Mental health in academia: overworked and stressed

by Guest Post

Student-StudyingI first knew that something was wrong when I went from joking with friends that I would rather jump in front of a truck than work on my thesis to genuinely thinking “is that an option here?”

Being severely depressed, as it turns out, is not actually a part of my personality. Having lived most of my life over-thinking every situation I found it came to a head (pun intended) when I started writing my master’s thesis. I had no idea what I was doing, limited support to overcome that, and no ability to explain the millions of thoughts that were going through my head as I planned, wrote, re-wrote, re-planned, and eventually half-wrote my thesis.

But still, people called me “talented” and “driven”. Apparently I was going to publish on something that no-one had ever looked at before and really make a name for myself. They would call me a model student and I would sit up all night thinking “oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!”

Up I would get, every morning, to put on a smile and drag myself down to University. No one knew I was struggling, thinking of the bags under my eyes as a sign of hard work and the excessive drinking as a well-earned release.

When I eventually decided to deal with my inability to deal, I sat down and happily listed my accomplishments before casually mentioning that I was sitting in front of her because I desperately wanted to end my own life but had no idea why. She was taken aback, but quietly handed me a piece of paper.

It asked me about how I slept (never), ate (hardly ever), felt happy (not in my nature), felt pressure (I just vomited in my mouth a little), and thought about suicide (can I use this pen?).

After handing it back to my doctor, she scribbled for a bit before looking up and announcing that I had scored 100%. I did my happy dance internally because even at the doctors, I got a high score, but it was cut short almost immediately when she told me that the test I had just done was a questionnaire for severe depression.

I laughed. For like, 10 minutes. “I’m not depressed! I’m just a little stressed and need you to confirm that diagnosis so I can get over my petty suicidal thoughts and get back to my thesis because seriously, constantly thinking about killing myself is really taking away from the time I spend writing my thesis.”

It was the doctor’s turn to laugh. Though, she only did it for a minute. “I have told the vice chancellor time and time again that we should be handing out Prozac with post-graduate orientation packs. You’re not the first hyper-intelligent, post-graduate student to come in here and tell me that you want to kill yourself, you don’t know why, but that you’re not depressed. “

That was the day I learned how common it is to see post-graduate students working themselves to the point of mental and physical exhaustion in the name of a thesis.  That was the day I started noticing how little support those around me received, how many of their concerns went un-accounted for, and how many of them thought it was perfectly normal to be depressed.

We need to talk about mental health in academia. It is not okay to feel alone, overworked, or suicidal.

If you or someone you know wants or needs to talk to someone about anything raised in the above, there are services available in New Zealand.

Image courtesy of UBC blog


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