Depression in Grad School and Beyond

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In a “Chronicle of Higher Education” article, the pseudonymous Thomas Benton writes:

“I hardly know anyone who was a grad student in the last decade who is not deeply embittered. Because of my columns on this site, a few people have told me how their graduate-school years coincided with long periods of suicidal ideation. More commonly, grad students suffer from untreated chronic ailments such as weight fluctuation, fatigue, headache, stomach pain, nervousness, and alcoholism.”

Ms. Mentor, a columnist in the “Careers” section of that same publication, writes that “a grad student’s life is often lonely, stressed, and sad.”

Are You Depressed?

The sad fact is, many graduate students become depressed. And they don’t always recover once they graduate.

Let me begin then, at the end. If you have some of the symptoms of depression, please seek professional help. Although you will probably eventually pull yourself out of the depression, there’s no way to know how long it will take, and what toll it will take on you and your relationships. You certainly cannot produce your best work when you’re depressed (it affects attention, concentration, decision-making abilities, and energy level). This is a shame at a time when you want to be performing optimally. Appropriate treatment will not only help you feel enormously better, it will allow you to finish your dissertation at a higher level and much faster than you would have without treatment.

Getting professional help does not mean you will be stuck with long years of therapy. Therapists who understand what grad students (and professors) go through can give you behaviorally-oriented suggestions, or recommend appropriate medications.

Why is Grad School Conducive to Depression?

Of course, there are many theories about what causes depression. Martin Seligman’s theory of “Learned Helplessness” can shed some light on this.

He found that animals faced with unavoidable stress or punishment were later found to learn more poorly, function at a lower level than normal, and have lower levels of serotonin in their brains. Guess what neurochemical is too low in humans with depression? You got it: serotonin.

Those animals who were taught ways to escape (such as pressing a bar to stop the shock,) didn’t develop the inability to function or the lowering of serotonin levels. So the crucial determinant of the “experimental depression” in these animals was their helplessness and lack of control in the face of stress.

Another theory that can explain how graduate school may lead to depression has been proposed by Paul Gilbert. It is well-known that submissive animals have a strategy of coping with threats from more dominant animals. In his “Social Competition Model of Depression,” Gilbert calls the submissive, one-down attitude that is taken by the loser in a battle for dominance the “Involuntary Defeat Strategy,” or IDS.

When animals are in an IDS state, they are more tense and defensive than the dominant animal. They explore their environment less, show less social confidence, have higher levels of stress hormones, and may have what I call “cognitive paralysis;” an inability to think clearly or take action.

He points out that if animals want to engage in “flight or fight” but can’t do either, they go into a state of depression. In other words, the animal loses motivation to either struggle or win.

One important function of the IDS is that it allows the animal to keep relating to the dominant individual. He describes how

“…(it) puts the individual into a “giving up” state of mind. This may trigger escape or submission, thus promoting fading of resentment and facilitating psychological acceptance of the outcome of competition or the inability to achieve goals. Acceptance serves to switch off the IDS and frees the individual to relate to his or her successful opponent in a more affiliative way and redirect his or her efforts into other endeavors.”

But I’m Not an Animal, I’m a Graduate Student!

Graduate students may demonstrate both “Learned Helplessness” and the “Involuntary Defeat Strategy.” They are in a situation where they are under a great deal of stress, feel little control, feel they have no escape and little choice, and are dominated by people with all the power (whom they badly need to please.) If it’s a bad situation, they struggle with whether to fight for their rights in a losing battle, or succumb and fall into a state of self blame.

In case you’re starting to feel like a depressed rat in a cage, let me offer some hope. These experiments and observations were conducted on animals, or sometimes with humans who didn’t understand their own reactions. Humans are capable, however, of using language to mediate, or control, their thoughts about their environment.

We can learn to deal with situations by using our understanding of what is happening to us. We can decide to react differently.

How Do I Avoid Depression?

Here are some ideas that will help innoculate you against getting depressed in graduate school. Above all else, let me repeat: Get diagnosed and treated if you already have some symptoms of depression.

  • Talk to others about negative experiences in grad school, especially those where you feel victimized, hurt, or badly treated. Talk to peers who can validate your feelings (thus making you less likely to believe you deserved to be badly treated) and to professors or mentors that you can trust. Find out active steps you can take to rectify truly bad situations. You may have to switch advisors, for example. There are some wonderful advisors out there.
  • Learn appropriate assertation and practice it. Don’t wait until you are overwhelmed with anger or self-loathing, or you’ll be too paralyzed to stand up for yourself.
  • Monitor your negative self beliefs. I know I sound like a broken record about this, but the more I run the Writing Clubs, the more I see the vicious power of those irrational negative self beliefs. Everything from “I write too slowly” to “maybe I wasn’t meant to get a Ph.D.” can eat away at your resolve and make you fall into the submissive, paralyzed state of Learned Helplessness or IDS.
  • Replace negative beliefs actively with positive ones (see the free handout that you get when you sign up for this newsletter for four pages of great examples.) Write them out, say them out loud, stick them to your computer.
  • Do what I say, not what I do: Get enough exercise.
  • Interact with others about the process of your work, not just the content. Set up an environment where people are encouraging and accepting of each other. Sign up for an Academic Ladder Writing Club. If you get support for writing daily (and not for the beauty of what you’ve just written,) it can really boost your sense of self-efficacy.
  • Take action to understand the politics, climate, and expectations of your department and your advisor. Those who know the landscape are less likely to be taken by surprise and to fall into self-blaming habits. For example, if you know that a particular professor is always harsh, or always takes two months to return writing you’ve submitted, then you won’t take it personally.
  • Avoid isolation. You are not alone, and your experiences are not as rare as you think.
  • Read positive articles about how to cope in academia (ahem.) Here is a great positive article meant for new professors, but applicable to all in academia.

There are people out there who care; in your department, your university, and in your life. They want you not just to get your degree, but to feel great about yourself by the time you do. Get the support and the help you need, and academia can be a lovely, fulfilling place to be.


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