The first panic attack is, in my experience, not the worst. The worst comes at the point in one’s life when you can feel the onset of the attack before things really fly apart at the seams, you know what is happening to you, and you can do nothing to stop it. For me that was July of 2012, feeling the onset of what I knew would turn into minutes of agony as I huddled foetal against the pain of seized muscles and heaving lungs, screaming gradually turning to a clear refrain of “I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.”
On December 14, 2012, I submitted my dissertation; I’ve since received glowing examiner’s reports and am due to graduate in a matter of weeks. Yet what I experience isn’t great. I don’t feel good. I don’t even feel particularly accomplished.
I feel relieved.
That’s, the main, because the memory of my time as a graduate student is marred by what a series of counsellors have referred to as severe acute situational anxiety. In addition to performance anxiety around my dissertation and a crippling sense of impostor syndrome, during the final months of my dissertation process I suffered from a series of relatively spectacular panic attacks. The worst of these attacks… well, see above.
I’ve reason to suspect I’m not alone. Whether it is caused by a toxic, or even abusive relationship with their supervisor; the stresses of other relationships being amplified by graduate studies; financial distress; or some combination of so many other reasons, a high proportion of students suffer from mental health issues. According to a study (warning: paywall) out of UC Berkley, 67% of graduate students said they felt hopeless at least once a year, and 54% felt so depressed they had trouble functioning day to day. These aren’t necessarily indicators of anxiety, but they are indicative of the mental health of today’s graduate student.
It shouldn’t be like that. Yes, graduate school should be really hard. It should have moments of anxiety, from exams, to teaching, to journal submissions, to the dis itself. Anxiety is a natural response to uncertainty and stress in some cases. People do have bad days.
But it shouldn’t be all the time, and it shouldn’t be actively harmful. Graduate school shouldn’t be a source of abusive relationships and practices, or something that causes or perpetuates mental health problems or mental illness. Yes, becoming a highly trained specialist is the end, the telos of graduate school. It is an exceedingly demanding time in a person’s life. But if you are a broken piece of work at the end of it, then something has gone wrong.
And what is wrong isn’t the person involved. Suffering from mental health issues as a graduate student isn’t a weakness, and it isn’t correlated with achievement (or lack thereof). To pretend otherwise places a stigma on mental health issues and causes more suffering. We need to be honest and compassionate about what graduate students, undergraduates, and members of faculty go through.
Anxiety, moreover isn’t a sign of weakness—it is the sign of a deficient educational system. Even if young researchers do good work, for that good work to come at the cost of healthy people seems a questionable tradeoff at best. Education and scholarship matter, and our institutions reflect that. But they aren’t the only things that matter.
We owe it to our students and our peers to assist and support them in breaking their cycles of anxiety. We owe it to those who arrive in the future to manage our institutions in a way that treat people better, and help them when mental health problems do occur. It makes for healthier people, healthier communities, and for better work. Anyone in higher education should be looking to discover knowledge and impart it to willing, hard working students. But that shouldn’t come at an unacceptable cost, and I’m willing to step forward and say that if I hadn’t gotten really lucky, the costs would have been way too high for me.
I have serious and continuing anxiety issues, and I spend a lot of my energies these days undoing that damage. I feel better, my work is better for it, and I’m confident that one day I’ll be able to look at my dissertation—a dissertation that others have deemed to be a solid contribution—without feeling slightly queasy. In the meantime, I think it worth exploring what can be done to make sure fewer people get pulled under by the darker elements of student—and indeed university—life.