It wasn’t until a friend died that I suddenly realised time was precious. Through the grief, a transformative experience occurred within me. In my mid-thirties, I flung myself back into education at undergraduate level to pursue a new career in healthcare. I relished every opportunity and for the first time in my life, I felt that I had direction. More than that, I had a purpose.
However, I was acutely aware that there was still something missing. I knew that deep within me, there was a piece of the jigsaw in my psyche that didn’t quite make sense. The more I looked for it, the more it would hide, like trying to remember a dream when you wake. There were vivid flashes, but it quickly slipped away. That was until my undergraduate final examinations.
If you had asked me then, I would have said everything was fine. My grades were great, I had made friends on my course, and yes, that purpose in life that had been missing before was now burning brightly. That was when things began to happen that I couldn’t explain. There were missed instructions for assignments, despite my diligent attention. Conversations began to play on a constant loop in my mind. I would show up for seminars early and I couldn’t understand why no one else was quite as eager as me. Yet, I was going to the gym more than ever and I was on the verge of an exciting new career. How could anything be wrong with me?
I am 2 years and 11 months into my 4-year PhD. I was once told that a PhD could feel like running an obstacle course of a marathon distance, but I could say the same of figuring out and managing a chronic illness. It turns out I have had to do both in parallel. I had been experiencing health issues for 3 years before the symptoms worsened during the 2nd year of my PhD. This still impacts my life and ability to work today. In this post I will explain how I have tackled the challenges brought about by my health issues in relation to my studies.
We all know the running grad student gag: anxious, depressed, poor. We’ve seen the episode of ‘The Simpsons’ where Bart imitates a grad student. The thing about stereotypes is that they sometimes highlight very important truths. In fact, graduate students are 6x more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression when compared to the general population, resulting in what has been labelled a ‘mental health crisis’ within the academic community. Not only do many graduate students suffer from anxiety and depression, but they have to write a thesis during this highly pressurized time, and survive the ‘publish-or-perish’ culture in academia in order to graduate. Many graduate students surpass the writer’s block associated with anxiety and depression and become successful and thrive in academia, but sadly, some do not.
Like many of my peers, I suffer from anxiety and depression. I’ve experienced periods of incapacitation and hospitalization; simultaneously I have a Masters, am almost finished with my PhD, and am a published author. Fun fact: my family and my friends never suspected I was incapacitated as I kept smiling, making people laugh, taking care of my appearance, turning in my work, being ‘deceptively’ successful.
In the first episode, the Voices of Academia concept and the team are introduced.
Academics Dr. Marissa Kate Edwards, Dr. Zoe Ayres, and Emily King (PhD loading) open up about why academic mental health advocacy is important to them and why it’s necessary. They also share some of their own wellness suggestions and how you can get involved with the blog or podcast.
As members of the academy, we are constantly being evaluated: with exams, viva, job interviews, grant applications, tenure dossiers, etc. During each stage of our academic journeys, our peers, superiors, and sometimes our competitors pass judgement on our work, and by extension, ourselves. They judge how impactful our proposed research is; how many patents and publications we have generated; how satisfactorily we have completed program requirements; how well we have taught and mentored our students and trainees in the classroom or research laboratory. In other words, our worth as academics is repeatedly judged by our productivity. This is, of course, the easiest method by which to assess our worth, but it is also the most impersonal; why, then, do so many of us ascribe so much of our personal worth to these altogether impersonal metrics? As academics, what exactly are we really worth?