Here’s what academic departments, faculty, and graduate students can do to support mental health

Infographic reading Infographic via the Berkeley Science Review

Almost six months ago, I published a post on my experience with depression in academia.  I was really blown away by the thoughtful and supportive responses that I received from so many people both within and outside of the academy.  Since then, I’ve had a number of really good conversations about what departments, faculty, and grad students can do to better support students’ mental health.  Here are some of the suggestions that really stood out to me.

What everyone can do

The first step for staff, faculty, and students is to familiarize themselves with the facts about mental health on campus.  Nearly 40% of grad students across multiple countries say they’ve recently experienced moderate to severe depression.  However, with appropriate support, people facing mental health challenges can still do excellent research and finish their doctoral programs in a timely manner.  It’s important to challenge the narrative that grad students with mental health problems aren’t suited for academia, which is an ableist view that shuts a lot of smart people out from the system.

Second, check out the mental health resources that are available at your campus.  These may include counseling provided through your university health center; mental health advocacy groups; or online resources, like Berkeley’s free, downloadable guide on Promoting Student Mental Health.

Third, I can’t overemphasize how important it is to remove some of the stigma from mental health issues by discussing them openly.  Before and during the time I experienced depression, I knew very little about mental health on campus.  I thought I was the only person in my department who was struggling, and I was afraid to admit that things seemed to be going deeply wrong.  But once I began opening up to people about it, I found that a significant proportion of my PhD classmates had experienced similar issues, and had often significantly benefited from therapy or medication.  I might have pursued treatment much earlier if I’d had any idea how typical my experience was, and how many options were available to help me feel better.  Starting the conversation early, even if you and all the people you know seem to feel all right at the moment, is a really important step.

What departments can do

Departmental staff are already the unsung heroes of academia: the people who help you navigate your class schedule, submit your grant applications, and answer all your questions about graduate requirements.  They also have an important role to play in connecting students and faculty to mental health resources.

It’s really important to begin discussing mental health issues openly from the beginning of grad students’ careers.  Doing a module on common mental health challenges, and the resources available on campus, during orientation for new students would be a great way to start this conversation.  This information could also be shared with current students every year, since everyone could use the occasional reminder that mental health issues are normal and there are lots of ways to seek support.

If you find that you’re struggling with your mental health as a grad student, but you’re concerned about discussing this with your faculty advisor, you can reach out in confidentiality to the graduate student advisor on staff in your department.  They can help you connect to mental health resources on campus, change a challenging workload, or think through funding options if you need some time away from campus.

What faculty can do

One of the comments I got on my depression post aptly pointed out that graduate students aren’t the only people dealing with mental health problems.  The demanding teaching, research, and administrative responsibilities of academia — not to mention structural problems like racism and sexism — mean that faculty are also vulnerable to depression and anxiety.  I’ve since updated the earlier post to acknowledge this important point.  If you’re a faculty member concerned about your own mental health, definitely check out the suggestions for graduate students below.

The heavy workload of  a professor, not to mention the additional toll of family responsibilities and one’s own potential mental health challenges, may leave faculty feeling that they don’t have the time to follow up on students’ mental health.  However, there are some fairly quick things that faculty can do to support their students.

First, it’s useful for faculty to introduce mental health as an acceptable topic of discussion.  During a meeting with a new student, you could say something like this: “I know that grad school puts people under a lot of pressure, and many students end up dealing with challenges like depression or anxiety.  That’s pretty common, and doesn’t mean that you’re failing as a student.  If you’re ever feeling like that, you can always talk to me about it.  I can help you connect to other mental health resources around campus.”  Most students probably won’t take faculty up on this, but it’s important to let them know that if they do end up facing mental health challenges, they don’t need to fear being punished for discussing it.

Second, take the time to briefly check in with students about their work-life balance during the course of the academic year.  If you notice that a student seems to be struggling to complete their work or meet their deadlines, send them a quick email emphasizing that they’re not in trouble, and asking them if they’re doing all right or would like to talk.  Again, a faculty member’s role here isn’t to serve as a therapist.  But reaching out to them in this way and offering to connect them to other mental health resources on campus could be an easy way to encourage someone to seek the help they need.

