Grad students’ brains work heterogeneously, and that’s OK.

Hello. My name is Chelsea, and I am a PhD candidate in Environment. Today I would like to add one tidbit that I do not usually share to this introduction of myself, something that will be new, though perhaps not entirely unsurprising, to most people who know me: I have clinical depression and generalized anxiety disorder.

If you’ve met me, you probably know that I am not the most optimistic or calm person, but you may not have realized that these personality traits reach the level of chronic mental illnesses. You may not know in part because, after years of avoiding this route, doctors have mostly controlled the more problematic aspects of my condition through medication and psychotherapy. I am a basically functional grad student- hallelujah! I still have bad weeks where I struggle to be productive- but then, who doesn’t? Even in the long years before my diagnoses, my symptoms were usually not so bad that I could not hide the worst of them- a mixed blessing.

The main reason you may not know, however, is much more straightforward than my behavior and your acuity at psychological diagnosis: it’s that I usually do not tell people. In fact, in school, about the only times I have previously owned up to having mental illnesses are when I have encountered someone struggling with acknowledged or apparent mental health issues of their own. Having once felt very alone and freakish myself, I want others in similar situations to know that they are neither alone nor freakish.

Maybe this post will reach a few folks who still need to hear that message. In fact, it probably will, as many to most people have a mental disorder at some point in their lives. Graduate students are particularly susceptible, and often under-treated. Illness is not the only mental “abnormality” affecting us; about one in ten American children (and presumably adults?) have a learning disability. A learning disability occurs in an intelligent brain that does not respond well to typical learning methods– so yes, bright academic types can and do have them. Still others experience some other sort of disorder involving our brains, like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-concussion syndrome (which I have also had, and which impaired me cognitively and otherwise for months), or chronic fatigue syndrome. In other words, variety in how our brains work is normal, not exceptional.

Why, then, have I thus far avoided outing myself as mentally different to people whom I perceive as normal, i.e., the apparently mentally healthy? You probably already know the answer: there is a negative stigma around mental illness. I fear judgment, so I have hitherto mostly complied with the admittedly dangerous taboo around discussing these common issues.

I suspect that I have particular reason to fear negative judgment in academia. We all know what the job market is like; academia is competitive. Any perception of potential weakness, especially related to that most important academic tool, the brain, seems to suggest that there is probably a stronger, more competent person out there who deserves our spot. So, while we grad students constantly exchange light jokes in passing about the difficulties of graduate work, we mostly conceal any true deep struggles; we suffer impostor syndrome quietly.

There are too many entrenched and convergent cultural norms contributing to this state of affairs for me to pick them all apart here. However, I would like to push back a bit against this notion that keeps us silent, that a mentally ill, learning disabled, or brain-disordered graduate student is an inferior graduate student. Instead, here are a few lessons that dealing with our unique brains likely has taught us, thereby contributing to our capability to succeed here.

  • Ask for help when you need it. Graduate students who have undergone treatment for a mental difficulty have had to give up belief in our own omnipotence and omniscience over what we do. We have acknowledged that a trained expert may in some ways know better even the one thing we know best of all: ourselves. Thus we have learned humility, and the value of reaching out to others for knowledge, even about subjects that we think we know. This lesson prepares us well for collaboration. Additionally, if we have found help that works for us, we probably had to learn to seek out and evaluate resources, which helps shape us for the perennial academic struggle of finding money and useful contacts.
  • You can weather most personal struggles. Graduate students are smart, and so academic achievement may have come relatively easily to many of us in the past. Those of us with mental issues, however, all have substantial experience struggling. We have had the opportunity to learn our own resilience, which can help us face the inevitable new struggles of graduate school.
  • Diversity is a source of strength, hampered by discrimination. Our unique ways of thinking have been fruitful enough to get us this far. We have proven our value, but probably not without someone(s) along the way suggesting that we are in some way under-capable, or pampered for getting medical treatment or other assistance. Thus, we most likely know and respect being different. In recognizing our own mental complexity, we can come to understand that people are much more than those labels easiest to stick on each individual.
  • Recognize the needs of others. From our own experience, we know that not all students learn in the same way, which tends to give us understanding and compassion for the unique needs of our own students. We can also often recognize problems similar to our own in others, and guide them towards resources that have helped us, which is a useful service to the community.

It took a lot of… well, you name it; it took a lot to get to the point where I could accept that what I once perceived as willful self-sabotage is actually an educational and perhaps even valuable part of who I am. I’m not saying I love my mental illnesses; I don’t. They’re difficult, and not in a fun way.  I still very much wish that I could “just be normal,” even as I acknowledge that there’s probably no such thing. I have, however, learned to appreciate the person I have become in part because of weathering my depression, anxiety, and former post-concussion syndrome. I’m sharing what I regard as hard-won personal insights in hopes that reading them gives you a pause to reevaluate us mentally different types, to consider what we have to give, and not just to take, from graduate school. As for taking, I do very much appreciate the support and faith in me that I’ve gotten in school; it matters.  Thank you.

Disclaimer: I am no sort of mental health expert whatsoever.  If you want more information or help addressing mental issues, here are a few resources. Feel free to add your own favorites as comments.

2 thoughts on “Grad students’ brains work heterogeneously, and that’s OK.

  1. Chelsea,

    Thanks for sharing your personal story with us. Such honesty is not only helpful for you, but sheds much needed light on living with clinical depression – a very common condition of so many and who, unfortunately, suffer with in silence due to the stigma. So unnecessary. Good luck to you!

    Donna Sell

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