Into the Thick of It: Writing Through Anxiety and Insecurity
In 2019, Nature.com found that 71% of graduate students polled are generally satisfied with their research. Although, 36% of that same population experienced anxiety, depression or other mental health-related illnesses during their PhD.
When I first read that, my reaction was just a general shrug and a lowly exhaled: "yeah, sure."
To me, it was stating the obvious.
Not the part where usually people are satisfied with their research (coming from someone who's never satisfied)—but the part where graduate students experienced severe blows to their mental health. Because, of course, graduate school could do that.
Last night, I caught up with two friends through facetime. We've known each other for years - seen each other through the ups and downs of a bachelors degree to now be saddled into graduate programs. One of us, (I can't remember who) asked the fated question: "So, how's your program going?"
That kind of question, asked by friends, neighbours and family members always brings about the same answer: "Well - It's going!"
Cue the uncomfortable laughter.
I (like many others, I'm sure I'm not alone in this) unconsciously associate academia with anxiety and depression. But, on the other hand, I also associate it with care, compassion and comfortability. It is a world I've lived in since 2015. So I'm anxious (and sometimes borderline depressed), but I'm also satisfied with my educational pursuits and want to be where I am. Badly.
Sometimes I want to be here so badly that it isn't even the general sense of exhaustion that makes me anxious, but the idea of not being here at all. The possibility of suddenly not being able to study, or complete my research. Confusing. Trippy. I know.
Art by Andrew Fairclough
In a 2018 study from Harvard, researchers found that women and international students have a higher risk of mental illness in graduate school than their male counterparts. This study, of course, does not include transgender or queer students into their reportage—populations that face external oppressions and pressures to conform, additionally to the academic experience. This also does not account for the gigantic elephant in the room—otherwise known as the pandemic.
In 2020, the CDC reported that 75% of young adults experienced mental health deterioration due to the pandemic. Additionally, the Philadelphia Inquirer published that graduate students were severely affected within that pool of young persons: "graduate students, who already experience rates of anxiety and depression six times greater than the general population, are coping with a shrinking job market and huge changes to their workplaces as a result of the pandemic, leading some to call for a systemic change in how mental health is addressed in academia." In addition to this, graduate students of colour are at most risk, affected by issues like imposter syndrome, harassment and institutional acts of racism.
At the graduate level, it's easy for "success" (the phantom word that it is) to feel unobtainable. It is measured in impossible, often self-imposed categories.
Make sure you get published. Attend conferences. Get funding. Apply for every grant that exists, even if you don't feel ready. Write—what have you written? Contribute to your department. Contribute to your field. Talk to Professors. Network. Email. Read. Read so much your eyes are on fire. What about your dissertation? Is it unique enough? Are YOU unique enough—or are you just another person cranking out another paper on Hannah Arendt.
No offence to scholars who dig Arendt. She's cool.
But you get my point.
In this endless universe of graduate school, it can feel like you're just one astronaut floating around aimlessly. One person. One giant abyss. Sometimes, it feels like there's just not enough of you to go around. Especially when you factor in breathing, eating, sleeping, walking the dog and working two other jobs outside of school.
I could give you a hundred, million reasons why I suddenly stopped writing on this blog.
But instead, I'll just give you one.
I have been feeling insecure. So insecure in fact, that maybe I took my hands off the wheel altogether. But now, I'm ready to get back into the driver's seat.