Third, advocate for policies that reduce some of the structural stresses faced by graduate students.  Many of these are financial: you can ask your department to index stipends for inflation or the cost of housing, or ask them to pay out conference travel grants up front,  rather than requiring students to pay out of pocket and get reimbursed.  Other issues are related to discrimination: you can support the creation of working groups for women or people of color in the department, or encourage the department to name an equality chair who can support students and faculty who have faced discrimination.  Students who are less stressed about money or discrimination have more bandwidth to do excellent academic work.

What graduate students can do

Let’s say you’re a first year grad student.  You’re feeling excited about your proposed research idea, but also a bit overwhelmed by the amount of work you’ve got ahead of you.  What are some steps you can take to support your own mental health and that of your classmates during the years of study ahead?

Start by taking the time to do periodic check-ins with yourself about your mental health.  Almost everyone feels stressed by work and deadlines and career prospects at various points during grad school, and that’s not inherently problematic.  However, it is important to be aware of whether you’re feeling manageable stress, or whether you’re experiencing a more persistent mental health problem.

I’ve found that the most reliable way for me to figure out if I’m having a bad period of mental health is to look at patterns in my behavior.  If you look at how you feel, you might just brush it off: “I’m stressed and miserable, but everyone in my cohort sounds stressed and miserable about exams right now, so I shouldn’t complain about it.”  If you look at other circumstances in your life, things might seem all right: “I’m in a great program and have a nice place to live, and that means that I don’t have any reason to feel sad.”  But it’s harder to deny what’s happening if you’re looking at repeated patterns of behavior: “That’s the second time this week that I’ve skipped class because I couldn’t get out of bed.  I don’t remember myself acting like this before.”

You can use the same strategies to engage with your classmates about their mental health.  If you notice that someone is acting out of the ordinary — say, missing class or ignoring deadlines — it’s worth sending them a quick message about it.  You can note that you’ve seen a pattern of behavior that concerned you a bit, and ask if there’s anything they’re feeling stressed about, or would like to talk about.  Of course, your classmate may say that everything is fine.  But in my experience, it’s easy to brush off an email that says, “Hey, where were you in class today?”  It’s not so easy to ignore an email saying, “Hey, I’ve noticed that you’ve been away from class a lot this month and didn’t turn in that last paper.  Is everything all right?”   No student is responsible for someone else’s mental health, of course.  But it’s worth taking the time to check in on each other — you never know when it may give someone the opening that they need to start thinking seriously about their mental health.

If you do notice these types of patterns in your behavior or that of a classmate, that’s a good sign that you or the classmate might need additional support.  This could take a variety of forms.  Walking up to a counselor at the university health center and declaring that you feel depressed might feel liberating, or it might feel like it’s a bridge too far at first.  You don’t have to do this right away (or ever) if you don’t feel comfortable doing so.  A good place to start is simply by taking stock.  Talk with a friend, or write a journal entry, or do something else that lets you think about how you’ve been behaving recently.  What patterns do you notice?  Do they seem to be correlated with something else in your life, like financial stresses, or struggling in a class?

Sometimes you can figure out the proximate source of anxiety or depression on your own, and try to make the necessary changes in your life, like dropping a class.  For other issues, like financial challenges or systemic discrimination, you might not be able to solve the underlying problems by yourself.  Or you may feel that you’re miserable even though everything else seems fine.  Those are good moments to seek outside help.  Talk to a counselor at your health center, and tell them about the behavior changes that you’ve noticed.  It’s totally normal to admit to feeling confused and scared, and to feel like you don’t know what to do next.  Counselors are around to help you work through these feelings and figure out possible solutions.

