Depression and Graduate School

A Personal Story

Congratulations, you're not depressed

The doctor was unaware of the irony in his sarcasm. I lied on both questions. I forget the wording, but it might as well have read:

1. Are you depressed?
2. Are you sure you are not depressed?

I was depressed. I had been depressed for some time, but the questions were a formality. We both knew it. The form was a just another part of the routine appointment that the doctor had to get through before he could send me on my way. It would be over two more years until I told a medical professional I was depressed.

Being a graduate student with depression did not make me special. In fact, it's quite normal. Several years ago the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a 2004 study at the University of California at Berkeley in which 67 percent of graduate students said they had felt hopeless at least once in the last year; 54 percent felt so depressed they had a hard time functioning; and nearly 10 percent said they had considered suicide. The link between graduate school and depression is far from a new topic as well. Despite being common, depression was a topic I found rarely discussed in person, save for the off-hand comment on the "depressing" state of the job market.

For years, I struggled with chronic unhappiness privately, hiding it from those around me. Looking back it seems almost silly. I knew I was unhappy. I knew I was depressed. I knew I needed help. But I did nothing. Because that's one of the things depression can do to you: take away any and all motivation.

I am sharing some of my experiences with depression here because when I found out that some of the closest people to me had had similar issues that they had addressed through therapy and other treatment, I felt much more comfortable seeking professional help.

In addition to my experiences shared below, I have included some snippets from the journals that I kept for around three years. These writings are a partial record of my inner thoughts and my depression, which I only began treating in 2015. I selected the pieces browsing my journals, choosing a few lines from different years. I believe these excerpts are representative of the daily struggles I faced and the feelings that I recognized as depression well before I finally sought professional help.

Incubator 1

Sometimes it just feels like my life is falling apart.

Feeling sad. Like I need to cry. Also feeling anxious. Been anxious all day.

I hate myself right now.

Feeling terrible about myself all day. Guilty, angry, self-loathing. Lots of talking to myself and ruminating.

Mostly just watched Netflix and felt anxious / depressed.

Graduate school is a perfect incubator for depression. You are constantly thinking, often to just yourself. Escaping your work is near impossible. Much of the work is solitary reading and writing. In history, you are expected to skim books to manage the impossible reading load but act like you read each word, so you become skilled in the art of faking. You constantly feel as if you are not good enough, an impostor in your field. You have loads of unstructured time. As long as you hit your deadlines, or come kind of close and have a weak excuse, there are no repercussions for putting off work. It didn't matter if I spent the day consuming mass amounts of junk, both entertainment and food.

There is always something that you could be doing, something you should be doing. You have a built-in excuse for avoiding social interactions ("busy" with "work"). Most of the social and professional interactions you have revolve around alcohol, providing an unhealthy way to escape your problems for the night. There's always the threat of money woes or crushing debt with poor job prospects. Your friends and peers outside academia have full-time jobs, savings accounts, retirement funds, houses. They follow a "normal" life plan. By comparison, you are caught in some hard-to-explain state caught between student and early career professional. There is always someone, some ideal, to which you compare yourself.

The life of a graduate student made it easy to ignore my depression. If anything, I thrived during graduate school. I earned near-perfect grades without taxing myself, won department awards and fellowships, published and presented at conferences. Class assignments became formulaic and other research deadlines were so far off that I could slide by only working on my good days. If I had to, I could muster the strength to power through and meet a looming deadline, but that had as much to do with my fear of letting people down as being strong enough to battle my depression.

While I struggled with these issues, I felt that it was my burden to carry. It was my depression. I worried I was making a big deal out of something small. So I hid it.

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Hidden 2

Been kinda depressed today. Didn't get any work done. Took a nap. Got a few groceries.

Feeling like I wasted another day.

I'm just lonely and sad.

I don't want to see anyone.

Not my best day. Did some work on my digital project but never left my apartment.

Much of graduate school is keeping up appearances. Acting like you read the whole book, when you just skimmed it. Talking about how busy you are. Seeming as if everything is fine. Though my depression brought daily struggles, I could muster enough smiles to get through the week's human interaction. Putting a good appearance on depression is not unique.

I dismissed my despair as run-of-the-mill stress or pessimism towards the terrible job market. I didn't want anyone to know I was depressed. My depression was internal, so I rejected the external resources available to me that could have helped.

Depression sapped my energy. It stole my motivation. It was easier to stay in than go out. Easier to do nothing than something. Easier to keep the problem to myself than burden others. Before I could admit my illness to others, let alone myself, I struggled for years.

