Just another typical PhD day for me. Highlighting another research paper, trying desperately to retain the salient bits. Mixing it up with different coloured highlighters. Grabbing a cup of coffee, hoping that the information might go in if I let the caffeine sink in. And yet it never quite does. I beat myself up, telling myself I am too stupid to do a PhD. Walking away from a meeting, I feel ashamed, as I know I read the paper that was being discussed, I just can’t quite recall the details. Rinse and repeat. This, combined with many other small things, which in isolation were hardly something to fret about, left my mental health in tatters.
It’s not just a bad day, or a bad week. It’s all the time. I am struggling to engage in reading papers. As soon as I pick them up, I glaze over or I get distracted. My reading list grows forever longer – the weight of it playing on the back of my mind. My inner voice constantly telling me I am not doing enough to succeed.
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When I saw the call from Voices of Academia on Twitter actively seeking contributors to share their stories on mental health and well-being in academia, I thought: Wouldn’t a blog be a great way to share your own experiences with depression and ADHD in academia? Wouldn’t it also be an excellent opportunity to raise awareness about mental illness and neurodiversity in general? Why shouldn’t you give it a try? As usual, I was very tired that day. I had a sleepless and restless night, an unexpected panic attack in the morning, and a stronger depressive phase overall – perhaps because I already had a few days of holiday. I find such days off always give you the ‘opportunity’ to think intensively and continuously about yourself, your body, and your mind – whether you like it or not.
Perhaps my mental state was also the reason why my initial enthusiasm was immediately overtaken by self-doubt and pessimism, asking myself: Why would anyone care what you, of all people, have to say about the challenges and difficulties of managing mental health and well-being in academia? Who exactly would care about your personal story? And above all: Why would it make any difference and to whom? In fact, I cannot say whether anyone will read my personal story, care about it, or whether it will make any difference at all. But maybe these are the wrong questions and expectations to begin with. What I can say with absolute certainty, however, is that every voice matters with regard to mental health and well-being – in academia and beyond – and that every voice helps to shed light on a still taboo and mostly invisible topic. And in this respect, I am confident that my voice matters as well.
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I have a distinct memory from when I was in first or second grade of my mother kindly erasing my homework because my handwriting needed to be bonitinho. Even as a child, homework was unacceptable if it was messy. Growing up in Brazil, her schooling was the opposite of mine, and her expectations sometimes felt unrealistic or too harsh. Although her always correcting me helped my success in the long run, I always felt defeated when I couldn’t explain how I loved school but could never get excellent grades – something had always felt off. How could my classmates seem to get straight A’s effortlessly, and my hard work could only pull off B’s and C’s? I always thought I had a learning disability, but my mother (through no fault of her own) didn’t entertain the possibility: you just have to try harder. After years of jumping through hoops of not being able to afford the services to be tested, at age 25 I was diagnosed with adult attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and at 26, I was diagnosed with learning disabilities and slow processing speed.
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Graduate school orientation feels like you’re a freshman (first year student) all over again. You look to both sides, gathered in an auditorium, realizing that you all are collectively about to embark on a particularly challenging journey: obtaining your Ph.D. You sign forms to receive tuition waivers and your monthly stipend, scramble to interview with faculty members and settle within a lab, and fight to reserve your spot in the most intriguing lecture courses. With fresh eyes, you view your graduate education as an opportunity to extend beyond the bounds of what’s already been published.
With a bachelor’s degree in an engineering discipline I wasn’t quite fond of, and a few years of research experience on my belt, I hadn’t even considered pursuing a career in industry. Academia seemed to be the most obvious path to extend my learning capacity and switch to a new and intriguing field.
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