Depression and Academia – Let’s Talk

4 March 2014, 1224 EST

Today, I fly to give a talk at my alma-mater.  As my advisor told me, it’s a victory lap.  It feels good – 5 years post PhD, great job, excitement about the future, and my family still intact.  However, the thought of going back also has me a little anxious: you see, I don’t have good memories about life in grad school.  My university was great, my advisors were fantastic, and my colleagues were super smart.  However, the whole experience was wrought with periods of anxiety, stress, and depression.   In short, my mental health really sucked in grad school.

And, for much of my academic career, I thought that was the way grad school – and academia in general -was supposed to be.  It’s grad school ; it’s not meant to be a cake walk.  It’s supposed to be hard  – like boot camp, the idea is that you have to break someone down to rebuild them the way they are supposed to be.   And, for many of us, we endure – we go through the process, with all its feelings of self-doubt and anxiety, and continue on the academic track.  Some of us even thrive in the environment.

However, as a recent The Guardian piece pointed out, this environment isn’t great for mental health and, sadly, few academics are skilled at recognizing mental health issues.  Few of us take time to care for ourselves and we may feel extremely guilty when we do.  And, unfortunately, these issues don’t go away once you get a PhD – life on the tenure-track can be every bit as taxing on a person’s mental health.  It’s time we stopped the silence – it’s time we were honest about the tolls this profession  can have on every other aspect of our lives and assess what – if anything – we can do to lessen the negative externalities.  A healthy life is way too important to sacrifice up on the altar of academic success.

  1. You aren’t alone.  Realizing that others – probably those in your own program – are also going through the same issues of self-doubt and depression can help.   It’s a “new epidemic.”  
  2. Talk to someone.  If they seem dismissive, talk to someone else.  We’re academics – some of us are just asses.  If an advisor, colleague, whoever, doesn’t take your concerns seriously, it’s probably their problem.  And, please, don’t just talk to political scientists.  Professionals can help and many university health centers are improving their treatment of mental health issues for graduate students.   And, contrary to your worse fears, health records are not part of your academic file.[1] 
  3. Step away from the computer lab.  There is a ton written about exercise and mental health.  There is also a lot written about the benefits of sunshine on mental health.  In general, try to find something – anything! – that makes you feel like you want to feel.  Feeling crappy for 5+ years to get a shot a job where you might make $60,000 just isn’t worth it. 
  4. A healthy you means that you will produce more.  Remember all that stuff you read in your IPE/CPE class about human capital mattering for economic development and output?  It applies to you as well.  Taking time out to care for yourself will make your work better. 
  5. Look out for those around you.  Now that I’m sitting on the other side of the seminar table, it can be easy to forget how hard grad school actually was. Professors may be busy dealing with academic issues.  However, that doesn’t excuse us from ignoring the human beings in front of us.  Sometimes a simple “how are you doing?” is enough to get a student talking – and, at least in my experience – pointed in the right direction.

I’m not an expert on mental health – I don’t think I ever even had a class in a psychology department.  However, I hope we can start a conversation in our discipline about how important mental health really is – it shouldn’t be normal to suffer through depression in silence, anxiety isn’t just “part of the game,” and things really can get better.  It’s up to all of us to ensure that they do.


[1] Of course, there are some instances where confidentiality isn’t assured, ie: imminent danger.