Navigating Graduate School with a Mental Illness
Psychologist Deborah Serani, Psy.D, was working with a young man who was struggling with a severe bout of social anxiety and chronic depression during his first trimester of grad school. Interacting with his classmates and giving presentations were excruciating. He considered dropping out.
This is understandable. Grad school is hard enough. When you have a mental illness, it can feel impossible.
Thankfully, it’s not.
Below, three psychologists shared their suggestions for success.
Learn about your mental illness. Working with a therapist can help you better understand your condition and yourself. What’s also helpful is to check out self-help books, podcasts about mental health and blogs by people with similar struggles.
“The more you know about your mental illness, the more you can set realistic goals,” said Serani, who specializes in mood disorders and has penned three award-winning books on depression. For instance, you pick a topic for your thesis that doesn’t have too many moving parts, so if your depression deepens, you won’t be sidelined, she said. You also don’t over-schedule yourself and take breaks between classes to refuel. This helps you feel “‘proactive’ instead of ‘limited’ by your mental illness.” You also explore and capitalize on your strengths.
Seek treatment—and stay consistent. Serani, who lives with chronic depression, was in psychotherapy during her training. “This enabled me to problem solve, explore issues and maintain a solid level of wellbeing.”
Make sure you’re treating your mental illness with psychotherapy and/or medication—and you’re committed to each. Serani noted that 90 percent of people who relapse have missed therapy sessions and didn’t take their medication daily.
Take advantage of resources. Psychologist Nicole Archer, Psy.D, stressed the importance of using academic resources—such as your school’s counseling center (most offer free or heavily discounted services). She and Serani also mentioned talking to your advisors, professors or department chair about possible accommodations, extensions or a leave of absence.
Keep up with assignments. “Staying current with your readings and assignments in graduate school helps to keep you feeling confident as a student, and healthy as a person,” Serani said.
If you have a cooperative learning environment, she suggested starting a study group. A study group keeps you engaged with the material and provides valuable social interaction, said Veronika Glusker, Psy.D, a psychologist in Sherman Oaks and Beverly Hills who specializes in working with young adults. If you’re going solo, carve out chunks of time for the library—or “sequester yourself to your room for a day on the weekend,” Serani said.
Serani also suggested asking to access your syllabus before classes begin, so you can start your reading. Another bonus is that you avoid all-nighters or late nights, which can be dangerous. (Straying from your sleep schedule also can lead to relapse.)
Meet people outside of your program. Look into clubs on campus or in the community, said Archer, who specializes in anxiety and stress management, offers online counseling for Florida residents and is opening an office for in-person sessions in Pinellas county in the fall.
Check out meetup.com or join intramural sports, she said. “Your cohorts will hopefully be great assets for studying, friendship, and commiseration, but it wouldn’t hurt to have some people to hang out to talk about stuff other than your program.”
Be kind to yourself. Archer suggested acknowledging your accomplishments—big or small. Also, “remember that you are there to learn, so it’s OK that you don’t know everything.”
Pay close attention to your self-talk, and replace any negativity with compassionate understanding, she said. What would you tell a good friend if they failed a test or did poorly on a paper?
As Archer said, “Would you tell them to quit school after one bad assignment? Would you think they were stupid? Would you stop being their friend? Probably not.” You’d likely tell your friend that grad school is supposed to be hard, and you’re there to learn. You’d likely say that it’s frustrating and disappointing. But maybe they can talk to someone about it and refocus on the actions they can take in the future to prepare.
Put self-care on your calendar. Put self-care activities on your calendar, “just like you would a class or doctor’s appointment,” Archer said. Because they’re just as vital. Maybe you schedule a 20-minute run or a restorative yoga class. Maybe you schedule walking the dog or going to lunch with a friend. Maybe you schedule a 10-minute meditation before bed.
Consider combining study time with self-care. For instance, Glusker suggested designating one course as your workout course: Study primarily by listening to audio recordings as you run, or reading your textbook while riding a stationary bike.
When you’re especially busy, “get creative with the time you have and what strategies are most helpful for you,” Archer said. She shared these examples: Listen to your favorite songs or an audio book on your commute; do a 5-minute workout video between chapters; take several deep breaths before starting an assignment.
Archer also stressed the importance of honoring all of you—even though it’s not easy. “From my own experiences in grad school, as well as my experience with seeing graduate students in therapy, I think it is important to remember that grad school is only one part of who we are and our roles.” Make time for your friends, family, hobbies and anything else that connects you to yourself. Painting. Poetry. Singing. Sewing. Dancing.
Use your experiences to grow. Serani, a professor at Adelphi University, tells her psychology grad students that their personal experiences with mental illness can inform their clinical skills. “The best psychologists I know are ones that personally understand what it’s like to live with a mental illness—and know what it’s like to have been a patient.”
Glusker believes that having a mental illness makes you “a better therapist and a more empathic person. Being able to relate to your future patients will help them to see you as a human being and not just a walking textbook.”
Today, many psychology programs encourage, or even require, their students to see a therapist. Because everyone has struggles. “It is important to have a good understanding of your own ‘stuff’ so that later when you are sitting with a patient, you are able to differentiate their ‘stuff’ from your ‘stuff,’” Glusker said.
But this isn’t only for psychologists. Seeking therapy, exploring your struggles and working on your mental health helps you gain a deeper understanding of yourself, your strengths, weaknesses and goals, Glusker said. This is invaluable for any future career. After all, you’re the common denominator.
When you have a mental illness, you feel like you’re the only one who’s struggling. You feel shame. You feel so alone.
But you’re not.
Serani often talks about her struggles with depression with her grad students. And when she does, inevitably, many reveal their own struggles in class or in private conversations with her. Even if a grad student doesn’t have a mental illness, they no doubt feel the palpable pressure of participating in an academically rigorous program. Ultimately, try to surround yourself with supportive people, and talk about your feelings, fears and experiences.
Serani’s client who had social anxiety and depression didn’t drop out. Through their work together, he was able to navigate his challenges and graduate. What at first feels impossible—with treatment, self-care and self-compassion—becomes anything but.
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