Image credit: Biały (Flickr / Biały).
Image credit: Biały (Flickr / Biały).

At first, there was just heightened anxiety about grades and dysregulated sleeping and eating habits, all typical behaviours for a first year undergraduate student. Then came the feeling of being overwhelmed by simple responsibilities. I lost interest in my friends and pastimes. I developed a range of unhealthy coping mechanisms. I found it increasingly difficult to get out of bed or to be around other people. By the fourth year of my degree, I had become numb and unmotivated, and was putting in the minimum effort required to graduate. When I finally started my PhD in 2011, I was eager to work hard and put the past behind me. However, as the negative data piled up and my re-classification drew closer, I fell back into old habits. Seminar attendance was the first thing to go, followed by early mornings in the lab. Presentations became unbearably stressful and by third year, my anxiety was so bad that I had difficulty being in any confined space – the subway, a bus, a lecture hall – for more than 15 minutes. Determined not to let down my supervisor, my family and most importantly myself, I managed to persevere; however, it is an ongoing battle and there are definitely days where I feel like I’m on the losing side.

According to studies conducted at postsecondary schools across Canada and the United States, I am not alone in my struggle with depression. The number of university students suffering from mental health issues is staggering, ranging anywhere from 20% to 60% depending on the institution. Countless individuals seek aid from campus or local support services, and too often, their needs are not addressed quickly or effectively due to the volume and varied nature of the demand. Many more students do not use these resources at all, afraid of the stigma or simply unable to push through the fog of depression long enough to reach out for help. For those who don’t get help in time, the outcomes can be more severe than just taking a leave of absence or attrition, which are serious enough consequences in and of themselves. Suicide does not always go hand in hand with depression or other mood disorders, but it is nonetheless a leading cause of death in university-age adults in Canada. And those students who do manage to soldier through may do so by developing coping mechanisms that are equally self-destructive in the long-term, such as cutting, bulimia or substance abuse.

Most of the focus on mental health while at university has been on the undergraduate years, a time of great upheaval and transition for many young adults; indeed, it was during this time that the “black dog of depression” first visited me (WHO: The Black Dog of Depression). However, a number of recent articles (Nature Jobs, Science Careers) have made it clear that many graduate students (exact numbers are lacking due to the paucity of studies on the subject) suffer from poor mental health as well. Graduate students are expected to juggle a full-time research job with classes, teaching assistantships and the typical responsibilities of adult life, all on a minimal stipend. With decreased funding available from governments and universities, and bafflingly counterintuitive mandates for increased graduate enrolment, students face intense competition for lab positions, scholarships and high-impact projects. Long, irregular hours and internalized criticism wreak havoc on relationships, further isolating students by stripping away their support systems. In the face of such odds, the daily grind for meaningful data can seem hopeless, and many graduate students either “burnout” or develop a deep-seated bitterness towards a subject that they otherwise enjoy. This atmosphere pushes even the most mentally sound students to their limits, and for those individuals with pre-existing (or newly developed) mood disorders, it can be utterly demoralizing.

Despite this data and my own extensive subterfuge, I am still surprised whenever I discover that a seemingly well-adjusted colleague is struggling with anxiety or depression. The pressure to maintain a facade of normalcy, and the ability to do so, stems in part from the fact that graduate school culture accepts personal misery as par for the course and in part from the continued taboo surrounding the discussion of mental health. For example, many students experience the Imposter syndrome, a condition in which they feel undeserving of their position in the academic community despite successes that give evidence to the contrary. The omnipresent belief that emotional and physical well-being are luxuries a successful researcher cannot afford makes difficulty coping with the demands of the field feel like an undeniable indication of unworthiness or ineptitude. And the constant fear of being “found out” as less intelligent or capable plays a strong role in keeping students from discussing their concerns with peers or supervisors. It takes a good deal of bravery (or desperation) to confide in supervisors or faculty, who have the potential to shape your entire professional future. Regardless, reaching out is a key step to getting help, and talking about negative thoughts and feelings that have been hidden away can significantly diminish their power. I know several students, including myself, who experienced feelings of inadequacy for years, and when we finally confided in one another, it was a shock and a relief to find that someone else had similar insecurities.

Another factor contributing to the silence around graduate mental health is the general dearth of resources that provide a platform for discussing graduate-specific issues. In 2012, the Ontario Ministry of Training, Colleges and Universities (MTCU) initiated the Mental Health Innovation Fund, a 3-year plan that pledged $27 million towards improving mental health resources for students at universities and colleges throughout the province. However, most of the programs established on Ontario campuses so far have been directed at undergraduates, and while graduates can use these services, they are not always helpful or appropriate. Many of the resources currently available are meant to be used over a limited time frame (see “Multiple Choice – Mental Health Resources at U of T”); as graduate students are often committing more years and more time per year to their education than undergraduates, it can take some shopping around to find a professional who can stick with them and address their problems on a long-term basis. Last year, PhD candidate Caroline Cormier addressed this need by working with the Graduate Student Union (GSU) to create Grad Minds, a group that aims “to represent and respond to the interests and concerns related to mental health and well-being of the graduate student population at the University of Toronto”. Cormier and the other members of Grad Minds have also collaborated with CAPS to create a graduate version of the Peers are Here (PAH) drop-in program run through the Health and Wellness service. The sessions follow the same line of thinking as Grad Minds, which aims to provide a safe space for graduate students to discuss their thoughts and feelings and cultivate practices that promote good mental health.

In research, we are constantly looking for rational, evidence-based explanations for the phenomena we observe. However, to both the layperson and the sufferer, depression and anxiety make little sense. Why would it be difficult to get out of bed on a sunny morning? How could a presentation provoke such an overwhelming fear of failure and humiliation that death seems like a better option? The reality is that we don’t yet have a sufficient understanding of why, when or how these disorders occur. What we do have are people and organizations who are willing to talk about these issues before they arise and to deal with them openly and compassionately when they do. It is high time that graduate students empower themselves with the resources necessary to support a healthier state of mind.

Multiple Choice – Mental Health Resources at U of T

Resource Description Additonal information and contact details
Good2Talk Part of the MTCU MHIF initiatives. Began in 2013. Aims to help students with crises or to direct them to other local resources. Intended primarily for students aged 17-25.
phone: 1-866-925-5454
Counselling and Psychological Services (CAPS) Affiliated with Health and Wellness; offers a range of options including CBT, meetings with psychiatrists, help with stress/school management, relationship counselling, help for sufferers of abuse, etc.
phone: 416-978-8070
Initial assessment done in person at the office. Wait lists for professionals can be long – weeks to months.
Grad Minds Founded by Caroline Cormier and in partnership with the GSU. Aims to assist graduate students through workshops, relaxation, spaces to communicate and by connecting them with other mental health resources. Hold monthly meetings and workshops as well.
Peers are Here Began as a branch of the undergraduate PAH program started by Health and Wellness. Their goal is to provide a space for grad students to unwind, commiserate and communicate with peers.
Wednesdays 4-5pm
Fridays 12-1 pm
ThoughtSpot Live, interactive map delineating mental health (and other counselling) resources in the GTA.
phone: 1-866-925-5454
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Kieran Manion

Design Director
Kieran Manion is a senior PhD student studying the breakdown of B cell tolerance in systemic lupus erythematosus in the Department of Immunology at the University of Toronto. In her spare time, she practises using digital platforms for general artwork and graphic design.
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