Five Tips For Navigating Graduate School With Mental Illness

Note: this blog post was originally published on our career advice column on Inside Higher Ed (here). Jill Richardson studies sociology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She struggles with anxiety, depression and PTSD.

When I started graduate school, I did not realize that I was a student with mental illness. I knew that I suffered near-daily migraines and sought out disability services. What I did not understand was that my migraines were a physical manifestation of a mental illness, and that the way I felt my entire life was called “anxiety” because the experiences I had as a kid were called “trauma.” Graduate school severely exacerbated my anxiety.

Whether you are a student or a professor, keep in mind that everyone with mental illness is different. I have a lot of trouble attending classes, while another student I know cannot meet with professors one-on-one, and a third has panic attacks every time she attempts to study for prelims.

Additionally, everyone is in a different phase of their mental health problems. Some are not yet aware that they even have a problem. Some students have only just discovered their problems but have not yet found help, or they have sought help but it’s too soon for them to get any relief just yet.

A student can probably function far better in grad school if they have already found medications that work effectively (if applicable), a therapist they like and coping strategies they have learned and practiced. In Childhood Disrupted, Donna Jackson Nakazawa explains that you can change your own brain for the better to heal some of the harm from adverse childhood experiences. But that takes time.

I have had to devise various coping strategies to survive the difficulties of graduate school, which I share below. They aren’t perfect — grad school was hell even still. But I earned my master’s degree and lived to tell about it.

Five Pieces Of Advice

  1. Limit things that are most difficult to you, if you can. For me, that meant establishing a schedule that gave me one or two days a week when I did not have to go to the campus. I also set a quota of one extremely difficult class per semester (e.g., those with weekly exams, heavy reading loads or very exacting professors). I only wanted to deal with one of those at a time.
  2. Remember you do not have to do everything. This suggestion flies in the face of the helpful career advice I’ve received that one should assume all “optional” activities are actually required. I’m sorry, but I won’t be at the department picnic, the lecture series or just about anything else that isn’t formally required. I will be busy during that time taking care of myself. There may be consequences for missing events that my professors prefer I attend, but I need to put that in perspective. The consequences will be far worse if I do poorly in my classes or fail to complete my thesis. Completing required work must come first, and anything else is off the table if it will jeopardize my ability to do that.
  3. Find people with whom you feel comfortable and avoid those with whom you don’t feel comfortable. That goes for professors, friends, therapists and anyone else. You are not helping anything or anyone by voluntarily spending time with someone who makes you feel rotten. (You can also block them on social media or, at the least, unfollow them so you do not see pictures of the times when people in your cohort all have a party without you.)
  4. Self-care is essential. This is crucial for everyone but more so if you are struggling with mental illness. For me, it meant weekly massages, therapy and allowing myself to just eat a cookie if I craved one instead of beating myself up for it. Sometimes, it meant reading Harry Potter instead of scholarly journals. (Other less expensive or even free options can be mindfulness meditation, yoga, a hot bath and exercising outdoors.)
  5. Medications. If you decide to try medication, remember antidepressants can take four or more weeks to work effectively. Sometimes the first med you try will not work or will have unbearable side effects, up to and including suicidal thoughts. If you’re a student, have a friend or family member look out for you when you start a new med, in case you have adverse side effects. I would wait until a break from grad school to try a new med if possible. At the very least, don’t start your med the same week your big term paper or grant application is due.

Simple Ways Professors Can Help

While students can promote their own healing and well-being, their professors can help also immensely by taking a just few simple actions.

First in my book is empathy. Empathy is easy, yet few people do it well. As a faculty member, you should listen to students with mental-health issues, imagine how you would feel in their circumstances and say that. Avoid jumping to fix a student’s problems, telling them “it will all be OK” or dismissing them because you think they are begging for a higher grade or special treatment. If they tell you that they are having panic attacks and they are struggling with their schoolwork, just say, “That sounds really difficult.” Even if a professor can do nothing else beyond that, feeling like that person understands me and hears me is helpful in and of itself.

Going one step further, imagine yourself in the student’s shoes and think of how you can make it easier for them to succeed in your class in ways that do not require much extra effort from you, such as giving flexibility with deadlines.

Therapists talk about giving their patients unconditional positive regard, and I try to approach my own students such regard. That does not mean I am an easy grader (I am not) or that I let my students walk all over me (I don’t). But a simple willingness to listen to a student without judging is an emotional balm to one who is struggling. It can even ease a student’s anxiety enough to help them be more productive in their work.

And yet many professors don’t do that. Feeling seen and heard is a big theme in the mental-health world. People need to feel seen and heard. Unfortunately, I never felt that in graduate school.

Students with mental illness often have a very negative self-image. Being in grad school is difficult because it requires students to try new things and to risk failure. Simple positive feedback can go a long way. If a student is struggling through something difficult but they are ultimately normal compared to their peers, tell them. If you have observed progress in their work, tell them that, too. The nicest thing a professor ever said to me was “That’s something that most people come to later in their career. All graduate students struggle with it.” Really? My difficulty is normal? Hallelujah!

Last, don’t expect your depressed or anxious student to kick the problem quickly. Therapy takes time, and even medications can take a month or more to work effectively. Be patient. That doesn’t mean allowing a student to pass a class without doing the work. But it does mean extending compassion to them without judging them for continuing to struggle with the same issues week after week, even though those issues seem easy to fix for you as a mentally healthy person. If it’s frustrating for you, remember that it’s even more frustrating for the student.