I’ve had mental health issues for about ten years at this point, depression, anxiety, eating disorder, other self-destructive stuff, etc. I was doing somewhat okay until last year, but thought I could get it under control and was really excited about starting school, and now everything is back with a vengeance. I can’t concentrate on anything, I can’t read, I am completely unmotivated, and I’m taking awful care of myself. My main concern is that I really want to do this and do it well, it’s the only thing I want to do with my life, but I cannot get my head to work. I’ve been seeing a psychiatrist and am looking for a therapist, but on top of it I had to switch meds and had a really bad reaction and basically wasn’t functioning for a while. If this continues for too long I’m going to have to drop out because I can’t live like this. What can I do?

--Depression and Anxiety

Dear Depression and Anxiety,

There is no denying the fact that graduate school is stressful. Between the workload, the transition from being a student to being a young professional, and the extremely limited income, it is not surprising that many individuals suffer from mental health problems when they enter into a graduate program. Furthermore, internalizing problems, such as anxiety and other self-destructive behaviors, are often the mark of high achievers. These symptoms may be what push individuals to strive for greatness, in order to placate those negative inner thoughts about the self.

Despite your excitement about school, and about proving to yourself that you can succeed as a graduate student, your first priority must be to take care of yourself. Graduate school is challenging enough for individuals with “perfect” mental health, who don’t experience overwhelming symptoms such as these. The unfortunate truth is that you cannot truly succeed as a graduate student with symptoms such as these burdening you. You may finish school, but there is a marked difference between finishing graduate school and succeeding in graduate school. Succeeding as a graduate student means taking advantage of all opportunities for leadership, publication, teaching, research, and more. Thus, if you really want to do well in your program, you must first focus on yourself. Rather than splitting yourself between a stressful workload at school and stressful mental health problems, the first thing you need to do is talk to your advisor about your situation. Let him or her know how important this program is to you, and how much you want to succeed. Advisors are human too, and they have most likely had experience with many unique student situations during their time as an advisor. Most would agree that a temporary break might be the best option to ensure both your health and eventual success in the program. It does not benefit anyone for you to continue in the program if you are not able to tackle your workload successfully. It is important to remember that many students take a hiatus from graduate school, for numerous reasons, including family issues, health issues, or childcare. Until you have spoken to your advisor about your options, there is no reason to assume that you must either remain active in the program or leave all together. Thus, before you consider leaving, take the first step of talking to your advisor about your situation. If you are concerned that this conversation will be emotionally challenging, it may be wise to engage in a mock conversation with your psychiatrist in order to better prepare you for the real conversation.

--René Paulson, PhD

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