Academia, Stress, and Mental Health


It is no secret that academics, students, and professors are very driven people who can push themselves to the limits. This kind of drive has produced great ideas, treatments, inventions, and innovations, but academically driven people can also push themselves too far. They also are sometimes exposed to many problems in the world, which can be overwhelming, especially if they think they are responsible for solving these problems. All of these common characteristics can lead to mental health issues.

You are feeling down in academia right now, you should read this great blog post about striving in your career – we all have to look out for each other.

Dave polled the R3ciprocity community, and 86% of respondents (N=31) said they have experienced a significant period of depression, anxiety, or another serious mental health issue during their lifetime. This blog post is about the more mild mental health issues that many students and academics experience at one point or another, as well as more serious mental illnesses anyone can experience.

Mental health issues can be mild, moderate, or severe. When a mental illness is severe, it can be life threatening. It is important that academics, students, and everyone be aware of the symptoms of mental illness and not be afraid to seek help for themselves or someone else. If you or someone you know wants to harm themselves, call the National Suicide Prevention hotline: Call 1-800-273-8255. 

This post was written by Stephanie A. Bosco-Ruggiero (PhD candidate in Social Work at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service) and Jessica Russell (freelance writer) on behalf of Dave Maslach for the R3ciprocity project (Check out the YouTube Channel or the writing feedback software). R3ciprocity helps students, faculty, and research folk by providing a real and authentic look into doing research. It provides solutions and hope to researchers around the world.

How common are mental health issues in PhD students? 

Mild or moderate depression, anxiety, and other mental health problems are very common during the PhD journey (You ought to read this blog post about thesis depression – it will be helpful for you). You will experience moments of very dark times. Frustration, anxiety and depression are common and you may be reading this because you’re experiencing some, if not all, of these feelings. It’s a normal part of the process of earning your PhD to have some really down moments. Dave says, at times you may feel like the pit of your stomach is in your throat and you’re not sure where to turn or who to reach out to. The important thing to remember is that we all go through this at one time or another. 

In his vlog, Dave talks about how he would get up in the middle of the night because anxiety wouldn’t let him sleep. You might be able to learn a thing or two from his difficult experiences and his recommendations for dealing with different levels of stress.

PhD candidates tend to want to be alone with their thoughts and often their minds wander and to go in different directions, some of which are not positive directions. One of the fundamental problems that causes these feelings revealed itself when Dave polled the community again, and 65% (N=23) of the respondents said that they feel they do not write enough or are not  productive enough. PhD students may also suffer from impostor syndrome (read our blog post on the impostor syndrome), where they feel they are not worthy of being in a program or earning a PhD, and they are somehow faking their way through; the real academics are sitting next to them in class. Another issue can be an extreme perfectionism that can lead to obsessive thoughts or anxiety. They can not take a break, they are always worried about how they are going to get their work done, or they think about a problem and go in circles until they are right back where they started.

Dave notes there are some common problems that lead to mental health issues in PhD students and academics. He says we set ourselves up for impossible standards based on a social referent set of arbitrary people, and then we feel bad about not getting there. Most of us are putting in a tremendous amount of effort and doing a tremendous amount of work, but it feels like we are not quite there yet, especially not when we compare ourselves to others. Quite often we look at the people that are in the 99 percentile doing exceptional work; we compare our achievements to theirs and where we are in our academic journey compared to where they are. Perhaps they are producing more research or doing more novel things. Many of us look at others that are at the top of their field and our minds go to dark places thinking we won’t ever get there. 

Recognize that everyone in academia has been where you are, whether it’s having your doubts, feeling overwhelmed, or wanting to quit. We all start at the beginning and take steps forward and backwards. We all make mistakes, redo work, change tactics and even though some may look like they’ve always been on top, growth comes with time and experience. Dave believes in you. Need a short boost of positivity? Watch this brief vlog:

How do I know when to seek help? 

Mild mental health symptoms can be easily treated through talk therapy (please talk to your physician). You can find a local mental health professional by visiting http://www.psychology.com/therapist/ There are also numerous online mental health services available now that will allow you to engage in virtual or what is sometimes called tele-therapy. There are numerous apps, some of which are aimed at people suffering from common clusters of symptoms, that can also give you some relief. Mild mental health symptoms might include feeling anxious and/or sad most of the time, but not in a debilitating way,  or having intense rumination (e.g. repetitive thoughts you cannot get away from). 

Severe mental health symptoms should be addressed by a mental health profession right away. They could include not being able to function as you normally did in your day to day life, not being able to be in certain spaces, not wanting to leave your home, sleeping all day or not sleeping at all, eating more or less than you used to, feeling persistently sad or hopeless, getting caught in repetitive or destructive patterns of behavior (e.g. endlessly counting object, obsessing about a particular situation or topic) or having thoughts of harming yourself or others. A mental health professional will work with you through talk therapy and/or medication to help alleviate or end your symptoms. 

Changing your outlook and attitude can help your mental health

Of course, some stressors are natural and expected, and there are many ways you can learn to manage stress as a student or academic, and to improve your mental health. If you can function day to day just fine, but you want to improve your functioning and mental health, there are some things you can do on your own to improve your outlook and your health and functioning.

