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As scientists and scholars pursuing advanced degrees in academic environments, we, the authors of this piece, Christiann and Beka, have felt the constant pressure to perform at our best, as have many other academics. As a result, when dealing with mental health challenges, we may be tempted to think we can simply use our research experience to investigate our own solutions -- seeking ways that we can potentially cope by ourselves to delay the daunting step of having to seek advice from an expert.
In fact, we caught ourselves trying every method to find solutions on our own. But at what cost? We resisted pursuing formal diagnoses and refused to even consider investigating medical interventions as an option. We tried exercising, meditating, and reading more, as well as an assortment of other suggested activities to "fix" our respective mental health challenges. But why?
At different times, both of the authors have struggled to admit that we needed help to support our mental health. For Christiann during graduate school, that prevented her from accessing valuable resources at a time when she desperately needed them. As a former doctoral and postdoctoral trainee and now career development practitioner, Beka grappled with her learning differences by herself for years and only recently began exploring pharmacological solutions. A colleague shared an analogy that truly stuck with both of us: if someone broke an arm, no one would suggest simply hoping it gets better; rather, they would seek medical attention. Why is it any different for mental health challenges? It shouldn't be.
During Christiann's experience in graduate training, she realized that part of her struggle to improve her own mental wellness was that she hadn't given herself permission to get the help she needed. Finally, at the urging of concerned family members, she decided to reach out to a therapist and later a wellness coach. She discovered that she had probably suffered from high-functioning anxiety for most of her life yet had assumed those feelings were just part of who she was. While she would feel uneasy to the point of sickness, she always performed well academically.
Through therapy, she realized her anxiety was so all-consuming that she believed she couldn't succeed without that feeling. She was accustomed to its presence and to stifling her struggles for fear of seeming less resilient. But during one of her therapy sessions, it finally struck her that she didn't need to continue suffering like she had for so long.
Similarly, Beka had believed she could only perform at her best when her anxiety helped clear her focus. Upon recognizing her own struggles were part of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), she saw that, in fact, other solutions could help provide that focus—without her craving last-minute deadline adrenaline rushes to help mitigate feelings of pressure and the fear of potential failure.
Her journey is still a work in progress. Yet if she were working with a trainee, Beka would encourage them to use whatever tools were at their disposal to best meet their needs. So why shouldn't she do that to help herself as well?
A Matter of Connection
During Christiann's mental health journey, it struck her that she was experiencing unnecessary isolation by not opening up to others. She decided she wanted to share her story of overcoming anxiety in hopes she could debunk others' fears around mental health and help them feel less isolated in their academic journey. She began with friends and, to her surprise, found that several of them also suffered from anxiety and benefited from anti-anxiety or anti-depression medications. And, like her, they were also reticent to share their use of their treatments with their social groups, as they too feared a lack of acceptance in the academic community. When she also decided to disclose her mental health journey to her mentor and committee members, she learned of their own personal challenges and struggles with their mental health and wellness as well.
Beka has similarly found that connecting with practitioners in higher education who are willing to openly discuss their own challenges has given her a sense of community and recognition that normalizes the struggles of highly successful professionals in academe. Those conversations have also created a cohort of advocates for mental health and well-being, creating intentional visibility in professional spaces, without which we risk existing as a silent majority.
In the past, both of us would push ourselves to work extra-long hours to validate our own self-worth and to avoid feared perceptions of being less resilient or less dedicated to our work. We did so even though we knew that this self-imposed, high-stress lifestyle could have negative physical and mental consequences. Academic culture constantly encourages us to associate our work with our worth, causing unhealthy standards of living to become our norm.
Revealing mental health challenges to our peers required a significant amount of vulnerability. But the reward of learning that respected peers also have experienced similar challenges in their academic journeys has helped reduce the isolation that we had felt for so long.
Learning from Our Mistakes
We'd like to share some lessons we've learned for supporting our own mental-health-awareness journey that we hope can provide the relief other students need.
Don't wait. After Christiann's first panic attack in graduate school, she learned that many other graduate students also had "crying spaces" to isolate themselves from their labs so no one saw them in distress; she thought such moments were normal. But these instances eventually pile up until they create an emotional implosion. If you begin to experience moments of severe anxiety, depression or feelings of worthlessness, seek out support now. Getting help early is the best way to regain your sense of self and purpose. Reach out to mentors, peers or friends, as they may not be aware of how you are feeling and will want to help if they can.