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Struggling 3

I'm finally starting to feel like myself again.

I need to address why I'm unhappy.

Now I'm just getting sick of myself. I've had such an easy life, yet I find it so hard to be happy. I need to stop whining and embrace my good fortune.

Considering therapy - I know I should go - but will probably chicken out of making an appointment.

Monday was fine, I guess.

Don't want to fall into a funk.

I was in a bit of a mood - kind of off, depressed without the sadness.

One of the first moments that I recognized the extent of my problem was during the closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics. I enjoy the Olympics but only casually. I had the ceremonies on my TV. I was bored. There was nothing better. Regardless of my indifference, I broke down sobbing while watching the pomp and circumstance. Crying about nothing in particular.

The overwhelming, spontaneous eruption of sadness was not enough to convince me to call the university's counselling and psychological center, but it did prompt me to record my thoughts and feelings. Looking back on early journal entries from the fall of 2012, my optimism surprised me. I was remarkably hopeful that my long-term sadness was just about to end. Of course, a few days later, I would note my intense displeasure with myself. An irregular tide of emotion, my depression gave me periods of extended dissatisfaction mixed with occasional glimpses of a feeling close to normal, punctuated by intense sadness.

My good days were the worst. Better described as my not-so-bad days, they were sirens on the rocks lulling me into the false belief that my feelings could be shed if I only tried hard enough. If I felt okay some of the time, surely I could figure out how to feel fine most, if not all of the time.

Always an intellectual, I attempted to think through my feelings, ever searching for the root of my unhappiness. All this thinking and searching for a solution, only made it worse. The problem was not external. The problem was my thoughts.

I repeatedly vowed to change my lifestyle. I drew up daily and weekly schedules. Each day had at least one to-do list. Nothing worked. I inevitably failed. Some days, my achievements were getting out of bed and making it to my desktop. My to-do list ignored. This failure brought a deluge of negative thoughts, feelings of worthlessness and self-doubt. Even if I could string together a few good days, my streak would eventually break. Down the depressive spiral I fell. I could not plan my way out of depressive feelings. Each failed attempt gave my inner doubt more examples to use against me in the future.

The authors of The Mindful Way through Depression describe this constant search for a solution as the mind's "doing" mode. The doing mode drives problem solving, and as an academic, I constantly cultivated this ability. But depression isn't a document to analyze or monograph to dissect. You can't simply think your way through it like an external problem. It requires a different use of your mind, what the authors call the "being" mode. Being present in the moment, the here and now. My depression led to constant analyzing and ruminating on the past and future. Not appreciating the present. Mindfulness would take a play a key role in my recovery, but I could not begin to reap its benefits until taking control of my depression with professional help.

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Recovery 4

Feeling better with medication but still some anxiety and depression. I have more motivation, but I'm still avoiding doing work.

Each bead of sweat led to another as I waited. He was late. For the first meeting too. Maybe this is a bad idea, I thought. I wanted to cancel my appointment and leave, but it was too late. I had already checked in.

Even when I did finally go to see a therapist, it was not my own will that led me to the office. A new relationship with an understanding partner motivated me to call and finally see a professional.

The therapist recognized my depression quickly and set up an appointment with someone who could prescribe anti-depressants before the first session was over. Medication might not always be the answer, but my depression did not have roots in some external event. My childhood was great and I was doing quite well in graduate school.

Soon after starting anti-depressants, I noticed negative thoughts had less power over me. Sometimes they would simply pass by. I no longer fell into an endless spiral of depression. I still had emotions. I still had depression. But I could function. I could see my mind was not always right. I could fight back.

If medicine gave me the opportunity to address my depression, therapy gave me the tools with which to do so. I could not solve my depression, but with help from my therapist, I learned strategies on how to deal with negative feelings, chief among them mindfulness.

Focusing on the present. Accepting feelings as the come. Not judging myself or my thoughts. These basic ideas have set me on the path to health. I recognize the benefits and see early returns, but it is a process, not simply a solution. My failures are no longer proof of my worthlessness, but rather part of my growth. Failure feeds my healing now, not my depression.

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Thanks for reading.

I originally created this in 2015. For whatever reason (embarrassment? indifference? laziness?), I did not publish it until nearly a year and a half later in 2016. There was some editing with the help of my awesome wife when I returned to publish it.

I'm still feel depressed sometimes, but find it much more manageable with anti-depressants.

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