If you’re concerned about the cost of therapy, even with insurance, there are several options you could pursue.  Many therapists will offer a sliding scale of fees for clients in financial distress.  If your university has a psychology department, you may be able to get free counseling provided by graduate students as part of their clinical experience.  This article has more suggestions for accessing therapy when you can’t afford to pay much.  Also, if you’re struggling to figure out what types of therapy your US insurance covers, which may feel opaque at the best of times and nearly impossible if you’re depressed, ask a friend or family member if they can support you in this.  You don’t have to do everything on your own.

If you are feeling depressed or anxious to the point where you have a difficult time carrying out daily responsibilities or meeting your professional obligations, you should seriously consider discussing this with your faculty advisor.  Advisors vary, of course, and not all of them will be supportive, so you will have to make this decision on your own.  But if the alternative is falling behind on your work with no explanation, that may also have lasting reputational costs.  In general, it’s better to be transparent about the fact that you’re facing health issues.  This is the #1 thing that I wish I had done differently when I was depressed.  Once I did speak with my advisor about my health after almost three years of serious depression, he responded with understanding and support, and worked with me to shift my dissertation project to something that I could complete given the constraints I was facing.

Depending on how seriously your mental health challenges are affecting your life, you may find it useful to take a medical leave of absence, so that you can pursue treatment and not have to worry about your work for a while. Talk to the graduate student advisor in your department about how this might work.  It may feel really hard to take this step, but mental health problems are real health problems, and there’s absolutely no shame about needing time away from work to deal with them.

The good news is that depression and anxiety aren’t permanent.  Therapy and antidepressants have both been shown to be effective at helping people cope with these issues.  I’ve found regular journaling to be incredibly useful.  Recovery does take time — anywhere from weeks to years, depending on your situation — but it’s absolutely possible to become more healthy and get yourself professionally back on track.

What I’m reading for October 2018

A link roundup cross-posted as usual from my latest edition of Africa Update.  We’ve got Nigeria’s undercover atheists, the electricity pirates of the DRC, Kenya’s top Somali restaurants, the best Rwandan hairstyles, and more.

Map of Africa showing what a mini bus is called in each countryThe wheels on the trotro go round and round… (via Africa Visual Data)

West Africa: In Benin, the government has just raised the fee required to register as a presidential candidate from US $26,000 to US$450,000.  A new wave of travel start-ups is encouraging Nigerians to explore their own country rather than traveling abroad.  Nigeria’s undercover atheists are ostracized for their lack of faith.  Read this special issue of Kujenga Amani about peacebuilding in the Niger Delta.  Ghanaian market vendors fought back after they were targeted for eviction, and ended up getting a new market building so they could keep selling.  Sierra Leone recently implemented a popular new policy of free primary education, but they’re falling short of school seats and teachers.  This is a remarkable thread about how the BBC identified soldiers responsible for killing civilians in a video from Cameroon.  D’Ebola à Zika, un labo tout-terrain en Afrique de l’Ouest.

A selection of street signs from Accra, including Gamel Abdul Nasser Ave, Olusegun Obasanjo High St, Haile Selassie St, Kampala Ave, Sekou Toure Lane, Kigali Ave, and Leopold Senghor CloseAs Charles Onyango-Obbo notes about Accra, “All African capitals, and its independence & post-independence leaders who were minimally anti-imperialist have streets named in their honour. They’ve probably done so in Accra alone more than all the rest of Africa combined!”

Central Africa: Russia has begun supplying arms to and signing opaque cooperation agreements with the Central African Republic.  IPIS has released a new interactive map of armed groups in the CAR.  In the DRC, fees of US$500 for power meters and yearslong waits to have them installed have led many people to pirate electricity from their neighbors.  Burundi has begun suspending NGOs for failing to comply with opaque legal regulations.  La Belgique va rendre au Rwanda les archives de la période coloniale.  Uganda’s former police chief was recently arrested, and there are rumors it was because he might have been fomenting a Rwandan-backed uprising against Museveni.