Here are some tips from Dave and Stephanie about how to deal with stressors commonly experienced by PhD students and academics:

1. Reaffirm your worth – You are amazing: You have achieved many more things than other people have achieved. You have achieved more than you even thought and you’ll do more as you go forward. Many have quit before reaching the place you are at in your journey. You are still here and making progress. And also recognize everything you’ve accomplished already to be here now. Every academic and student makes unique contributions. Write down a few things you have accomplished that your peers have not. Your peers often recognize your worth, more than you do. When you receive positive feedback or a compliment, bask in the positivity. Watch this video – it will help you out!

2. Realize you’re not alone – Realize that other people have the same experiences. You are not alone in this journey. Many of us have kids, family, and other duties – we know what the stress is like. Learn to lean on each other and use your strengths to keep momentum, while allowing yourself some time to recoup. Some academic programs are more competitive/cutthroat than others. If you are in that type of field, you may want to find peer support elsewhere. Join a generic group for academics who are suffering from the same stressors. Peer support does not necessarily have to come from your closest colleagues and peers, and sometimes it’s actually best not to confide in certain peers. 

If you are in a field that is less competitive, seek out a colleague who seems to be struggling with the same stressors or issues and support each other. Make sure you fully trust a colleague you confide in however, as people are sometimes unethical and will share your troubles with someone you do not necessarily want to know what you’re going through.

3. Self care is important –  Actually dedicate time to self-maintenance. Go to the park, walk, and take time for your own well-being. Self care can be as simple as a daily ritual that is for you to center yourself at the beginning or the end of the day. It can be a favorite food or drink at night or while you’re working. Taking care of yourself and your well-being is an important way to reach your goals, as you put effort into yourself in positive ways outside of your responsibilities. We know you’ve heard it over and over, but try out a little mindfulness or meditation. There are countless apps and programs to help you begin your journey. Having a spiritual perspective on things, or a spiritual path, can greatly improve your health as well. 

4. Keep a daily journal– Keep a diary of what you can accomplish in a given day. Achieve that goal, and stop working when you obtain that goal. Daily journals can provide a way to also mark down issues, feelings and ideas, as well as a way to achieve balance in your thoughts. When you’re stressed and anxious writing it down helps you to work through and process those feelings and can bring about ideas for the next time you’re overwhelmed.

5. Ask for help or companionship – Practice reaching out to people when you are feeling down. Invest in social activities that are beyond academia and tenure. It goes along with self care. Making time for yourself and to connect with others in ways that have nothing or little to do with academia allow you to relieve stress, laugh and feel joy. It provides an alternative mind-set that can reset negative thinking. Seek a medical or mental health professional if your needs are more than companionship can help. It is completely normal to see your doctor or counselor to talk through stress, depression, and anxiety. And often is one of the main ways we all cope with life. Talking to a third party is a tremendous aid. Check out this video if you need mentorship:

6. Learn to say no – When you feel stressed or anxious – this is a sign that your body is telling you that you need time off. You need to invest in yourself. Practice saying “No.” No can mean not right now, it can mean maybe later, and it most often should mean no. Period. Learning how to communicate your limits to what you can take on in addition to your current workload is important – do not over promise or overestimate your ability to take on more. Recognize when you’re being stretched in too many directions and also learn to delegate to others. 

When things get overwhelming and work is demanding too much of your time and energy, err on the side of spending more time with family and friends, especially kids and pets! We have our entire lives to work, but only a short time to raise our kids. If prioritizing time with family means you have to shed some responsibilities, or even leaving the academic life in pursuit of a new direction, do it. 

7. Reimagine the tenure process – The tenure process can be incredibly stressful. It is not an up or out process. It is not a measure of your self-worth. You are far more talented than you give yourself credit. You have accomplished great things to get where you are. A quick check on Google will show you a number of highly acclaimed scholars who battled with their mental health during academia, some of whom worked through it via their dissertation.

 It’s a long process with much stress, anxiety, and depression and you have some great company who faced the same fears and thoughts you have right now. If you do not get tenure, or you are too overwhelmed by being in academia, it may be time to think about an alternative way to use your talents, help others, and have a fulfilling career. Think about writing for the public, adjunct teaching while writing, consulting, working for an institute, or working in government. 

8. It all starts with you –With good mental health practices, self care, help when you need it, time for yourself outside of academia, practicing good boundaries by learning to say no, look at this process as a steady incline and not a race to the top. Cliff Diving is strictly reserved for leisure activities.  When you practice these items on a regular basis you will realize that life has improved and you are happier and more productive, in a healthier way. You want to balance your academic goals with time to make sure you are taking good care of your most important tool—yourself.

The bottom line

All students and academics go through tough times in their lives and doubt themselves, but getting sick from stress is a wake-up call. Human beings were not meant to live their lives in perpetual stress and pain. Without your health, you do not have a good life. What you are experiencing, if it begins to impact your relationships and day to day life in a major way, is a red flag that you are not living in harmony with yourself. If you are perpetually unhappy at work, it’s time to try something else. Maybe you were too caught up in the academic race to the top. 

After you have had a difficult time with your mental health, you will come out the other side a better person, with more attainable goals and perhaps even better values. Going through a hard time with your mental health can actually change people for the better. Use your difficult journey as a learning experience and commit to never returning to that place again where you felt out of control and perpetually anxious or down. 

If you liked this post, check out these other posts on R3ciprocity.com

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