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Ruminations on Graduate School and Mental Health

By Nadine Boulay, PhD Candidate

November 05, 2018

Today I sat my laptop and searched “PhD students and…” and paused to see the autofill- it was telling that “mental illness” and “depression” were the top two options populated. “PhD students and mental illness.” “PhD students and depression.” Followed by “jobs,” and “jokes” [‘a graduate student walks into a bar…]. While search algorithms are not definitive, the associations between mental illness and graduate school (and perhaps the academy in general) is widely recognized.  In fact, it is sometimes seen as unsurprising, and perhaps even banal that a PhD student at some point in their academic training would experience some bout or episode of “mental illness.” We ruminate as to the connections: the pressure of the structure of the program and expectations of graduate work; precarity, debt, and a diminishing horizon of job opportunities; corporatization of the university. The list goes on. But I have found that an experience or episode of something chronic, distablizing, and painful cannot be reduced to any of those things. There is much to be said about the structural and systemic issues of colonial and neoliberal institutions that may cause or bolster or contain mental illness. But I want to pause for a moment to think about language, about the act of exteriorizing particular feelings within that structure and institution.

It is a difficult thing to say out loud. To identify yourself oneself to that loaded taxonomy- “I am mentally ill,” as if it is now part of your own ontology. Do we use the signifier “mentally ill”  because it is imprecise, that the actual details are obscured? ‘Mental health issues’ doesn’t feel quite right either- it’s so simpering and vague. Mental illness conjures up its own disconcerting history. We read about hysteria and inversion and the asylum. There was Mrs. Dalloway, and Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Read on: Histoire de la Folie. Bethlem. Frances Farmer. Electroshock therapy. The DSM. The romanticization of the sad women, the sad poets. I am not a historian of psychiatry nor a practitioner who is trained in the field, but I do believe in ‘an archive of feelings,’ in histories and affects that follow us around. I too have seen myself in Bell Jar, felt that need to reject the official channels of care, believed that this thing called in/sanity might be the only thing that makes me interesting or creative.

Abstract notions of madness, melancholy, and insanity still have such profound discursive power. The madwoman archetype that makes visible the crushing weight of patriarchy. The writers, poets, musicians, the creatives, those ‘prone’ to existential distress. ‘Madness co-exists with genius.’

Full stop: I find nothing romantic about the material reality of mental illness. I want to talk about the messy realities and the ugly histories, and I want us to talk about it in the academy. I feel that sometimes  we have to tenuously engage with institutions that can be simultaneously harmful and helpful- be it psychiatric medicine or the higher education. We can sit with an ongoing history of pain, but not to refute or refuse what is useful, and to not judge what is useful for others.

Because there are those of us that have found help within institutionalized psychology; medication or therapy, psychoanalysis, or simply having a diagnosis, these things can be incredibly validating. They can provide a language that is legible; you can be recognized as someone that has a serious problem requiring legitimate care. This entire system is deeply troubling, and does little to destigmatize the whole big thing of mental illness, but many of us cannot live without it.

‘Mental illness’ doesn’t do much to grasp the experience of what some are now terming ‘neuro-diverse’ or ‘neuro-divergent,’ terms that have been used since the early 1990s in the burgeoning movement advocating for those who experience myriad of neurological differences. An evolving vocabulary may be a sign of progress; an effort to talk back to the long history of pathologization of the ‘mentally ill,’ and the inextricable connections to histories of the pathologization of queerness, gender and racial difference. But it is between the acknowledgment of the ‘illness’- the pain and crushing absurdity- and the celebration of a diversity or difference that seeks to decenter the idea of mental ‘normalcy’- that I find myself searching for a better word, and considering semantics far too much.

[What does PhD stand for? ‘Patiently hoping for a degree,’ ‘Paid half that I deserve,’ ‘Probably heavy in debt,’ ‘Permanent head damage.’’]

And yet structure is such an important part of survival. Support from family and friends; the ability and option to access care; paying rent and keeping yourself fed; psychiatrists, counsellors, and medication, including all the bureaucracy and red tape that comes between. There is no comprehensive list of what support looks like, and I offer no prescriptive list of care- care is so intimately subjective.

I am one such neuro-diverse person that has been incredibly privileged in my experience of finding care and having a language to describe my illness. I have had support from my parents and friends, I have been able to access crisis care- even if it was lackluster-, and I have never had to worry too much about losing my housing or not having money for medication or appointments. Folks who are well-versed in trauma- focused, intersectional, and socially-conscious care for mental illness know that oppression, marginalization, and “minority stress” are woven into the experience of being a sick body. Racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty- just as much, if not more, of an ‘origin’ as the ‘chemical imbalance’ claim- serotonin-dopamine-norepinephrine- let’s call it, “brain disease” so people might say “it is not your fault you are sick,” and perhaps then I could believe that it is not my queerness or my gender or my history of trauma that brought me here.

The body and the mind are not reducible to the biological. Mental illness is not something that only strikes specific demographics of people, but yet the experience of mental illness is wholly situated and contingent upon material reality.

Now I cannot speak to the experience of having mental health issues arise in the midst of graduate school- I came to the academy already very aware that I would have to tend to some things to make it work for me. The ‘it’ referring to ‘being a productive and creative and visionary scholar.’ Now I know many of us have thinking about, laughing about, and crying about this “imposter syndrome” thing for forever it seems. I haven’t experienced the graduate lifestyle- and particularly the PhD track that I am currently on- as the thing that caused all these ‘issues’ [why are we so obsessed with origins anyway?]. But I have had to learn a completely different skill set; to develop a wide set of coping skills and networks of care, some of which have taken over 5 years to figure out.

Perhaps one of the most difficult steps in building a scaffolding of care for ourselves as neurodiverse depressive, anxious, manic, comes back to language. For me it has been saying it out loud. It’s been forcing myself to disclose and be honest with those around me, people I work with. But I still use the excuse of an accepted physical or legible illness when I call in sick, when I wish I could talk about the mood swings or exhaustion so heavy you feel like an unreal body. A sick body, but an invisible sick body.

Personally, I feel nervous about using the language of disability to talk about my ‘illness.’ The stream of consciousness says: ‘you are not really sick,’ it cackles ‘you are just lazy,’ whispers ‘you will never build your CV sleeping 10 hours a night.’ This is the ugly voice of internalized ableism, because no matter what, it is imperative to know that mental health is vital and is all-encompassing; it touches every part of the body, and the body then extends out into the world. We feel depression and anxiety and panic and dissociation in our bodies. The aches and exhaustion and boredom and forms of soothing are all felt in the body. But yet, sometimes, no one else can see it.