Three Rwandan men with their hair shaped into swooping, curved figuresSome fantastic Rwandan hairstyles from the early 20th century, via James Hall

East Africa:  This article on Kenya’s Somali cuisine made me hungry!  I’ll have to add those restaurants to my list for my next staycation in Nairobi.  Read this piece on the history of Islam on the Kenyan coast.  Kenya may reconsider its criminalization of homosexuality in light of India’s recent decriminalization of the same.  The IGC has a new report contrasting patterns of statebuilding in Somalia and Somaliland.  This was an insightful description of how Tanzania’s Magufuli consolidated power within the CCM.  Magufuli has also called for a ban on contraception, saying that Tanzania’s population is too small.  A new report estimates that more than 380,000 people have died in South Sudan’s civil war.

Southern Africa: Members of the ANC in South Africa are brutally assassinating each other in an intra-party struggle for control.  South Africa recently legalized personal use of marijuana, but more needs to be done to ensure that the poor rural farmers who grow it also benefit.  The new On Africa podcast is kicking off with an analysis of Zimbabwe’s recent election.  Meet the woman challenging sexist laws about the inheritance of chieftaincy in Lesotho.

hospital

Here’s where every hospital in Africa is located, via Makhtar Diop

Health: Congratulations to Dr Denis Mukwege, who has won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work providing healthcare to women affected by sexual violence in eastern DRC.  The Ugandan government has banned all ministers from seeking healthcare abroad.  In Kenya, an estimated seven women die each day from unsafe abortions.  This was a heartbreaking portrait of South Sudan’s best maternity hospital.  Harsh laws against adultery prevent many women in Mauritania from reporting sexual assault.

extreme povertyChart of the day via Justin Sandefur

Academia: Scholars based in Africa are encouraged to submit their papers to the Working Group on African Political Economy by October 21, and to this conference on Gendered Institutions and Women’s Political Participation in Africa by October 15.   Join this free online discussion of state-building in Tanzania with the African Politics Conference Group on October 15.  Don’t miss this essential reading list on African feminism or this new edition of Ufahamu Journal on the African university.  Let’s hold more conferences on Africa in Africa, so that African researchers don’t run into visa problems.

A chart showing that most of Africa's external debt is held by official lenders, and relatively little by ChinaAdditional chart of the day, showing that concerns about Chinese debt in Africa are rather overblown, via Quartz

Fellowships: The Institute for Qualitative and Multi-Method Research at Syracuse has five fully-funded scholarships for African scholars to attend.  The Iso Lomso Fellowship for Early Career African Scholars is open until October 20.  Several scholarships are available for African PhD students and researchers through the Next Generation Social Science Fellowship.

Links I liked

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got Mali’s 35-year old foreign minister, the dodgeball association of South Sudan, accountability for Mozambican mayors over gay rights, the future of nuclear power on the continent, and more.

View of the Nile, with green banks on both sides and a blue sky full of puffy clouds above
Here’s the view I’ve been enjoying in Jinja during Nyege Nyege Festival this weekend

West Africa: Ghana’s plan to build a new national cathedral is coming in for heavy criticism.  Also in Ghana, cocoa companies are working with local chiefs to improve property rights for cocoa farmers.  The Nigerian government is allegedly forcing internally displaced people to return to their dangerous home regions so that they can vote in upcoming primary elections.  Félicitations à Kamissa Camara, qui est devenue chef de la diplomatie malienne agée de 35 ans.  In Niger, farmers are using a nitrogen-fixing tree to improve their soil quality and fight climate change.  Here’s a good background article on current politics in Togo.  The latest edition of West Africa Insights is all about urbanization in the region.

Central Africa:  Read all about the DRC’s upcoming election, including its unusual single-round voting that can allow a president to be elected with a tiny minority of votes, and Kabila’s preferred candidate for the presidency.  Désarmement dans le Pool : le pasteur Ntumi fait « un pas dans la bonne direction », selon Brazzaville.  This article situates Uganda’s social media tax in a long history of unfair colonial taxation.  Museveni has threatened to abolish the Ugandan Parliament after protests over the beating of prominent opposition MP Bobi Wine, whose popularity clearly alarms him.  Listen to this piece about poor conditions on Uganda’s prison farms.  Tanzania is cutting off markets in refugee camps in an apparent attempt to force Burundian refugees to return home.  Rwanda is trying to boost tax revenue by simplifying its tax code at the same time it raises tax rates.