Also, as practitioners, we can remind our trainees that it's never too early or too late to seek help. Whenever someone mentions stress, anxiety, depression or any areas where mental health support could be helpful, Beka makes it common practice to ask: "Do you have support around that?" She then reaffirms this choice if they say yes or suggests seeking expert help and provides resources if they say no. Giving trainees the opportunity to discuss and affirm their decision to seek help can be empowering and validating. Such moments of vulnerability can become invaluable sources of permanent encouragement throughout their mental health journeys.
Don't assume. Finishing her Ph.D. program during COVID-19 brought its own distinct challenges to Christiann. Besides the anxiety she felt surrounding the uncertainty of graduating on time, the likelihood of finding a job in the new hiring climate seemed daunting. Luckily, she decided to confide in her principal investigator about the impact of COVID on her work and ability to manage tasks while dealing with the isolation that came with restricted face time with lab members. As it turned out, her PI shared that they were also struggling to operate under such working circumstances, and Christiann's disclosure actually improved communication between her and her mentor.
In the same way, we have learned not to presume that we know what burdens our trainees bear. We know those burdens are not always visible -- that even when a trainee manages those issues proactively and performs well, they are still there in the background. Many trainees have told us that they feel that a burden has been lifted when they've been offered the opportunity to discuss and acknowledge their challenges with other people. We have learned to ask open-ended questions and inquire with curiosity from our coaching toolboxes.
Give yourself enough grace. Writing this essay, Christiann has looked back on the Ph.D. student she once was and the intense judgment and criticism she gave herself. Getting a Ph.D. is hard and being extremely critical of herself made it worse. She was an international, female and minority student trying to navigate a field dominated by people who looked nothing like her. She would tell herself that if she was struggling, then it meant that maybe she wasn't supposed to be there or didn't have the grit needed to get a Ph.D. (She didn't know it then, but she was experiencing Imposter Phenomena and has since learned tips to battle it.).
For her part, Beka has learned that the most critical feedback often comes from oneself. In coaching, we call this your inner critic, and managing that critic has also been a part of Beka's journey. It's important to immediately identify whenever that voice creeps up and to learn how to quiet it.
Make yourself a priority. As graduate students, we often prioritize our work over anything else, perhaps due to the current narrative that we must do so to demonstrate that we're serious academics. However, that mindset and lifestyle are damaging to the student and academe as a whole. It is through stable well-being that we are able to become productive scientists generating high-quality work. As practitioners, we can remind our trainees to take a holistic view of their professional development and to conscientiously seek balance among personal, career and academic pursuits.
Seeking Out Resources
In addition to the lessons described above, we as career development practitioners can support our trainees in other key ways. To support them on their own wellness and mental health journey, we can connect them with resources, such as
- Therapists, wellness coaches and campus mental health services (including both on-campus and off-campus resources, such as 988, the 911 for mental health responses)
- Meditation journaling apps (for instance, Headspace), wellness workbooks (such as the Mindful PhD Journal), and other self-reflection activities (such as the Wheel of Life assessments or wellness guides)
- Campus wellness activities (offered through student affairs, graduate school offices, postdoctoral offices and/or campus mental health centers)
- Social and affinity group centers (such as those focused on LGBTQIA+, Latinx, Black/African American, Native American as well as religious and other identity groups)
- Online PhD Wellness communities and support groups (such as PhD Balance, R Voice, TAE Consortium) and podcasts (check out: HelloPhD)
We can also normalize mental health experiences in the Ph.D. community by creating opportunities for people to share them openly. That can include modeling vulnerability and disclosing our own stories and struggles; encouraging speakers, panels or networking opportunities with professionals and alumni who are willing to talk about the issues; and advocating for groups on our campuses to foster open dialogue to support trainee well-being and mental health. We can also continue to pursue evidence-based research and recommendations in the literature that examine mental health needs of graduate and post-doctoral trainees.
We view professional development as a holistic concept inclusive of not only skills and experiences that enhance workforce abilities but also wellness, social support and all aspects of a trainee's environment that contribute to their success. As such, we encourage you to think of ways that you can optimize your own experiences by thinking broadly about what you need for success, -- knowing that every person's answer is different and that creating time and space to explore your answer to that question is very much worth the effort on your pathway to career and personal success
Let's not be silent any longer.