Just stay positive: It’s mental quicksand

Our first personal story is from Twisted Science, a contributor whose story about their grad student experience will resonate with many.

Become a doctor, an engineer, or a lawyer,” was the mantra my South Asian parents reinforced during my childhood. They had moved to Canada to provide my sister and I with the best learning opportunities, a fact that carried great weight during my struggles with mental health.

In high school I gravitated towards the sciences, which meant I would become a medical doctor. Many of my relatives were, and they were the type who constantly reminded you of their success with the humblest of arrogance. Growing up in this environment, I felt I had to meet — if not exceed — those unattainable standards in order to be respected in the eyes of my family.

My revolt against this predetermined career track began during the summer after my first year of undergraduate studies. After spending long hours changing soiled rodent cages as a volunteer in a laboratory, I became inspired to pursue a career in research. (Perhaps the real inspiration came from the extra hours I invested helping with ongoing research projects in the laboratory.) I admired being at the forefront of knowledge, uncovering small pieces of a complex biological puzzle. This career track also satisfied my parents desire for me to become a “doctor” and so I began graduate school.

photo-1445089669499-0172a5bf5878
A wooden skimboard with the word “Lifeguard” and a plus sign below it sits wedged into sand. There are large boulders behind the board.

My mental health issues surfaced prominently towards the end of my master’s degree. I had fractured my hand during a recreational soccer match, and was unable to complete my thesis writing in time to graduate. This delayed the start of my PhD and created problems for a position I hadn’t even started yet. Combined with financial stress and ongoing family troubles, I became very isolated and depressed. Unfortunately, my body’s chemistry wasn’t compatible with the anti-depression medication prescribed by my doctor, which led to severe side effects. I defended my master’s degree in a zombie-like state, and looking back I wish I had taken time to understand and address the deep issues underlying my mental illness. Perhaps the right medication could have offered additional support; however, relying solely on medication didn’t help me.

*          *         *

The start of my PhD offered a clean slate. I figured if I “just stayed positive” I could reinvent myself and stay ahead of the depression, right?

Wrong. Despite the hopes of a great training experience, the challenges involved in changing my field of study, moving to a new city and a new institution, and meeting new people proved difficult to handle. Anxiety became my new default feeling as I tried desperately to meet expectations of my co-advisors. I was too fearful to open up about this with my fellow graduate students for fear of judgement. When I turned to my parents, they weren’t sure how to support me, and reinforced the “just stay positive” attitude. I was left feeling alone and pressured to succeed at all costs.

By the third year of my PhD I had slipped towards another major depressive episode. Stressors within and outside of graduate school became too difficult for me to manage, like the fact that my wife and I were newlyweds experiencing the financial stress of being new homeowners. But the poor relationship between my co-advisors was the greatest source of stress. Their inability to work together left me feeling like a child trapped in the middle of an ugly 4-year divorce.

I struggled to be assertive and set clear boundaries, but still I felt like I was being taken advantage of. I was pressured to meet unrealistic deadlines that created a constant time crunch. I rushed through my readings, experiments, and manuscript/thesis writing. I began to work until bedtime most evenings, every weekend, and through holidays. I became burnt out and lost my work-life balance because I feared the consequences of saying “no.”

Staying positive didn’t work; I was miserable and lost in a world of anxiety. I had a strong desire to quit my PhD, and opted for a leave of absence to distance myself from school. My doctor provided a psychiatric referral which allowed me to access therapy, though I declined any medication. I was determined to improve my mental health by addressing my behaviors and lifestyle. Initially this approach was difficult, but I experienced tremendous self-growth and regained a sense of control in my life. I was learning how to respect myself and my wishes. This was the starting point of my journey into psychiatry and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

CBT provided a platform to identify and analyze the thoughts, behaviors, and situations underlying my depression. I also strengthened my assertiveness and ability to set boundaries by engaging in role-playing activities with my psychiatrist. Finally, I also learned about “mindfulness” practices that focused on awareness of the present moment. Mindfulness continues to help me break negative, anxiety-inducing thought loops. The most important realization was that I could only control my own actions, and not those of others. I learned that feeling victimized was counterproductive as I had the power to evoke changes. This was at the forefront of my mind when I returned to school and things inevitably became difficult with my advisors. This time I set clear boundaries and was far more assertive. I noticed a marked improvement in the way my advisors and I interacted. I was no longer subjected to their manipulation, and my actions reflected self-respect and confidence.

Making the personal choice to seek out help, and take control over my own actions and thoughts made an important difference for me in working towards mental health.  However, at the institutional level, I believe there should be greater awareness of the mental health issues that students face and structured resources put in place to merge the gap between students and faculty. When I returned from my leave of absence I was more vocal with my peers about mental health issues. Not surprisingly, many were facing similar difficulties and struggled to cope. There was a sense among them of feeling unprotected.

Graduate students strive for years towards their respective degrees, and assume much of the risk to mental health along the way. To suffer in isolation, unable to protect yourself from fear that your mental health issues could jeopardize your future is unacceptable and an outdated view.

*          *         *

I defended my PhD with my head held high. After all, I was very close to quitting, which made crossing the finish line all the more rewarding. While I gained an immense amount of knowledge about a very focused area of biology, the biggest learning experience came from outside of the lab and has conferred more widespread benefits in my life. Staying positive is important — when coupled with the right mental health resources to get through the journey of graduate school.

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