Map showing more than 4 million internally displaced people in the DRC, and flows of hundreds of thousands of refugees to neighboring nations
Map of the massive population displacement in the DRC, via Africa Visual Data

East Africa:  Tanzania wants to make it illegal to question government statistics.  If you’d like to approach the government with a non-statistical matter, definitely read these insider tips on how policymaking works in Tanzania.  South Sudan’s newest athletic league is a dodgeball association for teenage girls.  Read this insightful article about how John Garang’s death led to the fracturing of the SPLM.  Don’t miss this recent report from the Kenya Human Rights Commission about the country’s high rates of extrajudicial killings.  This article suggests that the Kenyan security forces routinely ignore tips about planned mass shootings, and that perpetrators are rarely arrested.  More than 90% of Somalia’s new cabinet ministers are said to hold MA or PhD degrees, but only 8% are women.

Southern Africa: At some South African universities, nearly 80% of black students report that they sometimes don’t have enough to eat.  A South African court has ruled that marriages between Muslim couples in the country must be legally registered and not simply recorded with religious authorities, giving women legal protection in the event of divorce.  Zimbabwe’s harsh laws criminalizing the transmission of HIV are discouraging people from coming for testing and treatment.

mozambique
A hopeful headline from Mozambique, showing a newspaper asking mayoral candidates in Nampula how they plan to combat discrimination against gay people (via Tom Bowker)

Public Health: I’m excited to hear about sensors.AFRICA, which is using low cost monitors to track air quality in several countries across the continent.  A non-profit organization is offering cash transfers to women who bring their children in for vaccinations in Nigeria.  One Nigerian woman has created a mental health hotline after struggling to access treatment for depression.

Economics: This was a really interesting thread about how legal uncertainty is increasing fuel prices in Kenya — an exemption on VAT for fuel expired on August 31 with no legal guidance on whether it was meant to be extended, leading to strikes by fuel importers.  South Sudan is beginning to bring oilfields back online after production was drastically reduced by the civil war.  An economist discusses how the cedi’s depreciation lead to the recent collapse of several banks in Ghana.  This was an interesting piece on the history of Ghana’s failed attempts to create a local rubber processing industry.  A new book argues that political conflict determines when protests take place in Africa, but economics determines who participates in them.  Is there a future for civilian nuclear energy in Africa?

Map showing what rotating savings groups are called throughout Africa
Great map of regional names for rotating savings and credit associations across the continent (via Funmi Oyatogun)

China in Africa:  This article shared some interesting reflections on the shortcomings of standard “China in Africa” narratives.  Chinese handset maker Transsion is capturing the African market with affordable phones that feature built-in radio reception and cameras calibrated for darker skin.

Arts and Literature:  Check out Robtel Neajai Pailey’s interactive website for her anti-corruption children’s books about Liberia, and Lupita Nyong’o’s upcoming children’s book as well!  Apply to work with the British Library on their collection of African-language materials.  Lots of interesting articles to be found in the Johannesburg Review of Books.   Read this dispatch from the Mogadishu Book Fair.  The Goethe Institut is calling for submissions of young adult literature by African authors in English, French and Kiswahili.  Here are all the African film festivals you can attend in 2018.

Black and yellow print showing a woman with her fist upraised, and a slogan at the bottom reading "Now you have touched the woman you have struck a rock; you have dislodged a boulder; you will be crushed.  9 August SA Women's Day"
Art for the day from Medu Art Ensemble, who created this poster for a 1956 women’s march against apartheid (via Women’s Art)

Conferences and Scholarships: Register for the Decolonial Transformationsconference at the University of Sussex — and before you do, read this great curriculum which a group of Cambridge students put together for decolonizing the Human, Social and Political Sciences degree.  Submit a paper to the Africa Social and Behavioral Change conference in English, French, Portuguese or Kiswahili.  The Working Group in African Political Economy is now accepting paper applications.  You can also send your scientific papers or science journalism to the African Science Desk to have them turned into short documentaries and explainers.  Spread the word about this multidisciplinary post-doc for African scholars at Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.

