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Discussion on depression in grad school

There has been an interesting discussion on depression in grad school going on the "Discussions" section of the Academic Ladder fan page.  The initial question was:
Do you think that the grad school experience can lead to depression? How and why, in your opinion?
I'd love to get more input into what you think makes grad students prone to depression.  Or are they (you)?  I know that I've seen students with depression, whose symptoms went away once they were able to write.  The shame of writers block and lack of progress combined with the critical, competitive atmosphere of academia leads to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness.

But that's just my opinion -- those of you who are going through grad school or who have survived it probably have better insight into what makes the experience so difficult. Please put your two cents in!


  1. Anonymous3:40 PM

    Hey - I tried to comment but the "put your 2 cents in" link was broken and the other link led to Facebook (where I have no desire to comment with my full name and photo!). So anyways, I got severe depression in grad school. Grad school contributed because I was depressed for not having a family at this time in my life. Grad school made it hard to recognize because no one noticed I was not doing any work...and it took me 3 years to finally recognize it and go get help. Basically, the freedom in grad school can be great, but for me it means no one (not even myself) noticed my symptoms because there are no schedules/expectations anyway. For example, no one notices when a grad student gets to work every day at noon and surfs the web all day! So it's less likely that grad students will get treatment in a timely manner.

  2. Hi A,

    Thanks for the heads up re: the link -- I removed the link. I'm sorry about the hard time you had with depression. I heartily agree that professors, even advisors, are on the lookout for the psychological well-being of their students. The freedom of graduate school can also be the curse. We need structure on such a big project, and the process can be demoralizing as you struggle with criticism, confusion, procrastination, and a decreasing sense of self efficacy. I think that departments, especially those in the humanities and social sciences, need to provide more structure. And it goes without saying that they should be more attuned to the emotional well-being of their students. But I don't see that happening any time soon.

    Thank you for sharing your experience. I'm sure you're not alone in having suffered in that way. I hope your life is a lot better now.

  3. Anonymous11:22 PM

    just been told that I havent passed my 1st review for my phd, im year 1 and took 3 months out to 'sort my head out' as my depression had got very bad but the review board did not take any account of that time off sick. My supervisor added to the depression by reminding me of how brilliant other academics were even though they had tough days too..yes she said days!! I can appeal their decision but i dont know if i want to spend the next 2 years researching and working with people who lack empathy or any sort of understanding of what depression involves. My supervisor is treating my time off sick as a holiday from the do you deal with that?? Ok im not really expecting an answer here,but i feel my supervisor has been hiding in their ivory towers of academia and have forgotten how to show compassion. the question now is do I dropout quietly or do I appeal & say my illness was not factored in as a reason why i wasnt able to function??

  4. Hi Anonymous (#2),

    I'm so sorry you ran into this problem, which is so common. I see in my previous comment that I made a typo. I should have said, "...professors, even advisors, are NOT on the lookout for the psychological well-being of their students."

    Your supervisor sounds like the sweet little elderly lady who said to me yesterday at Easter dinner (knowing I'm a psychologist), "I don't understand depression! Why don't people just go outside in the sun and snap themselves out of it?" I explained to her that depression is not a bad mood, it's an actual, measurable change in brain chemistry. Your supervisors are woefully undereducated in this.

    My understanding is that in the U.S., you are covered to some extent by the Americans with Disabilities Act. Don't quote me on this, but depression does count as an illness, in which case you can request extra accommodation, such as additional time. In the U.S., people with ADHD are given extra time in the college entrance exams (such as the SAT and even the bar exam for lawyers) if they request it.

    You use the word "supervisor," which is more common in the U.K. I can't tell you about the laws there. I will tell you that such mistreatment is rampant in academia. The other thing I don't know about you (in addition to what country you are in) is how much you absolutely love your field and can't picture doing anything else, and what your options are. You might try a "pro and con" list for staying vs. doing other options.

    You might also like to take a hard look at employment opportunities in your field once you get the Ph.D. Sometimes there is a better job outlook in related jobs that don't require the years of your life, the blood, sweat and tears, and mistreatment that you may get at the hands of the people that have all the power over your academic career.

    I hope you have the support you need from other areas of your life that are not academic. Therapy, family, friends, church, or any group that makes you feel like you're important and you matter to them.

    I wish you luck. Please know that there is life beyond this, and that you are a worthy, intelligent person who deserves to be treated well.


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