Note: Norah Koch is a pen name. The Voices of Academia team have worked with the blogger to ensure they have a support network in place.
[Trigger Warning: Suicide, Suicidal Ideation]
I was seven years old when I read about a student who committed suicide because he failed his high school exams.
Back then, I used to read the newspaper daily. I was exposed to all kinds of information in the newspaper. I did not dwell much on thinking about the student. I didn’t know the person, and I did not feel any sadness. Newspapers usually have more bad news than good news anyway. I didn’t even understand what it meant. Someone died because he got bad grades. That was it.
I didn’t even bother to question why someone would commit suicide over bad grades. Let’s say that I was young when I read the news. Then again, I didn’t ask this question myself until I was a Masters student. Until I faced mental health issues because of academic pressure, I didn’t care about suicide. Now it sits in my thoughts.
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Growing up, I moved around places because of my father’s job and I never found a sense of belonging with any one place. Losing connections with friends every time was painful and it has always been difficult for me to let go. Knowing that I would inevitably move again and knowing that I would have to let people go again, I kept on making more friends. However, it wasn’t until I experienced an unspeakable tragedy when I lost friends and someone special to a terrorist attack that my first experience with depression occurred. At the time I had no idea that I was even suffering from a mental illness. Things changed in that moment for me forever. According to my therapist, I have never been able to completely recover from that tragedy in 2008.
The reason I started with that paragraph instead of directly jumping into a discussion of academia is for everyone to know that academia did not triggermy mental illness; I had experienced it before following a tragedy. We are human beings, and we bring previous life experiences with us to our academic studies. However, there are certainly elements of academia that affected my mental health, including the narrative that sometimes we can only be academics and cannot have lives outside of our work. I hope that sharing my story here will help others to feel less alone.
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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.
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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.
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?
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I’ve been an anxious person for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until late high school that I started to develop depression, and I was not formally assessed for my mental illnesses until the penultimate year of my MPhys degree. Armed with a diagnosis of Generalised Anxiety Disorder as well as Major Depressive Disorder (which are often comorbid), I was put on anti-depressants (which I still take to this day) as well as starting therapy. Both of these treatments have helped me somewhat, but I continue to have a lot of trouble just navigating life without getting overwhelmed and still struggle to understand the social world around me at times.
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There are frequent conversations focused on the impact that having children can have on a woman’s career progression, especially in academia. That is not what this blog post is about. On the other hand, there is also much positive discussion claiming that women can ‘have it all’ and that children should not, and are not, a barrier to women ‘making it’ in their career. This is also not what this blog post is about. Instead, this post is about me and my own personal battles with motherhood, my career and my own sometimes destructive mind. Some of this may be applicable to others and some of it may not, but I hope at the very least that it helps to open the doors of communication for anyone who ever felt like I did and to let them know that things can, and do, get better.
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In October of my second year of my PhD program I found myself waiting in an exam room at the student health center wondering if I was being melodramatic about how terrible everything felt. I was, objectively, a successful second year psychology graduate student. I had proposed my Masters, taught an undergraduate lab, and secured funding for the next three years via a supplemental grant, but I had never in my life felt worse about myself or my future. I had lost any motivation to work in the area I was studying or academia in general and wanted to quit nearly every day. I struggled to communicate my needs with my advisor, who was so enthusiastic about his work that he didn’t seem to notice my struggling. I was increasingly having trouble getting out of bed because of the dread I felt about what my day held – even on weekends. I had started avoiding my roommates, whom I loved, and instead I was spending hours not really watching TV on my laptop alone. I had started going home every day and getting into bed and hoping I’d fall asleep until my alarm went off the next day.
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