The academic system of today is almost like a factory, becoming more and more focused on giving rise to products such as publications and grants. It is also geared towards producing more and more academics, leaving those who want non-academic careers in a bind in terms of how to transition.
Academic life in itself is a never ending quest for knowledge, meaning that boundaries between work life and leisure time are sometimes hard to distinguish. With technological advances like the Internet, smartphones and social media, this lack of boundaries has become especially apparent. Obviously, this can be stressful, becoming almost a situation where all you do is “eat, sleep, and science.” That was true for me throughout my life, as I’ve previously written about in this post.
I have been around science all my life, and I suppose you could say that I was preconditioned to become a scientist myself. Scientists tend to be overachievers, and I’ve certainly always been one- both due to the profession itself, and the fact that my family alone had high expectations.
But one day not too long ago, reality caught up with me. I realized that I had been putting on a front that everything was okay for most of my life because of this. And when life’s trials hit me last year, naturally, I tried to hide any sign of weakness.
After a while, I decided to open up about what I was going through. It was scary, and it took some learning on my part to talk to others about how these events led me to experience both depression and anxiety. At first, I didn’t know how to label what I was feeling. I was sort of in a fog for about 6 months, and didn’t feel like myself. I was very stressed out and felt emotionally exhausted. I was in “survival mode” and just trying to make it to the next day.
I also felt the burden of social isolation, while secretly yearning for a meaningful human connection. I quickly learned that depression and anxiety make it difficult to establish such a connection, and to really speak your mind, for fear that others won’t like you, but also having low-self esteem yourself because of it (and for no real reason). Sadly, this state has led me to lose a friendship that I really cared about and which I can never recover. So while I’m upset about the consequences of this state which was out of my control, I know that I need to learn how to manage it, and that maintaining long-term relationships while battling these issues will likely take some time, practice, and patience.
At the time, these feelings were new to me, and while I tried to deal with them as best I could, I eventually realized that I needed help. For someone who is highly independent, asking for help wasn’t something that I was used to. It took me a while to open up and admit what I was going through. But asking for help made a huge difference in my life, and that’s really when my sort of “rebirth” journey started, into discovering myself and who I was in this new phase.
While I recognize that I did not handle the situation as well as I should have (hindsight is always 20-20), I did want to offer some advice to early career scientists going through similar situations. The number one thing I would say is that, when undergoing major life transitions, one should not make major decisions if at all possible, and should strive to do less things and practice self-care, as outlined in this post. Unfortunately, I didn’t do any of those things at the time, and that came back to bite me in the end because I was trying to do too much too fast, leading to bad decisions and regrets, such as the friendship mentioned above.
So I would say don’t do what I did in that sense, but take my advice. Since these events, I have begun to be more interested in mental health issues, and I hope to use my story to help others. That way, it will at least feel that this situation had a greater purpose and was not in vain. This is especially important in academia when under a lot of pressure in a professional sense, while also battling these types of issues. Therefore, ample support is needed for early career scientists who are dealing with mental health issues in academia.
Personally, I have gotten involved with various organizations, such as the Global Consortium of Academic Mental Health, which is a group striving to cultivate excellent mental health in academics worldwide. Other resources I have used include podcasts (Let’s Talk about Mental Health; The Hilarious World of Depression) and YouTube videos on some of these topics (bignoknow, The Anxiety Guy). Through these kinds of groups, I am learning to give back and help graduate students undergoing these struggles, and hopefully also others in the larger community.
I’m hoping that these resources, as well as my own story, will help us view academics as human beings whose mental health and well-being need to be addressed, and that, as a society, we may become more vulnerable and open about these types of struggles. Please share your experiences with mental health in academia. The first step to acknowledging the problem, and getting the right support to start addressing it at various levels. In hindsight, I would say there is no shame in asking for help, and that has really helped me tremendously in this journey.