TW: Suicide ideation
I was first diagnosed with clinical depression during my PhD program. I was experiencing near-daily suicidal ideation at the time and had realised that I needed help. For as long as I can remember I had compared myself with others and minimised my own experience, by looking at the struggles of those around me and thinking “What do I really have to complain about?”. I had steady income, a supportive husband, friends and family that would be there in an instant, if I were to simply ask. That’s the thing with depression: it can make us feel incredibly guilty for not feeling happy, despite clear positive things in our lives. Our internal self-deprecating voice can make us spiral further and further down into guilt. The disgust and anger I felt towards myself for not “appreciating” those that love us and “how good we have it” made me feel even worse, until I turned that hatred inwards. The thing is, we are not in control in these moments. We can’t simply ask our brains to be kinder to us through willpower, just like we cannot fix a broken leg through thought alone. It takes support, resources, and time to get better.
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Mental illness has been a part of my life for a long time. My very first article on anxiety, written for one of Guyana’s (my home country’s) newspapers, Stabroek News, spoke about my first run-in with mental illness, or rather, potentially, the outcome of untreated mental illness(s) – the loss of my close friend to suicide. Obviously, this sets up the seriousness of where it all came from for me. Personally, this is my one reason for carrying on: so that no one around me would have to ever feel that way. It was also me sharing with quite a bit of vulnerability, trying to get people to pay attention to a problem: Guyana, my home country, had the highest suicide rate in the world in 2014, and I felt first-hand a lot of the reasons why that might be the case. That very same year, I came down with the worst bout of what I thought was only anxiety but was also a full depressive episode, fuelled by my untreated attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder – combined presentation (ADHD-C). In the course of having to navigate getting help for the very first time, I felt the stigma and the difficulty in accessing care – and I was determined to have no one else feel the same way.
In this blog, I want to discuss the importance of having good mentors in academia and how they can make a difference in a student’s life. I also share my personal experience with mental illness and how I have become an advocate for change. I also wish to stress the importance of recognizing that one cannot help others when one needs help oneself, and that stepping away from important things can be as helpful for yourself as it can be for others.
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CW: Suicide, self-harm
I’m Alexandra, a philosophy PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. I am the co-founder and former co-chair of the department’s Mental Health & Disability Caucus (MH&D), an initiative that promotes mental health and disability visibility in academia. Currently, I co-organize the Mental Health & Disability Network, an expansion of MH&D that connects philosophy graduate students internationally. And last year – nearly 4 years into my PhD, at nearly 30 years old – I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. In this blog, I will talk about my experiences and how it has shaped me as a PhD student to date.
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It’s February 2022: the world has been in a pandemic for almost two years and my life – like that of many others – has been characterized by strict lockdowns, absolute travel restrictions and general anxiety about the coronavirus. On top of this, halfway through my PhD my life couldn’t have looked more different from just before: I had switched from being a physician to being a full-time student, spending most of my days working behind a computer in the lab instead of running around a busy mental health hospital. I no longer lived in the country where I was born and raised (The Netherlands) but somewhere (Israel) where I didn’t even speak the language.
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Although I am highly passionate about the topic of my PhD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and love doing my research projects, being a PhD student – especially in a foreign country – comes with many challenges. Some expected, some less so. Some are overwhelming, others somewhat minor. It’s a process of introspection and accepting strengths and weaknesses; of showing vulnerability and accepting help, while also being self-reliant and independent. It’s a journey, and although beautiful it’s for sure far from easy.
As far as I remember, I always wanted to be a teacher. Initially, for some years, I wanted to run a dance school, but soon I shifted to a safer ‘dream’ of being a teacher. Growing up in the 1990s in India, economic security was essential for a middle-class family. One could dream of breaking the norms but within boundaries, as contradictory as it sounds!
I was told that I was a good student because I followed all the instructions and scored the highest in examinations. A student who came on time, obeyed without asking questions, learned things by heart, and gave the expected answers was the best student. When I look back, I realise the message was clear – compliance is excellence. So, my most significant learning after years of education was neither analytical ability nor innovative thinking; it was compliant behaviour. With this conditioning, I entered the world of academia, only to realise that I had no training for this field.
