Hidden mental health troubles in the ivory tower (13 Nov. 2015)

An initial reason for not sharing my experiences with depression was a persistent fear that people would think I was not strong enough for academia. My identity was so tightly wrapped up in my productivity, my latest department seminar, and my C.V. that the very thought of someone questioning my academic grit was enough to keep me from seeking treatment or even admitting to myself that something was wrong.

Fig 1

Fig 1: photo credit: D.A. Sonnenfeld

But I did have enough grit to excel in academia; I was tough as nails, strong as diamond, but that had very little bearing on my being strong enough to care for myself. Fortunately, around this time, I ran across a post by a favorite scientist blogger. He queried how many of his readers took a prescription drug, any drug, to enable successful academic performance. One in three of the over 150 reader responses in his unscientific, yet illuminating, poll confirmed the professional need for prescription drugs. One in three. These results were posted when I still shied away from talk therapy, let alone medication. It dawned on me that muscling through mental illness wasn’t the only option. Moreover, pushing through might not be a very good option.

A trip through academicsblogs suggests that not only is mental illness is pervasive in academia, but there is a paucity of research on mental health in the ivory tower. Being a scientist myself, I tried to find some nice, tidy statistics about the prevalence of mental illness in academia versus the general public, but repeatedly came up empty handed. The best evidence comes from two studies from the U.K. and Australia. A survey from the UK indicates nearly half of all academics report high or very high stress levels, though specific connections to anxiety, depression, or other disorders were not explored. Additionally, the magazine New Scientist reports that an Australian study found three to four times the incidence of mental health among academics compared to a general population. Unfortunately, the Australian study is behind a pay wall that, even with my University credentials, I can’t access to explore further.

There are a few factors that I propose contribute to the frequency of mental illness in academia, particularly among graduate students. Anyone who’s spent time in a graduate program or has loved someone working on their graduate degree knows the pressure to achieve can be intense. Graduate research can be an isolating experience as you zoom in on an ever-narrowing topic of study. Academia is also filled with rejection. Rejection of manuscripts, unfunded grant proposals, failed experiments, tenuous committee meetings, poorly received presentations, and the list continues. Unless you have a supervisor dedicated to championing academia’s infrequent successes, which I fortunately did, all the perceived failures can lead to a demoralizing collection of years.

Fig 2

Fig 2: photo credit: Greg Dunham

Another factor that’s less discussed, but I think is important to consider, is the predisposition of academics. I can only speak specifically to my observations in my little corner of Biology, but I suspect there is great overlap with other disciplines. We’re a detail and data-oriented bunch, trained to engage in the rational rather than the emotional side of our brains. We tend to be over-achievers, the highest achieving of which can still feel their contributions to science are not enough. Partitioning off important emotions, or even ignoring them in favor of the path to achievement, certainly did not help me with self-awareness.

In my experience, I used the academic pursuit to deny myself care. I tried to logic my way out of depression – I had a great partner and friends, I was successful in my work, it was simply illogical that I felt the way I did. In my last grasps to ignore that something was very wrong I turned harder into my research, attempting to fill my emptiness with data collection. It didn’t work.

One of the initially perplexing aspects of my depression was the timing. Depression didn’t follow a series of rejections, arise at a period of particularly high stress, or spring from a volatile relationship with my advisor and colleagues; depression hit when things were going well. After much discussion with my therapist, we decided that it was precisely the lack of academic or professional pressures to fixate on that unveiled the trouble underneath. My depression was not situational in the sense of a stressful external event causing my symptoms. It was clinical. It was major depressive disorder.

Fig 3

Fig 3: photo credit: Fresaj

In my case, genetic and early family environment most influenced my depression. Depression shows up on both sides of my family tree, for certain in at least the most recent generations when it’s become more societally acceptable to discuss mental health. I’d prefer not to delve into the early family environment portion, but I will say that overt abuse isn’t the only thing that can compromise a secure childhood. In short, many factors insidiously aligned to lead to my depression.

I continue to be frustrated at the lack of discussion of mental health in academia, despite its pervasiveness. At no point during any of the orientations I attended as graduate students was there mention of coping with mental illness while in grad school. If the existence of mental health facilities on campus were discussed, it was brief enough to be promptly forgotten. Discussions with fellow graduate students revealed that I am certainly not the only one to deal with depression. I’m also not the only one who has been hospitalized while in grad school. I can’t help but think that if I was aware of how common mental illness is in academia and if I knew that there is no shame in obtaining treatment, then I may have sought help much sooner.


As a Biology Ph.D. candidate, Liz Droge-Young studies the incredibly promiscuous red flour beetle. When not watching beetles mate, she covers the latest science news on campus for Syracuse University’s College of Arts & Sciences communication department. She is also a mental health advocate, a voracious consumer of movies, and a lover of cheese.

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