Putting the “African” back into African Studies

Exterior shot of the modern, glass-walled library at United States International University in NairobiThe main library at United States International University in Nairobi

Robtel Neajai Pailey is a must-read thinker on issues of decolonization in academia.  She has an excellent recent piece on this topic at African Arguments.  Some of her key recommendations for putting the “African” back in African studies:

This can be achieved when:

  • A [canon] of scholarly literature produced by Africans is established, which would be mandatory reading for all African studies courses across the globe. This canon must include male and female scholars writing in multiple languages across the social sciences, natural sciences and humanities;
  • Non-African scholars defer to authoritative voices and scholars on the continent, by citing them regularly and actively acknowledging their contributions to the field;
  • Open-access publishing on Africa is the norm rather than the exception, so that Africa-based scholars can access, engage with and critique knowledge produced about the continent;
  • More African scholars (based in Africa and elsewhere) serve on editorial boards of top-rated African Studies journals, as both editors and reviewers, in order to influence the research agendas of these publications;
  • African universities value, support, and validate good quality scholarship about Africa, through the provision of research funding for staff, living wages, sabbatical time to write and publish, and paid subscriptions to relevant journals.

These measures and more will compel us to effectively re-insert the ‘African’ in African Studies, not as a token gesture, but as an affirmation that Africans have always produced knowledge about their continent.

My experience with depression in academia

A painting that is almost entirely a deep turquoise blue, divided by a horizontal line of lighter blue in the middle

Mark Rothko, Untitled (Blue Divided by Blue)

And now for a post on a more personal matter.  I haven’t said much about this publicly, but for the last several years of my PhD studies, I’ve been dealing with a severe case of depression.  I missed major deadlines, failed in my teaching obligations, and thought seriously about dropping out at various points.  For most of that time, I didn’t really understand that I was ill, or that treatment was an option.  Once I did understand that and opened up about how I was feeling, I made enormous progress towards feeling happy and productive again.  I’d like to talk about this experience, and how some common narratives about academic success can make it particularly difficult for graduate students to identify when they’re depressed and get help.  Depression is a very common experience for graduate students, with nearly 40% of students in a number of countries reporting that they feel moderately to severely depressed.  If you’re reading this and it resonates with something in your experience, some treatment resources are discussed at the bottom of the post.

Depression from the Inside

Depression really caught me unawares.  Other members of my family have a history of depression, but I hadn’t been affected by it when I was young, so I always believed that I’d gotten lucky and wasn’t susceptible to this.  I never learned much about the importance of emotional health, and of being open with your feelings.  For most of my life, if I felt sad or stressed, the only coping mechanism I had was to ignore the problem and pretend that I was fine.  This worked well enough for a while.  However, by my late 20s I was facing a series of problems that were difficult to ignore, including a marriage to a lovely man which regardless wasn’t working out well, and some serious doubts about whether the PhD I had embarked upon was actually the right career path for me.  I felt trapped, and ashamed of admitting that I was unhappy, and I grew steadily more depressed over time.

I got through the first and second years of my PhD well enough.  By the third year, however, I was barely getting out of bed unless I had to go to class or teach — and sometimes not even then.  I hardly engaged with the class I was teaching second semester and cried in front of them more than once.  I started skipping my own classes and on-campus presentations that I really wanted to attend.  My committee had to reschedule my prospectus defense date after I missed the deadline for submitting the prospectus with no warning.  I scraped through the defense and went off to Ghana to start my dissertation research in my fourth year, only to spend most of my time there moored up in my room by myself.  It took me a solid year of this before I finally thought, I have to tell someone about how I’m feeling.  (I’ll write more about treatment and recovery below.)

