Recent studies have shown that mental health conditions are far more common in graduate students than in the general public (e.g. Bolotnyy et al., 2020). Despite the prevalence, these issues are not something that are often openly discussed, and graduate students often don’t seek treatment. This week, we are interviewing Jean Holloway who aims to shed some light on her personal experience with some of these issues. Jean is a Ph.D. student at the University of Ottawa in Ottawa, Canada, studying the impacts of climate change and forest fire on permafrost in the subarctic. Here, we ask her some questions to find out a little more about her experience and learn some tips and tricks to successfully managing mental health while in graduate school.
First, why don’t you tell us a little bit about your research and your experience in graduate school?
JH: My research is broadly focused on determining how permafrost is responding to climate change in the Canadian Arctic. I completed my M.Sc. in Geography at Queen’s University, in Kingston, Ontario, and then moved a few hours away to join the Department of Geography, Environment and Geomatics at the University of Ottawa for my Ph.D. While at Queen’s, I worked in the Canadian High Arctic looking at features related to permafrost thaw, and I totally fell in love with the North! My current research is focused on determining the impacts of forest fires on discontinuous permafrost in the southern Northwest Territories, Canada. Little work has been done to quantify the impacts of fire on permafrost in this region, even though the increasing frequency, severity, and magnitude of fires has the potential to accelerate permafrost loss. If you want to know more general information about permafrost and fire, check out this blog post I wrote a few months ago for the EGU Cryoblog. If you want to know more about my specific research (because it’s awesome) watch this video I made about my project.
Can you tell us a bit about your experience with mental health?
JH: Absolutely, this is a topic I am very passionate about. I am lucky in that I have the privilege to be in a position where I am able to be open about my experience with these issues. There is still quite a bit of stigma surrounding mental health, so it’s always a bit of a risk to talk about especially to a potentially large audience like this, but I just hope that someone can benefit from me sharing my personal journey! I’ve struggled with a whole slew of mental health issues, including anxiety, bouts of depression, trauma, among other things, and I’ve been seeking treatment of various sorts for over 7 years. My mental health really started to deteriorate during my undergrad, but at that time I didn’t have the capacity to seek help. So, for me, these conditions haven’t been caused specifically by graduate school, but have certainly been magnified by it. For example, the comprehensive exams during my Ph.D. triggered a very serious and debilitating mental health crisis. Remember this is just my personal experience, and I definitely know of others who don’t have underlying mental health conditions yet still stuffer from anxiety and/or depression during grad school. Despite the challenges I’ve had, I am happy to say that by getting the help I needed and making lifestyle changes over the past few years, I have been able to get my mental health more or less under control, and rarely experience severe symptoms these days. A few years ago I really didn’t think that was possible! I went from barely being able to keep it together and thinking I would need to drop-out, to now feeling extremely grounded and content, while achieving at a higher-level than ever before.
What about graduate school specifically, do you think, makes mental health issues so prevalent?
JH: Graduate school is such an amazing experience and can be truly wonderful in terms of personal growth, but I think there are certainly a few areas that are tough and can leave people feeling overwhelmed. Here are some examples:
- There is a tremendous amount of pressure, coming from all different directions. There are expectations to be achieving at an extremely high level, even though we are just beginning our careers and still learning how to conduct research projects and data analysis. There are time constraints surrounding when you need to finish, and often unrealistic expectations for what you can complete within that time. Financial pressure * eye roll * because it’s basically impossible to live on a grad student salary alone, so we need to take on other positions which adds more to our plates. There’s also this underlying pressure that we put on ourselves, I think it’s because of the looming deadline of always having a thesis to finish, it makes us feel like we should never be taking breaks. Sometimes I’ll be watching Netflix in the evening and think to myself, “This is such a waste of my time, I could be writing right now…” which is just ridiculous because it’s not humanly possible to work 24/hours a day. Sometimes it can be external pressure, or competitive and toxic work environments. It’s just a lot to deal with and can be extremely overwhelming!
- Graduate students are often left to their own devices. Even if you have a lot of support from your supervisor, you’re usually left to manage your own time and set your own goals, which can be challenging especially at the Master’s level when you’re brand new. Again, this can be overwhelming and can lead to constant worry about what we are supposed to be doing. It can be demoralizing and fear-inducing that there is no guarantee of employment after our degrees. For me, that led to panic and taking on waaaay more than I really could manage in order to try and make my resume stand out. In general, there can be a lack of direction for career development, or even what the purpose of our project is, which can lead to feelings of uselessness and depression. Sometimes I get these overwhelming “what’s the point of this, why am I here?” feelings.
