Let’s talk about mental health in academia


A few days ago Canada was abuzz with messages about mental health for Bell Let’s Talk day. The social media campaign resulted in Bell donating 6.5 million dollars to mental health initiatives in Canada, which is great. But I’m not sure that one day a year when everyone feels comfortable talking about mental health publicly actually helps reduce the stigma around mental health, one of the stated goals of the Let’s Talk campaign. Any other day of the year, it’s still pretty difficult to bring up mental health issues, so this post is partly an effort to continue the conversation.

I have depression. Since I was a young teenager, I’ve gone through at least five episodes of major depressive disorder (though only the last one was diagnosed), and I’ve had less severe depression pretty much the rest of the time. It wasn’t until I was about to quit my MSc program that I was able to see a medical professional about my depression and get treatment. I’ve been on SSRIs for the last few years, and they help to keep my mood relatively stable and allow me to function reasonably well in my daily life. I’ve also seen a few psychologists over the last several years and they have helped me immensely, though mostly with my anxiety disorder.

For most of my life, I suspected that my mental health issues were not in fact health issues, but rather a personal failure. If doing “normal” things like getting out of bed and going to school, spending time with a group of friends, giving a presentation in class, going to the doctor, or ordering a pizza on the phone were difficult for me, I assumed that they were difficult for other people too and I just needed to try harder. It was difficult and painful but I guessed that was just life and I needed to overcome my weakness. I spent many years doing what I’ve always thought of as pretending to be normal. Later I started to realize that I probably had depression or an anxiety disorder, but my social anxiety was so severe that even the thought of making an appointment with a doctor or counselor was overwhelming. My anxiety disorder prevented me from seeking help.

About halfway into my MSc, I wrote to my supervisor and told him that I didn’t think I could continue in my program. My mental health issues were preventing me from making progress, and I was convinced that they would prevent me from ever succeeding in academia. Three things stand out in my memory that prevented me from actually quitting, which at the time felt like my only option.

First, my supervisor told me that he was committed to providing whatever support I needed to finish my degree. He also sent me a reference letter he’d previously written for me and reminded me that he believed I had what it takes to become a professor someday. His nonjudgmental support let me begin to think that maybe I could at least finish my degree, with help.

Second, around the same time, a labmate of mine was diagnosed with depression and spoke about it openly. She talked about how taking antidepressants and seeing a counselor at the university was helping her. Her openness made me feel comfortable bringing up my own mental health issues; knowing I was not alone in my experience and having someone to talk to was incredibly helpful. My labmate enthusiastically promoted our university’s health and counseling services, and helped me figure out exactly how to go about getting an appointment with them. This was really important because making appointments over the phone is something that my anxiety makes it extremely difficult for me to do.

Third, I read this blog post by a grad student at another university. Reading about her experience with depression helped me to realize that mental health issues were more common than they seemed and that they can affect anyone. This post had an especially strong impact on me because I had recently met the author at a conference where she gave an amazing talk and won several awards. She had come across as a superstar, with the sort of academic success I assumed I could never achieve. It was an important reminder that mental health issues are often invisible, and it’s impossible to know who may be struggling. It also gave me hope.

I write this post now with the hope that I might be able to have some small impact on other students with mental health issues in the same way that the two students mentioned above were helpful to me.* I suspect that I don’t immediately come across as someone with severe depression or an anxiety disorder, either on social media or in person (the time where I broke down crying during my thesis defense notwithstanding, but that’s another story). I’ve spent most of my life trying hard to be “normal” (or at least minimally functional) while silently struggling with these issues. I’d like to live in a world, and work in an academic environment, where being open about mental health issues is normal.

Mental health issues are common in grad school and academia in general, but it can be a real challenge for students who are struggling with mental health issues to bring it up with their supervisors. I have had two experiences doing this, once in my MSc and once in my PhD, and both times I was terrified of what my supervisor would think of me. Both of them turned out to be wonderfully supportive, but that’s not always going to be the case. I hope they are rare, but I know of some supervisors who turned out to be the opposite of supportive when they found out about a student’s mental illness. If you’re a professor who doesn’t want students to be too afraid to talk to you about their mental health, you could make a point of bringing it up in conversations with students or at lab meetings, or even formalizing your approach in some kind of supervisor-student expectations document, if you have one. Or you could put up a poster like this one in your office. If you’re a professor who has mental health issues yourself, sharing your experience like this is a powerful way to help normalize the experience of dealing with mental health issues even as a successful academic. It would be a lot easier approaching a professor who has a history of explicitly or implicitly making it clear that mental health is something students can talk to them about without fear of judgment. I’m not saying professors should be taking on the role of counselor, but that they are well placed to help students find and access the resources available on campus. Furthermore, sometimes it might be appropriate to make accommodations for a student with mental health issues in the same way as it is for other kinds of health issues, and it’s only possible to do so if the student has been able to bring it up.

I hope that before too long mental health will just be health, and that it will be something we all feel comfortable talking about every day of the year.


*If you want to talk about mental health, I’m on twitter (@Cataranea) and my DMs are open.

3 thoughts on “Let’s talk about mental health in academia

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. It is such a wonderful guide to everyone in academia on how to help or seek help

  2. Thank you for the post. This is a very courageous and effective approach – it was valuable and meaningful to learn about your experiences with this as well as your suggestions.

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