Surviving Grad School for the Strong of Mind

A year with anxiety and depression
FEB 2020
Swanny
L.
Biology

This post is part of a special issue: "Mental Health Matters: Asking for Help & Reaching Out".

It was New Year’s Day ’17 when I first set foot at MIT for a one-week intensive Quantitative Biology Workshop. Little did I know that it was the experience that would change the course of my future. From that moment on, being a student at MIT became a dream, an objective waiting to be achieved. When I finally did, I couldn’t believe my luck. Me, a young jíbara from Humacao, Puerto Rico at a place like MIT, I felt like Cinderella.

Then the clock struck 12, and reality set in. It was cold, and grey, and lonely. During my senior year, I was granted the opportunity to spend the spring semester at MIT after hurricane Maria happened – a category 5 hurricane that completely devastated the island of Puerto Rico. It wasn’t my first winter (I had spent sophomore year of high school in the Midwest), but this one was different. The lack of warmth, sun, and the stressful air that surrounded me at all times had me spiraling into a state of depression. I was not entirely aware of it, even though I had not been experiencing any positive feelings since I arrived. However, I didn’t ask for help. The signs were there: the loneliness, the lack of interest, being unable to focus, the consistent crying.  But MIT was my dream school, so when I got an offer to become a graduate student here, I accepted without hesitation.

I had hopes that all the depressing feelings would go away on their own and that the first year of grad school, although I expected it to be hard, would bring a strong sense of community and belonging that would make it all worth it. It didn’t happen. As time went on, I acquired another little trait, anxiety. Now it wasn’t just feeling isolated; it was also the feeling of something bad inevitably coming for me, always on my heels. The first year was a constant fight with feeling lonely, being in a room full of people and feeling completely isolated, disconnected, and rampant with anxiety about every single move I did or word I said. On top of that, the environment felt very competitive. This added another level of stress and anxiety. I remember crying so hard I could not breathe anymore. But when you keep hearing that feeling overwhelmed and crying a lot is a normal part of the grad school experience, what do you do?

Some students struggling with stress and anxiety find enough support in hearing stories from older students saying that they went through the same thing and that it is “normal.”  However, I believe this terminology has a negative consequence. If something is normal, it is supposed to happen, so there is no need to be alarmed or to do major changes to address the situation. That should not be the case. The first thing to do is to realize that in any other environment, if a person is frequently distressed, feeling isolated, disoriented, extremely anxious, etc., the first advice given is always to look for help. Yes, I believe it is important to speak about our own experiences with other students so that they don’t believe they’re an isolated case, or worse, that there may be something wrong with them, but we need to shift from accepting the behavior towards addressing it. We need to recognize that there is a problem with the concept that high stress and feelings of depression are “normal” in grad school. We can then identify ways to improve the situation, for example, by giving graduate students an informed list of facts about what some of the signs are, where to look for help, and what resources are accessible to them.   

I didn’t look for help in time, which caused my anxiety and depression to keep getting worse. It wasn’t until much later, during a seminar where I found myself fighting back tears as the speakers spoke about the importance of self-care, that I decided to take action. MIT has resources available for students to manage these situations, like the department of Mental Health. However, in my particular case, I was referred to an outside provider because I wanted to receive therapy on a weekly basis. It was also very important to me to be able to communicate with a therapist in Spanish — my first language — so that I could best convey everything that I was feeling. Both MIT and outside providers around the Cambridge/Boston area have professionals that are trained and capable of understanding different languages to try and provide a more close and personalized experience. In addition, I reached out to the Office of Graduate Education and faculty from the Biology Department. Both parties supported and understood my decisions as to how it was best for me to deal with my mental health while still being a graduate student, and this alone made me glad I decided to join MIT. Not many people can say they have the support they need in their respective programs or schools, but I have the privilege to say I do.

In the end, putting myself first was the best decision. I worked on relearning how to feel happy with myself, what I have achieved, and, ultimately, who I am. This essentially meant that I needed to rebuild myself, which is a long journey to embark on. It would be great if I could say that the state of anxiety and depression blew over quickly, but that is not how reality works. One good thing that comes from this experience is developing patience with oneself, learning that there are good and bad days, but that slowly, with help, you can work to make every single day more manageable — even at a place like MIT.

P.S. Here is a list of some of the resources available for grad students at MIT, but remember, no matter where you are, seeking help through a therapist or other mental health specialist is often the best option to get through difficult times.