- Imposters syndrome – basically until the last year of my Ph.D. I felt like I didn’t belong and that at any moment everyone was going to find out I was a fraud. I think most people experience this from time to time. I think in grad school it comes from being surrounded by people at the top of their field, and comparing ourselves to them. Imposters syndrome made me feel very afraid and depressed, sometimes so paralyzed that I couldn’t work for days.
- Networking and conferences… I don’t think that I’m the only introverted graduate student, and I find conferences just horrible! People say, “Oh, it’s fun, just go network!” and I’m left feeling anxious and confused.
There are many other things too, I’m sure, but this is a start and I think it’s more important to discuss the solution rather than the problem.
Okay, on that note, do you have any suggestions for things you can do if you’re a graduate student struggling with mental health?
JH: Yes! I have many strategies that I’ve employed over the past few years, which have really helped me with my mental health and have made getting through grad school a lot easier. These things may not work for everyone, but they sure have helped me. Nothing changes if nothing changes, so try making even the tiniest shift to something in your life and I promise it can help.
- Help. I can’t emphasize this enough. Maybe this is as simple as talking to a friend, family, a colleague, your supervisor, or someone in your department you are close with. But for me it meant seeking professional help. I started out by going to the free counselling services offered by my university, but generally they offer only short-term crisis counselling and I needed more than that. So, I regularly see a private counsellor now. It costs a lot but it’s worth it because if my mental health isn’t in order I can’t really function well in any aspect of my life! There are more affordable options these days (e.g. online counselling services such as Talkspace) and in my city there are even subsidized options. And there are lots of free support groups. Just look into what’s available to you! It’s important to find the right person to talk to as well, just like any relationship not everyone clicks. It took me 4 or 5 therapists before I found the right one.
- Limit stress. This is a big one. It sounds impossible, but stress is just a feeling and feelings are not facts. To keep my stress levels low, I have cut down tremendously on what I’m involved in. I say no to a lot of things, and even turn down opportunities that may be beneficial to my career because my stress management is more important. I won’t have a career if I burn out when I’m 30! Similarly, I now treat school like a job, with regular 9-to-5 hours (mostly… sometimes I roll in at noon :P) and I leave work at the office. This means I may work at a bit of a slower pace than the ‘typical’ graduate student, but for me this is necessary so that I can maintain my stamina to the end. A Ph.D. is a marathon, not a sprint.
- There are some simple lifestyle changes that are really beneficial. Sleep is the biggest, I think. Regular sleep is key for good mental health, and as graduate students it’s so easy to fall into bad sleep habits. I try to go to sleep at the same time each night and wake up at the same time (even on the weekends!) and it makes me a feel a lot better. If you’re anything like me then you drink A LOT of coffee, but to help with my sleep I try not to drink it in the afternoon anymore. Other things like a healthy diet and exercise are beneficial for mental health, especially limiting alcohol and drug intake. This has been really important for me. Last, I try to take a walk outside at lunch everyday to give my brain a break, but am often bad about executing this one.
- To help with my anxiety, I practice daily meditation and journaling. When things at school get really busy and overwhelming, these practices help keep stress and negative thoughts and feelings at bay. There are lots of free guided meditation apps, even starting with 2 minutes is great! It’s a skill that you have to learn, and it can be difficult at first but gets easier with practice. Yoga is also fantastic, and if you are a poor student like me and can’t afford to go to a yoga studio there are lots of YouTube videos you can do for free at home (Yoga with Adriene is my fave). Journaling at the end of the day is helpful as a check-in. It felt awkward at first, and I just started by jotting down when I felt most anxious during the day. But now I am able to write write pages and pages and it helps me process things. Simple and regular self-care makes a huge difference!
- Work-life-balance is extremely important. Have fun! Get a hobby! For me, having my whole life centered around my thesis has led to negative mental health outcomes. If you’re deriving your self-worth from one source, and something goes wrong, that can be very harmful! Being well rounded is important for resiliency. If you feel like there is no time for fun or hobbies or rest, something is wrong with that equation and you should talk to your supervisor or department. And, if you are feeling overwhelmed and need a break, take a break. There is no shame in that. I took a month off during my Ph.D. because my mental health was tanking, and that was probably the best decision I’ve ever made. Had I not taken that time, I wouldn’t have been able to recover and likely would not have been able to finish my thesis.
JH: Thank you for being open to this topic and for having me! I just wanted to let anyone who is struggling know that they are not alone and that there is hope. If anyone reading this needs someone to chat with or has questions about something I have written, they are welcome to contact me at the e-mail address below.
Edited by Scott Watson
Jean Holloway is a PhD student at the University of Ottawa, in Ottawa, Canada. Her research interests surround the impacts of fire on discontinuous permafrost in the Northwest Territories, Canada. She uses a variety of techniques to investigate this, including monitoring ground temperatures, conducting annual geophysical surveys, and applying thermal modelling to predict future change. Contact e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org