The normality of mental health in graduate school

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A PowerPoin slide which says Mental Health in graduate School with the reflection of my lab.

Graduate School should be hard, but not impossible. Graduate school should help you develop professionally, without losing your personal life. Graduate school should challenge you without taking a toll on your mental health. Graduate school should encourage you to be creative, not force you to prove that you are worthy of being there. Because you know what? You are more than worthy. You should embrace who you are and where you come from.

Coming from the small island of Puerto Rico, an island which sometimes you cannot even find on a map, I often feel lost in this big escape of being in mainland USA. What’s worst than that? Being in a Biomedical Sciences PhD program in a language which is not your first with a culture that is entirely different from your own.

I didn’t always feel lost. In February 2018 I was ecstatic, I got accepted at my graduate school of choice. I felt like I could conquer the world. I thought I was ready. Fast-forward to September and now I’m in a metropolis, living alone, facing what would be the greatest challenge of my life. First semester was bearable because I only had the introduction courses, but something that I didn’t expect to happen did. I got depressed. Because being from a tropical island, winter was a shock to me. Sunlight ending at 4 pm was ending my motivation. Instead of managing my personal life, I invested myself even more on my research. I worked 12+ hours every day, to then study until the morning without any sleep. Every Sunday I used to cry. But I didn’t look for help. I heard classmates sharing their experiences on how they would feel like they couldn’t handle the pressure of the program and their life changing. My thoughts were: “See? I am in graduate school, feeling like this is normal.” By the end of the semester I was burned out. I even thought that continuing the program was a waste of time. On winter break I reevaluated my life and remembered why I entered the program. Science is my passion, but I couldn’t overwork myself again. Thus, I made the decision that I would take care of myself. To my surprise… the second semester is worst. I am in the middle of said semester.

 My days consist of taking class early in the morning, going to the lab until late evening and then going home to do class assignments until midnight or later, without counting the time I must dedicate to studying per se. I was spreading myself thin, but this time around I wasn’t crying. I had to be tough because I AM A GRADUATE STUDENT. THIS IS NORMAL.

I started noticing that I was falling behind for the simple reason that English is my second language. Consequently, I decided I must study harder. And so, I did. I dedicated every single breathing second to my studies and work. The decision I previously took about taking care of myself just went out of my mind. Everything was pilling up and I felt I was drowning. I battled with this feeling without telling my professors, because I couldn’t show them I was weak.

When midterms came, all of them were on the same week. I didn’t eat, I didn’t sleep. When I got some sleep, I didn’t want to wake up. I felt numb but couldn’t cry. I was a robot being charged by the work I had. I had to prove that I am worthy of being here. Without having a personal life, I took my exams. And I failed. Not only did I fail, I was the lowest grade of the whole class.

Looking through the exam, in some questions I had made the dumbest mistakes. The pressure of having to prove myself had blocked me. In others, it was a language issue. I was understanding in Spanish the opposite of what the question written in English said. I could only think that I worked so hard to prove that I belong here, but I demonstrated the opposite. I kept comparing myself to my classmates, bringing myself down. Demolishing my self-confidence. Feeling that I wasn’t cut to be in this PhD program. To my surprise, tears fell down my cheeks.  I was feeling like I couldn’t take it anymore, graduate school was consuming my life. I only knew myself as the professional, the human being was gone.

I decided to go to a therapist, who told me I should share what I was going through. Low self-confidence is not a sign of weakness and that speaking up about it would help me figure out who I am apart from the academics. When I decided to open up, every single student was feeling the same. No one was proud of who they were. Everyone was going through Imposter Syndrome, depression and anxiety during graduate school. This is not a good sign. Every single student is leaving behind the human being to be an overworked robot. This “normal” is NOT OK. Our creativity is cut short and our mental health goes down the drain.

By speaking up I was able to find friends who have each other’s backs and great mentors which are worried about not only my professional skills, but my mental health. We are alive and by that alone we should be proud. No matter where you come from, you are worthy of what you got and what you are going to achieve.

I am still turning out. I have so much doubt in myself, but I am working on it. Looking for hobbies and moments when I can just cool down and be happy. To develop the human being. Without the person, you can’t have the professional. We must speak up to break the stereotype that all these problems are normal in graduate school and every student has to go through them. Because we don’t.

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A drawing of a brain where X marks the spot. It says Mental Health Matters.
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