#STEMSaturdays: The Talk People Rarely Have - Getting Real About Mental Health

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You would think moving to a new country and being newly married all while pursuing a graduate school degree would make a girl happy... and it did....

 

but it also broke me.

 

I felt completely isolated and alone, making my year pursuing my MSc a rather dark one. And it wasn’t until recently that I opened up and discussed these mental health problems in detail with others—even loved ones!

 

I sometimes wanted to die.

 

For the last #STEMSaturdays blog post, I want to talk to you about one thing many people don’t think about when signing up for graduate school: your mental health. I’m hoping that you learn from my mistake of staying silent and instead, if you are not okay, reach out for help because there is no shame in it whatsoever.

 

Let me be clear that it wasn't the workload that caused my mental health to nosedive, but a cumulative of feeling isolated, adrift in my career path, the financial stress I was under, taking on two part time jobs on top of doing TFUI, and really hating the Wellington weather (I went from constantly sunny Florida to constantly cold, wet, and windy Wellington).

 

I would have daily anxiety attacks and barely sleep, writing my thesis or TFUI blog posts by phone light. I ate when I remembered to, cried a lot, and spent most of my time in front of my computer doing work. I sometimes wanted to die.

 

And I told no one. I kept up the facade that I was fine because I felt that if I told anyone I was struggling that someone would take it all away. They would tell me I'm weak, strip me of my research and call me a fraud (I never found out who "they" was). I had nightmares of colleagues laughing at me for not being strong enough. So I kept it all bottled in, keeping up the image of "perfect" that I seemed associated with. I wanted to prove all those nasty voices wrong, and thought I was "cowardly" for not being able to control my own thoughts and feelings.

 

Not being perfect equated to being a fraud in my mind.

 

I sort of knew I was not the only one, but didn't know how common mental health problems in graduate students was. A 2003 Australian study found that the rate of mental illness in academics is three to four times higher than the general public, with 53% of academics in the U.K. suffering from mental illnesses; a 2005 study showed that 10% of graduate students had contemplated suicide. A following 2015 study found that 47% of graduate students suffer from depression.

 

It's that horrible stigmatization of mental illnesses, however. A broken arm or leg you can SEE and feel sympathy for, but what about those problems you can't see and can't begin to fathom how they mess someone up? And so many who struggle keep those problems to themselves, afraid of being branded negatively because of this.

 

If you're in graduate school, we can assume you are a hard worker and pretty well self- disciplined, but it's those same positive qualities that make you beat yourself up when you fail to "control" your depression or thoughts or feelings. I remember full blown discussions with myself about how I was such a disgrace because I couldn't stop crying and be the perfect student (my advisor was blissfully unaware of my problems and even called me the perfect student towards the end of our time together).

 

Not being perfect equated to being a fraud in my mind. I talked about my impostor’s syndrome at length with AMCH, and give some tips on how I've been able to reign those feelings in. I'm not the only one who has thought their career advancement has been luck or a fluke; every publication, successful funding grant or opportunity felt like an administrative mistake. It's very common to feel an incompetent fraud, and to feel like you're the only one who feels that way.

 

It’s that horrible stigmatization of mental illness.

 

Buried under a pile of books and often alone to write, I was also stressed about the "What's next?" question that graduate students always get. We all face uncertainty about the future, but it shouldn’t stop you from pursuing a graduate degree. In fact, none of the above should deter you from pursuing what you want to do... but you should be prepared to handle these unspoken psychological challenges.

 

That means researching what support services your university and community has for you to fall back on. My university counseling helped me, as did the support meet up groups around the area.

 

With more people coming forward about their mental health issues, perhaps we will be seeing less of a damaging stigmatization when someone says, “I’m not okay.” I now make sure to regularly check in with my friends who seem to be taking on too much, listen to those who have problems, and check in with myself when I take on more than I can handle. They’re little baby steps, but it’s a step in the right direction.

 

So check in with yourself, #femSTEM family: how are you really doing?

 

Author’s Note: I want to thank you all for taking the time to read not only this special blog post, but also for having me this past year for #STEMSaturdays. It has been my pleasure to talk with the #womeninSTEM community so frequently and I hope my series can help people out. Love always, Melissa 

 
 

About the Author:

Melissa C Marquez is a marine biologist and science communicator based in New Zealand. She is the founder of the Fins United Initiative.  You can find her twitter here, and support her on Patreon here.