I've never been someone who was prone to depression or anxiety. In that, I'm very lucky. I've had my ups and downs, of course, and anxiety problems run in my family. But overall, I've never had major problems that a monthly check-up session with a wonderful therapist has left me unable to overcome.
Based on conversations I've had with other grad students, though, I've begun to realize that my experience wasn't typical. For years, I've noticed that it has seemed like every other student in my program was on antidepressants, or was desperately seeking out recommendations for psychotherapists, and in a few cases, even checked themselves into a mental hospital or attempted suicide.
For a long time, I thought that people who applied to graduate school and who kept on going through the Ph.D. were just more prone to depression and anxiety. It is easy to be somewhat isolated in academia, and to work long hours. I used to think that people who suffered from depression or social anxiety disorders (for example) might select into an occupation that allowed them to spend long hours alone at home. I thought academic types were just "odd," and that along with that "oddness" came this tendency toward mental illness.
But the more I've read, the more I think that the causal direction might actually be the opposite. That is, that grad school can make otherwise mentally healthy people depressed and anxious.
And based on some research reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education over the past few years, it is true that rates of depression and anxiety are far higher in graduate school than in society at large. The original Chronicle articles are behind a paywall; however, the major findings are summarized in this blog post. Quoting from the post:
"At the University of California at Berkeley, 67 percent of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54 percent had felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning, and nearly 10 percent said they had considered suicide, a 2004 survey found. By comparison, an estimated 9.5 percent of American adults suffer from depressive disorders in a given year."Now, of course, clinical depression and anxiety disorders are real, serious illnesses that require treatment. And I have no doubt that those illnesses can be found in different proportions in different segments of the population. Depressed or anxious people may self-select into given occupations, and may be less able to leave a job that makes them miserable.
However, I refuse to believe that somehow a particular graduate program manages to attract more than 6 times as many people with depression than other occupations.
And the more I've thought about it ... I think academia might be a contributing factor to these mental health problems. (Edit: I'm not alone in thinking this, either.) That is, I think that grad students don't come in more depressed and anxious. I think that grad school makes them more depressed and anxious.
Academia is isolating. It is stressful. It requires long work hours with few tangible rewards, and a great deal of criticism and negativity (from journal reviewers, advisors, colleagues asking questions during presentations, and tremendous levels of competition for every award and fellowship out there).
It requires students to work those long hours for very, very low pay. It often requires students to respond to advisors who are either overbearing or standoffish, and who might leave them feeling as if they are inadequate or doing something wrong. Then, at the end of the graduate school journey, students face an uncertain and arbitrary job market ... and if they fail to get a job, the possibility that they will be fully unemployed the following year with no support from the department that was supposed to support them until they got a real job.
And all the while, you are likely living and working far away from your family, friends, and the support networks that you've relied on throughout your life.
Isolation, low pay, a stressful job with incredibly long work hours, and few tangible rewards for doing good work (but regular reminders of the times when your work is not up to par).
Honestly? I'm surprised the depression and anxiety rates aren't even higher.
I've seen how my own mental health has taken a hit during grad school. And I feel better and happier than I have in years now that I've decided to leave. I'm leaving academia because I want to feel good, not depressed and anxious. And being out of academia has me feeling good. I choose good mental health.
Ed. Note: If you are in crisis, please go here to find links and phone numbers for people who can help.
Others have written very eloquently about this problem. Here's a great post from Conditionally Accepted, which includes many links to other posts and resources about mental health and graduate school. The Guardian (UK) has recently published two good pieces about mental illness and academia. Other good posts on this topic can be found here and here. From the last link:
It's not healthy to ignore your needs. It's not a right (sic) of passage. It's a travesty that mental illness is "the norm" for graduate students. And it needs to be stopped.
Being overworked and putting ourselves and our needs last is unhealthy. Let's just call it that. Just shout it out and breathe easier. It's not okay. When you aren't getting sleep, food, exercise, and time with your family, you aren't meeting your basic human needs. Remind yourself of these things. Call it what it is. Demand change. That's not easy but it's a start.
And if you think that it's time to think about jumping ship from academia and saving your mental health, several of us postacademic bloggers have set up several resources to help. You can find an entire website (How to Leave Academia) devoted to helping you make the transition here, and can purchase our e-book of stories and support from fellow postacademics ("Moving On: Essays on the Aftermath of Leaving Academia") here or here. - JC (1/5/2014)