Let’s talk about mental health

Photo from the Berkeley Science Review
Photo from the Berkeley Science Review

If you listen to the radio or watch local TV with any regularity, then you know that last month (Jan 25) was Bell’s Let’s Talk day; a fundraising and awareness campaign that uses social media to raise money for mental health research. And if you’re like most of us, you’ve let the ads come and go, and you may not have thought about mental health since.  But the reality is mental illness is still here, especially in grad school, and it’s an issue we need to talk about.

The University of California Berkley conducted a survey of their graduate students and found that mental wellness issues are alarmingly pervasive in academia.  On their campus, more than half of graduate students reported issues with depression and anxiety!  That’s close to 10 times higher than the national average for the US, and things don’t look much different here in Canada.

Why are grad students at risk?

There’s no question that grad school is tough for everyone, but for many of us it takes a serious toll on our mental health.  After reading up on it (check out some links below) and doing a bit of introspection, I have a few ideas as to why this might be the case.

First of all, grad school is lonely!  For a lot of us it means leaving the comfort zone of our undergrad institutions, and often our families, to move to a city where we may not know anyone, all in the pursuit of an advanced degree.  Once we’re here, we often spend hours (or days) alone in the lab with our headphones on, or in front of a computer sifting through piles of pdfs.

Next, it’s the failure.  It’s no secret that life as a grad student comes with a large dose of trial and error; whether it’s another experiment gone wrong, or an idea shot down by a supervisor, we’re surrounded by failure on a daily basis.  It can be overwhelming, but combine it with the hypercompetitive culture that surrounds us, and for many grad students it becomes a major health concern.

What can you do about it?

Talk about it!  Whether you’re going through feelings of anxiety or depression or not, one of the most impactful ways to help is to talk about mental health.  It’s often common misconceptions that contribute to negative stigma around mental illness and prevents people from seeking help.  Paying attention to the words you use, asking questions, and having open and honest conversations with people about mental health are great ways to help break down the barrier.

If you’re struggling with mental health yourself, my advice is the same: talk about it.  It might be a difficult first step, but talking with someone and realizing that you’re not alone can have a tremendous impact.  You can confide in a friend or family member, or talk to one of the counsellors at McGill Counselling and Mental Health Services for free.  There are even smartphone apps (i.e. 7cups) designed to pair you with someone to talk to in a more informal setting.

Photo from Healthy McGill

Lastly, an important part of maintaining your mental well-being is the elusive work-life balance.  It can be tough to set aside time for yourself in the face of deadline after deadline, but scheduling healthy activities into your day is a great way to keep yourself in focus.  For example, every February Healthy McGill hosts the #SelfCareChallenge, where you can participate to win prizes or just get ideas for ways to fit self-care into your life.   This is an area that I know I need to work on, so keep an eye out for “Self-Care Sundays” in my upcoming posts!


Interested in reading more about the mental toll of graduate studies?

Check out this piece in Science from 2014, this story from Quartz in 2015 or a Canadian perspective.  Also, here’s an article that summarizes the Berkeley study quite well.


Banner Photo from the Berkeley Science Review

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