It was my first semester of grad school, and I was curled up in a ball on my dorm room bed. I was experiencing a distinct mixture of flu-like symptoms and crushing dread. It felt like the world was ending, even though from a rational place I knew that it definitely wasn’t. From my bed, I could see the weak December sun stream in through my window, assuring me that, indeed, the physical world was still intact.
Panic attacks were no stranger to me. I began experiencing sudden and intense periods of panic early in my undergraduate days. They usually occurred the night before a big assignment was due or right before an exam. There was one semester that was so challenging that I could no longer grit my teeth and continue on through the constant hum of anxiety that plagued my life. My eyes still puffy from tears during the most recent panic attack, I went to my undergraduate institute’s mental health services. Unfortunately, the next counseling slot I could get was more than a month away, and I was advised to perhaps try seeking a counselor off-campus if I needed to see someone more urgently.
Already overwhelmed with a heavy course load that left me with very little free time to play phone ping-pong between my insurance company and counseling providers, I walked away feeling defeated. I ended up silently struggling with bouts of intense anxiety for the rest of my undergrad degree, recklessly thinking that grad school would be different. I will be mostly doing research! There are fewer classes to deal with in grad school! These were the justifications I used in order to tuck the concerns about my mental health in the corners of my mind. These were obviously naïve notions. Entering grad school only upped the ante on the ever-present pressure I felt to perform well.
The combined stress of classwork, rotating in labs, and imposter syndrome that I felt in my first semester were so overwhelming that, the week before finals, I gave into a crushing panic that had been building in the pit of my stomach since arriving at MIT. After one of my classes, I went to my dorm, changed into my favorite tattered shirt and sweatpants, and let myself fall apart within the small sanctuary of my bed.
Eventually, tired of being confined to a ball on my bed, I dialed MIT medical and asked for the mental health department. After shakily explaining my situation to the receptionist, I asked to make an appointment for some time in the following week. I was bracing myself, expecting to be told that the next slot was months away and that, once again, I would have to bare-knuckle the anxiety to make it through the semester. After a pause, the receptionist replied, “Next week? From the sound of it, you need to come in today. Can you come in this afternoon?” This answer was the absolute opposite of what I had been anticipating, so it took me a few seconds to respond with a soft yes.
A few hours later, I was sitting in the waiting room at MIT mental health in the same tattered shirt and sweatpants, trying my best to keep a neutral composure. I was then called into a small and cozy room with a therapist who, after jotting down some basic information about me, asked me why I had come in. Unable to keep my neutral composure any longer, I fell apart in front of her. I explained my history with anxiety and how difficult it had been for me to function for the past few days. I walked out half an hour later with prescriptions for the necessary anti-anxiety medications, as well as with an appointment with a psychiatrist later in the week, where we would come up with a long-term game plan to manage my anxiety with medication and therapy.
Now a 4th year Ph.D. student, I can say that I am happier and healthier than I have ever been at MIT, even though the amount of stress has remained constant. Anxiety no longer debilitates me, nor is the quiet background hum that has been present in my life since I was a teenager. With 39% of graduate students nationwide suffering from depression and 41% struggling with anxiety, it is comforting that MIT takes this crisis seriously by providing ample resources.1 Of course, there remains some room for improvement, such as decreasing the co-pay for counseling sessions and increasing personnel training in order to better help international students and students of color. In my case, the act of simply making mental health services more accessible, combined with the comprehensive health insurance provided through my graduate program, was able to jumpstart my journey toward mental wellness.
To the current and future first year students in similar situations, who question their self-worth, their place at MIT, whether they are smart enough to get an A in that class or to join their dream lab, here’s my advice: it is never too early or too late to get help. Grad school is difficult, but taking care of your mental health during this time does not have to be.
1 If you want to take the first step, you can call the mental health department at MIT medical at 617-253-2916. You can also take advantage of many of the student support services provided at MIT, such as group counseling.