Mental health concerns on campus, particularly depression and anxiety are not new, but initiatives like the Queen’s University Mental Health Commission and Good2Talk, Canada’s new post-secondary helpline, highlight the growing recognition of the importance of mental health on university campuses.
In clinical psychology, we often talk about how individuals respond to stressors in ways that make sense given the situation, even if these aren’t the most adaptive or productive ways of responding. We tend to try to do the best we can in difficult situations, for better or for worse, but sometimes the demands of the situations exceed our resources for coping with them.
Let’s be honest here. Being a graduate student is often a stressful experience. Although we’ve excelled in our undergraduate careers, graduate school is a whole different ballgame and there are a number of factors at play here.
For one, conducting original research is often much more cognitively demanding than studying from a textbook and our personal level of responsibility is much higher when our ability to graduate is on the line. We must also cope with the stresses of small classes, teaching assistantships, and other commitments.
Graduate school can also be more isolating than undergraduate studies. Although it varies by department (and even by lab), our pool of peers that we interact with on a regular basis is much smaller, and often there are less opportunities for the spontaneous interaction that facilitates that initial connection. To add to the stress, many of us are geographically distanced from our support system of close friends and family.
Although not everyone experiences mental distress in graduate school, it is certainly not an uncommon experience (it is important to note that you can have mental “distress” without having a clinical “disorder”; these are not synonymous). The graduate school environment is perhaps an atypically stressful one, for a variety of reasons, as we have seen. In this sense, we can begin to normalize these feelings of distress within such a high-pressure environment. Although we might feel just fine in control even the vast majority of the time, most, if not all of us have experienced moments of doubt and insecurity at some point during our graduate career.
So what can we do? We’ve talked about the importance of setting boundaries and not neglecting self-care (e.g., see here, here, and here). If you find yourself feeling unable to cope, don’t hesitate to get in touch with counselling services at Queen’s (as part of HCDS). That’s what they’re there for. The staff at counseling services can also direct you to other resources in the community, if necessary, and if you are in crisis, the HCDS website lists helpful resources directing you to immediate care.
My ultimate wish is that we start treating mental health more like physical health. Just like we might catch a cold or a virus and we need to seek treatment, at times we might feel overwhelmed and in need of reaching out to a friend or contacting a mental health professional, and that’s perfectly OK, perhaps especially in graduate school.