In retrospect, it is unbelievably obvious that I had depression.  Any one of the incidents above would have been enough to signal that something was wrong; all of them together could not be any more clear.  So why didn’t I understand what was happening to me?  And why didn’t anyone else call me out on it either?

I spent that entire period blaming myself for being lazy and stupid.  I understood that I felt depressed, but I didn’t think I had depression, because that was something that happened to other people.  I thought that I just needed to work harder on ignoring my problems and forcing myself out of bed, even though it felt like someone had replaced all my bones with lead when I wasn’t looking.  I was also convinced that if I didn’t pretend that I was fine — if anyone realized I was struggling — they would judge me and dislike me and perhaps kick me out of the PhD for being an incompetent scholar, and then I would be both sad and unemployed, which would be even worse.  The idea of going to therapy never crossed my mind, because I thought you should only go to therapy if you had a real problem, and not if you were simply lazy and stupid.

I now know that this is one of the cognitive effects of depression.  It’s easy to end up in these spirals of negative thoughts.  It’s also very tempting to just try to ignore the underlying problems, because they’re always on your mind and you’re tired of thinking about them.  I so badly wanted to just snap my fingers and be all right, and I spent years thinking, “today is the day that I get my act together,” even though the same statement hadn’t worked on the previous day or week or month.

Depression in Academia

Academia can be an especially difficult place to contend with the idea that depression is your own fault.  I was struck by how my feelings of shame and guilt around depression were reinforced by narratives about the determinants of academic success in the American academy.  Throughout my time at in grad school, I received the message that success in the PhD was the product of intelligence and discipline.  If you weren’t doing well in the program, it was because you lacked those attributes, and consequently didn’t deserve other scholars’ time or attention.  There is little room in this narrative for the idea that mental health problems — or structural problems like racism or sexism — could also affect students’ work, for reasons unrelated to intelligence or effort.  Fortunately, there is now growing awareness that graduate students’ personal lives and mental health have an impact on their academic performance, but there remains a lot of work to be done to really dislodge these ideas.

This narrative of personal effort was communicated to me in various ways. For example, it was common to hear that people who left my program before they finished, because it wasn’t a good fit or because they wanted other employment, simply “couldn’t hack it.”  I thought seriously about dropping out at some points, but the idea of being known as someone who couldn’t hack it was horrifying.  When I started regularly missing classes and subfield colloquia, one senior professor commented that I was failing to signal my commitment to the department, and implied that I had been a bad investment for them, which made me feel even more panicked and depressed.  Later, when I had trouble finishing a prospectus draft, and eventually missed my defense date entirely, I got a number of comments from faculty about how I needed to stop flaking out on selecting a topic and just do the work — but no one ever asked if there was a reason that a previously high-performing student was now badly struggling. (To my classmates’ credit, several of them did ask if I was all right during this period.  I wasn’t in a position to give them an honest answer at the time, but it means a great deal to me now that they noticed and cared enough to ask.)

I don’t think any of these messages or actions were badly intended.  Some of them seemed to be born of a type of congratulatory self-regard among certain professors, who tend to emphasize the role of intelligence and effort in their own success, without always acknowledging the role of privilege and luck.  (And to be very clear, I’m a Berkeley student because of privilege and luck as well as hard work.) These ideas are also the product of a fairly decentralized PhD system in the social sciences in the US.  Students are responsible for selecting their own topics and keeping up their own progress.  Advisors are expected to support their students, but don’t tend to closely monitor their work, in part because faculty members are also generally overworked — and often have their own struggles with depression as well.  All of this meant that when depression hit, my own deep sense of shame about it was compounded by the department’s narrative of personal effort, and no one was in a position to consistently observe that I was struggling and ask if I needed help.  That’s not unique to academia, but I do think it can be especially pronounced there.

