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My mental health struggles during graduate school

by Tyler Moulton

Graduate school offers incredible opportunities for academic and
personal growth. We gain technical and professional skills and
training, undertake fascinating research projects, and make some of
the best friends we will ever have. Nonetheless, many of us suffer,
have suffered, or will suffer mental health issues during our time as
grad students. These affect not only our moods, but our productivity,
health, and safety.

Acknowledging
mental health concerns is steadily becoming more mainstream. I have
found that discussing these in the abstract has become largely
destigmatized. However, discussing mental illness as it pertains to
oneself in a personal and/or professional setting is incredibly
daunting. In this piece I will share the story of my personal
struggles with anxiety and depression. I will briefly describe the
causes, the steps I took to address the problem, and the things that
other people did to help me through my mental health issues and my
program.

Going in to my MSc at McGill, I had been dealing with chronic
migraines/post-concussion headaches for 4 years following an accident
in my second year or undergrad. This condition was taking a severe
toll on my mood. It made me grumpy, anxious, and tired. I had been
trying to treat the headaches with multiple different therapies
including massage and medication but was having limited success. Two
weeks prior to beginning my first term in grad school, I switched
migraine prophylaxis medications and began taking Topomax. Within
about three weeks, I was seeing some major results: my headaches had
declined significantly in frequency and severity, but my mental
health had taken a nose-dive.

Recognizing that I had a problem was really difficult for me at the
time, though the symptoms are now obvious in retrospect. The feelings
and behaviors characteristic of anxiety and depression are much
easier to identify when you are not experiencing them. I was highly
irritable and often found myself seething with anger over the most
trivial of perceived slights. Something as inane as someone being
mildly annoying while playing a board game would infuriate me and I
just wouldn’t be able to let it go. I would not usually respond
outwardly, rather I internalized my frustration and resentment. My
self-confidence also plummeted — I had a terrible case of imposter’s
syndrome. I had worked in the lab where I was starting my thesis
project for 2 years prior to my beginning grad school, yet I suddenly
felt incompetent, fraudulent, and unintelligent. It was very easy for
me to use the successes of others in the department (including 2nd
through 5th year PhD students) to highlight my own
perceived ineptitudes. This was, of course, completely illogical, as
among the goals of grad school are learning new skills. But my
thought processes had become so negative that I confused opportunity
with failure and used self-pity to avoid challenges.

This self-doubt ultimately affected my productivity that semester. I
had a hard time concentrating and was very slow to put together a
proposal. I was so behind that I ended up having my first committee
meeting in April—two months later than I had initially planned. I
also used my self-pity to justify some lax TA record keeping that
landed me in hot water with the course instructor.

Moods and feelings are not logical. I could tell myself that I was
being silly, too hard on myself, or too sensitive, but none of my
reasoning could trump my emotions. These feelings of self-doubt crept
into my social life too. I felt friendless and isolated, and I lacked
the confidence to reach out and make new friends. I stopped
exercising, and my appetite diminished substantially. At the
beginning of that August, prior to my major downswing, I was already
thin at 5’10” 135 lbs. By October I was down to 115 lbs. I
started thinking about suicide as I lay in bed at night, wondering
what it would be like to jump from the Jacques-Cartier bridge in the
early morning hours.

Luckily, I got help. To do this, I needed to recognize that I had a
problem (not what the problem was), and I had to take action to
improve the situation. I called a therapist who I had seen before and
got an appointment with her for the following day.

My therapist
immediately contacted my neurologist and I was taken off of the
Topomax within days. The therapy also helped me to acknowledge my
negative emotions and replace them with better ones through positive
behavior and thoughts. This was far more effective than trying to
fight feelings with logic. She also gave me invaluable advice on how
to discuss my mental health situation with my thesis supervisors,
both of whom were wonderfully accommodating and understanding. They
encouraged me to take some time off towards the end of the fall
semester in order to get my mental health and my headaches under
control. I went back home to Baltimore for the month of December. The
time off permitted me to start clearing my mind of the racing
thoughts of failure and worst-case scenarios that had plagued me for
months. I was also able to see a headache specialist while in
Baltimore. This new doctor began methodically working with me to find
a holistic regimen of psychotherapy, exercise, and medication to
combat my headaches, anxiety, and depression.

Within about two months of seeking help, I was well on the road to
recovery. Was I completely content, unstressed? No. Were my headaches
gone? Absolutely not. But I was making progress, and I felt like I
belonged where I was. I felt like had control over how I experienced
my own life. I continued to work with specialists for several years,
but intervention transitioned into monitoring and adjusting, and my
mental and physical health continued to improve steadily.

My social support network was crucial to me throughout this process.
I found that openly discussing my feelings with family and friends
was extremely helpful. It helped me efficiently reflect on my mental
state without getting trapped in my own head. My supervisors also
checked in with me on a weekly basis during our meetings. They made
sure that I was balancing my mental health needs with my work, and
for that I could not be more grateful. This constant reminder that
they valued both my work and me as a person was critical for boosting
my confidence and sense of worth.

One year after graduating, I still struggle with headaches (though
this condition has improved significantly), but my mental health is
in a pretty good place. I still get down and anxious, but my previous
therapy has helped me manage these feelings effectively. I’m also
still taking a cocktail of anti-anxiety and anti-headache medications
which are helping me maintain a good quality of life.

My Advice

Recognizing
and/or admitting that you are in poor mental health can be
challenging—I know from personal experience, as do many of our
friends and family. Seeking help, challenging though it may be, is
critical to becoming healthy. Remember, you don’t have to justify
your feelings to anyone—they are yours, and you alone experience
them. If you feel overwhelmed with school, relationships, financial
strain, or just ALL OF IT, you always have the power to seek help.
Sharing your concerns with friends or family may be a good first step
for some people. For others, it may be more effective to go straight
to a psychologist/therapist. And the first therapist you go to may
not work for you. It’s like dating, you have to find someone who
works for you. The first time that I saw a therapist during undergrad
was a horrible experience. I left the appointment feeling ashamed of
my feelings, and even worse about myself than I did when I had
entered the office. While that therapist was awful for me, I’m sure
that she was really helpful to other people. You may have to look
outside of your university health clinic. When you do find a good
match, talking to a good therapist is as easy as talking to a best
friend and they give you the unconditional support of your dog. That
judgement-free environment permits for the exposing and confronting
of one’s vulnerabilities. From here, one can begin to heal.

Sharing your
mental health concerns with your supervisor is also critical. It is
in the supervisor’s best interest for the student to be in good
mental and physical health, if for no other reason that it improves
productivity. Nonetheless, it can be a difficult conversation to
have. Get advice from your peers, friends, faculty, and health
professionals on how to broach the topic, especially if you are
worried that your supervisor will not respond well (some won’t, but
I don’t have adequate experience with this to comment on it
further). The earlier you take this step, the easier it is to manage
your workload. Also, it demonstrates to your supervisor that you are
being proactive.

To live with
depression, anxiety, or any other mental illness is a miserable and
unfortunately common experience. If you recognize anxious or
depressed feelings or behaviors in yourself or your loved ones, you
can take action. You can seek care help for yourself and you can
provide support and validation for your friends.


image

Tyler
graduated from McGill with an MSc in Biology in 2017. He studied
ecophysiology of African weakly electric fishes under the
co-supervision of Dr. Lauren Chapman and Dr. Rüdiger Krahe. He is
now an adjunct lecturer (a glorified TA) at the State University of
New York at Cortland.

https://tylermoulton.weebly.com/

Post date: January 21, 2019

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