My life experiences have led me to decide to write this piece about mental health and graduate school. I’ve procrastinated and began writing late, which I take as a sign that I care about doing this well. I’m hopeful that sharing a bit of my story and experiences might be helpful to others battling with mental health burdens in graduate school, and attempt to challenge the pervasive stigma of mental health.
Certainly, grad school itself can introduce emotional distress, but this hasn’t been the root of my mental health issues. I was messed up before I got here. My biological mother was a drug addict. My father died when I was 12. My best friend killed himself when we were in grade 10. I lived with my grandmother who died of a heart attack, leaving me between homes and without my own bed until the end of high school. I’ve got baggage, and it follows me. I used to have nightmares that would leave me waking up screaming. My challenges with mental health began when I was a teenager. That was the first time I tried to take my own life – thank goodness, I had a less-than-satisfactory understanding of how electricity and water pose a risk to life.
For me, life challenges continued into adulthood as I came out as a gay man, and was subsequently diagnosed with HIV. I had started university completely unsure of where my life was headed, and eventually finished undergrad at U of T with majors in Biochemistry and Sexual Diversity Studies – both of which helped me further my multidisciplinary understanding of HIV. Being an active member of the queer community and the HIV response has been a big part of my life.
For me, depressive symptoms are episodic. A few days at a time, and often in response to some trigger like the anniversary of a death, or even just the weather.”
Now I’m in graduate school about to start fourth year in the PhD program in Immunology. I’m also a partner to a loving and successful man, and a parent to an energetic 18-month-old son. I’m a committed community member and sit on the board of directors at the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation, and am an appointed advisor to Canada’s Federal Minister of Health.
And I’m also depressed.
For me, depressive symptoms are episodic. A few days at a time, and often in response to some trigger like the anniversary of a death, or even just the weather. Some bouts are more difficult to get through than others, and different combinations of coping strategies can be needed. These are some of elements that I focus on to get through:
1. The Supervisory Relationship.
This is key to getting through much of graduate school. A supervisor has to be the right fit to meet your needs. I’m an extremely independent thinker and need space to tackle my own issues. Sometimes I need my supervisor to give me freedom to work through my own thoughts. I have a supervisor that understands that and works well with me. For others a more hands-on approach is needed, but ultimately good communication and good faith between student and supervisor is essential.
How rested I am is by far the most significant influencer of my mental stability day-to-day. When I’m not sleeping well, I don’t eat well, I don’t have energy, and my brain doesn’t work well. I feel badly about myself and my productivity, and other triggers can easily drop in and destroy my sense of wellbeing. Maintaining a good sleep pattern can be difficult in grad school, and can feel like a moving target, but it’s important to continue to refocus on it. Sometimes for me that means taking a nap to feel better prepared for whatever is coming up. Or other times it can be not allowing myself to nap so that I can get a better sleep during the night.
In addition to helping me to sleep better, exercise can be amazing for mental wellness. Sometimes I just need to get over to Hart House and do some weights or cardio, and other times I like to get outside on my road bike and go for a bit of an adventure. Some people also find extra value in group exercise activities, but I usually prefer to be alone – this is because exercise for me is very meditative. Living a busy graduate student life I appreciate the feeling of disconnecting, and getting inside my own head. Reminding myself of what I care about and why I’m spending my life doing the things I am.
This is a completely different experience for everyone. Self-care requires a focus on doing whatever gives you energy, helps you feel grounded, and provides a real mental break. For some, this actually is exercise. As an introvert self-care often involves solitary activities. As cliché as it is I really love to have a bubble bath while reading a book. To feel grounded, I need to feel part of a community, or a part of something bigger. I find this through family activities or social justice community engagement activities. Sometimes these things can be equally exhausting and important, so it is important to balance how much of myself I give to these efforts.
5. Seeing My Physician.
I’m one of the fortunate Torontonians with a family physician, which I’m extremely grateful for. Finding a doctor that’s also a good fit can make discussing mental health a lot easier – although choosing our family doctor isn’t a luxury for most of us. I have a gay man as my physician which makes him more relatable – something I find incredibly valuable. A good physician will work with you to find resources or medications that might save your life.
6. Seeking Out Extra Support.
This is my catch-all. First, as a U of T graduate student we have access to some extra health benefits that help us pay for services like massage and psychotherapy – use them! Seeking out extra support can also mean seeking out support from others in your life – friends, family, members of your supervisory committee, or the graduate coordinator. Depending on the urgency of the circumstance it’s important to reach out to those from whom you need support, with a focus on being practical and proactive.
Overcoming mental health hurdles, for me, requires a pragmatic and proactive approach. I have recognized that I will continue to face challenges, but by focusing on strengths and wellbeing, it’s possible to persevere. Hopefully, too, it might even be possible to break down a bit of mental health stigma along the way.