Being Human: Weakness, Mental Health, & Academia

995d6524b89728b3883dad54dfc0f668_answer_2_xlargeMy story of mental health and my PhD experience begins with a story about my physical health. I was about four weeks into the second quarter of my first year of graduate school when I suddenly found myself in the emergency room with crippling pain in my abdomen. 12 hours later I was on the operating table, having about a quarter of my digestive system removed. And what, you might ask, was I doing the next morning? Why, I was writing a grant application, refusing an extra dose of morphine so I could focus better. Just a few short hours earlier I had been close to death, my abdomen had literally been ripped open, and the surgery had taken almost 5 hours, but that wouldn’t stop me from meeting this deadline. Thus began what has been an incredibly difficult odyssey for me in my academic career. Fast forward two months and I was back in the hospital, this time for a blood clot in my digestive system that was preventing blood from reaching my intestines. Since surgery wasn’t needed this time around, I saw no excuse not to go full steam ahead with the readings I needed to do for classes, the response papers I needed to work on, and the e-mails I needed to respond to. To date, I have been hospitalized four times over the first two and a half years as a PhD student. And while it has been taxing on my physical health, there has been a far more serious and long-term effect on my mental health.

photo 2[4]After my hospitalizations during my first year, I had a brief period where I had a new lease on life. Having nearly died, I intended to live life to the fullest. I did my work with vigor and passion. I spoke up more regularly in seminars and began to make early plans for my second year paper. But as summer rolled around and I was faced for the first time in months without the prospect of coursework, readings, and seminar papers, something changed. For the first time, I felt the crushing guilt I imagine so many PhDs feel: the guilt over not doing enough and not constantly working and producing. My guilt was magnified, ten-fold, by the following fact. I had survived a near death experience, been hospitalized twice, and had to suffer through a myriad of follow up doctors visits, blood tests, and awful procedures, yet I still managed to complete the first year of my PhD with no incompletes, no missed readings, and exceptional grades. It was now summer. I was on the mend. If I could do all that while extremely ill, why couldn’t I do it now? I began to continually tell myself that I wasn’t good enough.

That summer was not a pleasant one. I would alternate days going back and forth between feeling incredibly motivated to work and get things done, and days where I would literally hate myself for not doing enough. The guilt, anxiety, and self-hate were overwhelming, and the dangerous cocktail of the three led me to a deep depressive state. Fortunately, I had had the foresight to begin therapy towards the beginning of my first year, before the health crises hit. I knew I couldn’t do this alone. And this is what I want to share with others. You do not have to do this alone.

photo 3I am telling this story not to gain sympathy, but to provide a clear example of what doing a PhD can do to your body and your mind. This is absolutely not to say that I don’t love what I do. Many days I am excited to do my work, to write more, and plan for my dissertation, which is in its prospectus phase. But some days, the motivation isn’t there. And I am not yet at the point where I feel entirely guilt-free on the days where I can’t get things done. It is a constant process and evolution of my self and my mind. My experience with my physical health as a PhD student, I imagine, is fairly unique, but the change to my mental health most certainly isn’t. I think other PhD students need to hear these kinds of stories.

Doing a PhD is long and arduous. When your days are spent alone analyzing data, writing, or staring at your computer, it can be solitary. But it doesn’t have to be that way. I am of the conviction that most, if not all, PhDs could benefit from seeing a therapist. I am fortunate enough to attend a university where my mental health coverage is excellent, and I can only hope that other universities offer similar services.

photo 2In the academic world there is a stigma attached to being mentally weak. You “should” be able to handle all criticism with grace, and to be working constantly. But these are unrealistic expectations because at the core of every PhD is a human being, with all the delicate and emotional trappings of our existence. It is inside the candidate who presents a tough exterior and appears impervious to ragged criticism. It is inside the first-year student who suddenly realizes they have a crippling fear of public speaking. These “weaknesses” inside our minds are not weaknesses at all. They are a part of the human condition. Working on a PhD can bring out anxiety, guilt, and depression in even the strongest of characters. I spent my entire first year as a PhD student thinking I should be Superman and be able to overcome all obstacles, even a near death experience. But we’re not Superman. We’re PhD students. We’re human beings.

Mara Suttmann-Lea

Mara Suttmann-Lea

Mara is a PhD Candidate studying political science at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on American Political Development, electoral institutions, and political participation. She would like to thank her partner for his love and support, which has been nothing but unconditional and endless.

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5 Responses

  1. Chris Cox says:

    Mara, you nailed it here. That oscillation between inspired motivation and crushing guilt and self loathing really does capture the experience at times. The observation that we benchmark ourselves against our moments of exceptional achievement is also resonates deeply. Instead of marveling at those moments, it’s easy to think “Look, that is evidence that I am capable of so much more. I must be slacking/unfocused/lost/doing it wrong, now relative to then”.

    Inject a bunch of super passionate overachievers into an environment where the expectations are astronomical and *everyone identifies with being insanely busy*, and you have a recipe for real threats to mental health and balance. I am going through a moment like this right now. I really appreciated your perspective. Looking forward to following this column!

  1. 31/03/2014

    […] “My story of mental health and my PhD experience begins with a story about my physical health. I was about four weeks into the second quarter of my first year of graduate school when I suddenly found myself in the emergency room with crippling pain in my abdomen …” (more) […]

  2. 31/03/2014

    […] Mara Suttmann-Lea, a PhD researcher in the US, shares her journey through physical and mental health problems during her studies.  […]

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