Reflections

Mental Illness Awareness Week #miaw

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about graduate school and mental health—the relationship between high-pressure academic situations, burnout, and depression. Particularly after reading Margaret Price’s Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life and seeing a GradHacker post circulating on my Facebook Newsfeed last week called “Mental Health Issues Among Graduate Students,” it seemed like something useful to try to wrap my head around and put into words. 

I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety when I was 14. There were lots of things that I was told as I entered my Ph.D. program—“You’ll lose weight because you’ll be too busy to eat!” and “If you enter the program with a partner, you will break up,” and “It’s really isolating to be a fellow.” Those sound bytes terrified me as a first-year Ph.D. student and some turned out to be true, even though I thought I could fight hard enough to make sure they weren’t.

What I didn’t expect was to become more depressed.

That must be true for many of us. According to that GradHacker post, 44% of 3,000 interviewed international graduate students reported mental health issues. Based on these various studies and personal observations, the author writes, “I think that mental health issues are the biggest barriers to success among graduate students.

Frankly, I tend to agree.

I took (and passed) my comprehensive exams this summer. For a number of reasons—some very personal and completely unrelated to the exams themselves—it was the most stressful, unpleasant academic experience I have ever had. Since then (and even while I was studying for them), I’ve been trying to determine whether I’m experiencing burnout or depression.

For me, the two are very similar, and I imagine they probably build off each other, which is why it’s difficult to determine. And though I’m not sure which one it is, I don’t think what’s important here is determining (diagnosing) the problem.

The truth is this: Most days I don’t want to get out of bed. I make to-do lists and keep them in my phone without accomplishing any of the goals, letting them pile up in my Notes. I eat entire pints of ice cream while thinking about how much work I need to do.

Graduate school is the perfect storm that allows these feelings to manifest and is also the perfect cover to a much larger problem—ie. “I’m just stressed with work and need a little more time” vs. “I need help.”

One thing I loved about my Ph.D. program even before I started was the sense of community I felt during our visiting days. My program offers a lot of support in a lot of different ways, and I have been so lucky to fall into the guidance of some very caring mentors. Along with this, though, there are the general constraints of academic life—the crunch of a 4-year Ph.D. program, the rush of 3-4 conferences every year along with taking 3-4 classes each semester and teaching. And of course, there are the nagging traits of imposter syndrome and perfectionism.

Reading Price’s book, I felt both vindicated and overwhelmed. She begins by asking, “If you are crazy, can you still be of sound mind?” (1). Wrapped up in the politics of disclosure is the inevitable questioning of ethos—doubts of employability, outside concerns for the violent nature of an unwell mind, the questioning and revoking of one’s rhetoricity. Though I’ve become more open about my own mental health as I delve into work at the intersections of disability studies and rhetoric, it still feels like placing my toe into very choppy water. It’s scary to out yourself and to make yourself vulnerable. I fear repercussions, though I don’t know what they would be.

Price writes, “To lack rhetoricity is to lack all basic freedoms and rights, including the freedom to express ourselves and the right to be listened to” (26-27). It’s a dismissal, the waving of a hand as someone tells you (or tells someone else about you) that’s you’re crazy. Much worse, it’s the stripping away of personhood. As Price notes and anyone who has experienced mental health issues knows, there is certainly an association to and conflation of mental health with madness that presumes a lack of rationality that must exist in order for the rhetor to be.

Price also discusses teaching as a profession that deals with emotional labor. I’ll never forget the first time I cried in a class I was teaching—my second semester teaching as a graduate student in my master’s program. The first assignment in the FYC curriculum was a personal narrative, and my student talked through tears about her mother’s battle with cancer. My own mother died the spring before I started my master’s program, and I remember crying as my student spoke, fighting back tears of her own. 

I felt mildly embarrassed during class but after, I felt worse, ashamed. I went to our comp director’s office and remember squirming in my seat as I asked him if it was okay that I had cried in class. He looked at me, concerned, thoughtful, and said, “Of course it is.”

So seemingly simple, it was exactly the response I needed and what I still frequently need. And yet that seemingly simple response rarely feels true. “Of course it is” is usually more like “of course it is as long as it was just that one time.” It’s the distinction Price makes between reasonable emotion and pathological emotion. As she notes, there is a divide between the normal emotions students experience and the emotions that mark them as different, Other, crazy (48).

It’s the difference between burnout (acceptable) and depression (unacceptable). Burnout implies not only a very clear causal relationship but also a problem with a solution, a cure that generally just involves some recovery time. Depression, though, is less linear, more muddy and tied up with larger and more dangerous discourses, less clear how it will affect others—peers, colleagues, the program.

It’s the difference that makes it okay for our disciplinary conversations to openly acknowledge the high-stakes, stressful, and overwhelming nature of our work but to remain hush-hush about what happens when that work becomes too overwhelming.

Melonie Fullick wrote about this quite nicely a couple years ago, and I find myself returning to it—reading through her words and the dozens of comments from people expressing similar anxieties.

I wrote this post last week but couldn’t bring myself to finish it because, frankly, I don’t know how to finish it. It’s silly to think that I could wrap up my thoughts about #miaw with a glossy bow anyway (and like any awareness week/month, I’m a bit peeved by the idea that this deserves a single workweek of our attention). And it also feels a bit strange to post this on my birthday, but perhaps it is also fitting because—since this is the 5th birthday since my mom died—I often feel overwhelmingly sad on this day.

Really, I’m just hoping that the guilt and shame of making it halfway through a semester without accomplishing anything substantial will trigger me back into the voracious work-mode that I’m used to—that somehow I will simply become unstuck.

I’m concerned, though, that all I’m doing is trying to sell myself the same overcoming narrative about sheer willpower and determination that people buy all the time when, really, there are much larger issues at hand.

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