Treatment and Recovery

I ended up climbing out of the well of depression with support from my family and friends.  After a full year of being miserable, I finally decided that telling people about how I was feeling couldn’t really be worse than what I was already feeling.  I went in concentric circles, starting with my partner, then my family, then close friends.  After much discussion with them, I made some decisions that helped me have more control over the underlying problems in my life.  My partner and I reevaluated whether our relationship was working, and ended up getting the world’s friendliest divorce.  I moved back to East Africa and launched the Mawazo Institute with a good friend, which put me back on track towards the type of career that I really wanted — research-focused, but not within academia.  I took my fifth PhD year off from dissertation work, mostly by accident as I was busy with the move and Mawazo, but also ended up finding that it was useful to have some time away from research in order to regain my enthusiasm for it.  I also started doing a lot of journaling to address some of my continuing mental health issues.  Even after I resolved some of the major problems that had been stressing me out, I still had a lot of negative thought patterns that I’d developed during years of depression, and journaling helped me to identify those and work to reduce them.

It’s now been about a year and a half since I began opening up about my experience of depression.  There have been many points when I felt that I was just complaining without feeling better, or when I did start to feel better, only to get totally knocked out when some new source of stress came up.  But the average trend of my feelings has been decidedly upwards, towards a place of much greater self-understanding and much less fear and shame.  Talking about my emotions has deepened many of my friendships, as I found that people tended to respond to my admissions about mental health not with derision, but by sharing stories about their own challenges.  It’s helped me to have a calmer, happier, and more trusting relationship with my current partner, knowing that I can now communicate openly about any problems that might arise.  It’s improved my performance at work, as it let me address some productivity issues which I hadn’t even realized were related to depression, like what used to be a horrible habit of procrastinating on email.  And it’s allowed me to feel curious about the world again, which, as someone who still hopes to finish her PhD research some day, is very reassuring!

All of this is to say, if any of this post resonates with you: there is nothing wrong with you.  Depression is such a normal experience, and there’s no shame in having it.  Trying to hide how you feel often seems tempting, but it’s usually only delaying an inevitable reckoning.  It can feel pretty vulnerable to open up about your feelings at first.  However, if you can do that with a friend or a therapist who will support you — or with a journal, or in prayer, or in some other way if you’d rather do it privately — then there’s a high likelihood that you’ll start to feel better.  There’s some really interesting research about how identifying your emotions actually reduces the activation of your amygdala (which is one of the places the brain processes fear) and helps people feel better when confronted with stressful situations.  Simply talking about your feelings can help you to feel calmer and more in control of your life, even if it doesn’t immediately fix an underlying problem.

There are a number of different approaches to treating depression.  You might try several of them, alone or in combination, before you figure out what’s most useful for you.  For me, journaling has been incredibly effective.  I’ve had to invest a lot of time in it — anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours per day, over many months — but it’s ultimately helped me develop a great deal of insight into my own feelings, and identify solutions to a range of problems.  Here are some tips on how to get started with journaling.  Speaking to a therapist has also been shown to be highly effective at reducing depression in many people.  I didn’t do this last year because I was traveling a great deal at the time, but I know many of my friends have found therapy very useful.  The American Psychological Association has a good overview of what to expect from therapy, and why some common myths about therapy aren’t true. Medication is also an option, and you can work with a psychiatrist to figure out if it seems helpful for you.  Here’s a useful overview of antidepressants.  There’s no shame in using medication to treat depression, and there’s also nothing wrong with deciding that you’d rather not use medication.  It’s really important to pay attention to your own experience and preferences when you’re seeking treatment.  It can feel really difficult to find the energy for this when you’re already depressed, but I promise it’s worth the effort.

Introducing the 2018 Mawazo PhD Scholars!

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I’m thrilled to announce the Mawazo Institute’s inaugural cohort of PhD Scholars!   We received 170 applications for the 10 spots in this programme, demonstrating the high levels of demand for research funding and training amongst Kenyan PhD students.  After a difficult selection process, we chose ten exceptionally talented women.  Go read about their backgrounds at the Mawazo blog!