Tips for Working with Mental Illness
Let’s be real, with 1 in 5 adults experiencing mental illness this year in America someone reading this is also struggling with depression, anxiety, or another mental illness. With the demands of graduate school, it can be hard to take care of our mental health and get our work done. As someone who is currently sitting on a couch, dealing with side effects of SSRIs, and simultaneously feeling guilty for not getting enough work done, I feel very qualified to speak on this issue. The truth is, there is no one blanket cure. But here are some tips I’ve developed through my graduate career to help deal with the harder days.
- Take time off when you need it. It is so hard to do. I get anxiety and guilt over not being productive, over relaxing when there is still a pile of work to do. I’ve also learned that pile is never getting smaller whether I take an hour to relax or not. Strangely, when I spend a day in bed sick, the world didn’t come crashing down overnight and it all waited for me to come back the next day. Sometimes time off is an hour, sometimes it is a day, sometimes it is a whole beautiful week on vacation. Each of those are okay. You’ll be more productive after you are rested then when you just keep pushing through. So, take the time off.
- Be realistic and prioritize. You cannot do everything on your own. Let me say that again, you are not superman, you are not a machine, you CANNOT do everything on your own, and that’s okay. In fact, you are going to get overwhelmed by everything. So, prioritize what needs to be done. And here’s the catch, sometimes what needs to be done first, isn’t the item with the earliest due date. Sometimes what needs to be done first is the dishes piling in the sick because they are driving you crazy and you cannot get piece of mind until it is gone and then you can focus on studying. And that’s okay. And other days, the house can collect all the dirt it wants because you have experiments to run…and that’s okay too. Just be realistic in the schedule you set for yourself. Your realistic schedule might be a lot lighter than your friend’s schedule, but he also doesn’t have to take 30 minutes to calm down from therapy. Or maybe he does. Which brings me to my next point.
- Don’t compare yourself to others. You don’t know what anyone else is going through. Even if they tell you, you still don’t really know. Don’t waste time feeling bad because someone else seems to be doing more. I spend more hours in the lab then my office mate, but she is far more productive with her time than I am. It doesn’t mean one of us works harder or is better, it means we each found what works for us…and that’s okay. I didn’t graduate as fast as my friend, but she didn’t leave early once a week for therapy and was emotionally drained afterwards. And my other friend leaves for therapy and can come right back to work. That doesn’t mean she’s better than me. It means she deals with her issues differently than me. And that’s okay too. You can only compare yourself to you. Not 3 years ago totally different situation you, current you. What can you do right now to be better than the last mistake you made?
- Go easy on yourself. At the end of the day, it is all going to be okay. It doesn’t fee like it, but it will. I know you feel like you should be able to do more, to be more. But what matters is you do the most you can. That might will look different for everyone. And that’s okay. Beating yourself up for not being the perfect student, the perfect friend, the perfect researcher, the perfect roommate, the perfect human…it is all counterproductive. Give yourself permission to be sick. You are not alone. And forgive yourself for that.
- Remember you are sick. I tell myself that all the time, because I am. I take medicine for it. I go to therapy for it. That doesn’t mean I am defined as a patient, but I am sick. And if I had a heart condition and couldn’t take the stairs no one would care. So why should they care if I’m trying to avoid triggering events and don’t take the stairs that day? No one got mad when I sprained my ankle, pushed it too hard one day, and went home early. So why would they be mad if my brain chemistry is off, I pushed myself too hard one day, and came in late? Mental illness is an illness, and sometimes you need to take care of yourself the way any other patient does, with rest and professional help...and that’s okay.
- Ask for what you need. The results will surprise you. I don’t know what you personally need, but I do know that this campus is filled with amazing people to help. People who have let me cry in their office, who double checked I ate lunch, who gave me a hug without asking questions. They’re amazing. You just have to ask, even if it is stupid. I once asked my boss to check in on me once a week with how many papers I read because I could not motivate myself without outside pressure. It made me feel needy, whiny, and stupid, but it actually made him happy because I was finally reading all those papers. You can’t get what you don’t ask for.
- Find support. You are not alone. I promise. Find the support you need. Whether that is from family, another grad student, a significant other, a licensed professional, or all of the above. Get support. If one day you need to reach out and talk about your struggles and another day you want to keep it to yourself, that’s okay. Just find people to lean on. Because you can’t get through grad school alone.
I hope this helped someone. It is scary to write about, but it is worth the risk if I can help. Take your time in finding what works for you. For me, it is taking each day as it comes and giving myself permission to be whatever I am in that day. Today I was sick, and that’s okay. Yesterday I was obsessively productive, and that’s okay. Other days I’m in a happy medium, and I’m going to find a way to be okay with that too. At the end of the day, it is all okay.