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December 2013. I’m a 3rd year PhD student in biological physics and I just came home from another night in the lab. It’s 2 am, my experiment failed… again. My plans for the weekend? Sleep 6 hours and go back to the lab to try again. Nothing very special here, this is what PhD students in the sciences feel obliged to do – spend their life in the lab. The project I focused on for the past two years wasn’t fruitful, so we decided to change strategy and start from scratch, adding stress on to an already stressful PhD. New project, new unknowns. To produce results and catch up with publications, I’ve been working close to 80 hours per week for the last 6 months.
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Content warning: Depression, pet death
I’m a solitary person by nature. I prefer to spend my time in my own company, watching a film or a TV show, or crocheting to keep my hands busy. I don’t mind being in my own head – in fact, for the most part, I prefer it. I wasn’t fazed by lockdown: being told to stay indoors didn’t substantially alter my daily routine, and I figured I wouldn’t have much trouble adjusting to the state of the world if I was already used to spending the majority of my time in my room. Back in April of 2020, I was chatting with a friend who asked me how I was coping with lockdown. At the time, I’d been unemployed since graduating from my MA five months previously; I was in the process of applying for jobs, but also considering undertaking a PhD. I said, and I remember it exactly, “My life literally has not changed at all, so I’m fine.”
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One afternoon in the summer of 2008: Boom! I found myself flat on the grass after being tackled by a friend during an outdoor student party. For a couple of days, I hadn’t been myself, and this day I was going sky high! I barged into conversations expecting everyone to listen to me, made many inappropriate jokes and jumped on stage to claim the mic from an unsuspecting artist. “What the hell are you doing?!”, my friend said to me. He helped me by (physically) getting me back on the ground.
The Long Road to a First Diagnosis
I have been dealing with having bipolar disorder ever since. I experienced quite the mental crash that year and spent a few weeks at my parents’ house resting, seeing my first psychologists and preparing for a return to university. After changing university course, I was a physics student and besides pushing myself through the degree, I was enjoying the social part of being a student. I was a member of a student association and this typically meant lots of fun activities. As I already had friends from all these activities, I skipped all the social introduction activities when starting physics. Because of this I became a student who did most of my studying alone. This carried on into my personal life too. I don’t share my feelings much and almost never ask for help.
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My body knew there was a problem before my brain. During my doctoral program, I began to suffer full-fledged panic attacks several times a day accompanied by sensory issues. Loud noises were piercing triggers, and a passing siren would leave me in a fetal position. I had never experienced anything like it, and I felt like I was spiraling out of control. There were other problems too. Opening a Word document to write or cracking the spine of a book sent waves of anxiety and panic through my body that came to rest in the back of my throat. I constantly replayed conversations with colleagues and faculty in my mind, highlighting my every fault. I needed hours before and after classes to work myself up and calm myself back down from these interactions. But the panic attacks were my primary concern: I couldn’t control them the way I could adjust my schedule to satisfy these mental rituals by which I got through the day.
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TW: Sexual assault
A Pragmatic Pollyanna
Fear. Denial. Avoidance. Guilt. Self-blame. Wavering or low confidence. Self-judgment. Self-punishment. For weeks, I have been avoiding these entities which I keep in my shadows. Generally, I pretend they have vanished. Mostly, they have. In their place have grown or returned: strength, courage, and resilience. These are coupled with strategic planning, tenacity, and optimism. Such attitudes have allowed neurobiology to work primarily in my favor with each new positive experience, and regeneration of new cells that have only understood fear as a residual, rather than direct impact, a balance that has taken years to achieve.
Those who have been affected with mental health issues in any walk of life have at least once encountered the phrase “chin up!” suggesting that the affliction is, in fact, their own fault. Consistently, on my journey I have encountered both such stigmas, as well as resounding cheerleaders championing my success. Because of the stigmas, I generally refer to my condition as “recovered.” Also, maybe, because it’s also hard to admit to myself.
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