affect how medications affect us.
What this all means is that if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. This goes for both therapists and medication. It can take trying multiple different treatment options before you find the one that works for you. Try not to get discouraged. It’s all too common for those of us already unsure about professional help to give it a halfhearted try and give up before it really has a chance.
Day-to-day ways to reduce stress and improve mood
For relatively minor mental health issues, such as low-level background anxiety, a bit of the blues, or increasingly recurring headaches, a few lifestyle changes that can keep your issues from becoming exacerbated.
- Exercise: as much as it pains me to admit it, exercise is great for reducing anxiety and stress, and can act as an antidepressent.
- Take some time off: When problems seem insurmountable a mental health day can help bring you back in balance. More generally, however, making sure you don’t work every day of the week can recharge your mind and body. I find that I am much happier and less stressed if I work 6 longer days than 7 shorter days. As a mentor, you can encourage your students – or even assign them- to take some time off and not work every day. Similarly, be a good role model by NOT working every day at the office, which allows your mentees the space to take some mental health time.
- Make time for hobbies: Get a massage, meditate, knit, read a book – whatever activities make you happy and/or relaxed. One of the best things for my mental health was getting a pet. Pets provide social support and buffer owners from stressful events.
- Check in with your loved ones. One of the first things to slip through the cracks when I feel overwhelmed are those weekly phone calls with family and friends. Then suddenly I feel really disconnected from everyone and everything, which can make me feel worse. A good way to stay connected and feel less alone, even when busy or in a new place, is to be active on social media – particularly platforms like Twitter, where someone is always online.
These are just a few things that I find make a difference when I feel my stress level ramping up. Unfortunately, now that I’m an assistant professor, I have less time for them than I used to, and I’m still trying to find the right balance.
How does the lifestyle of an academic threaten your mental health? What do you do to stay mentally healthy as an academic?