Academia Should Come With Free Counseling

Mental Health | New Faculty


(I wrote this post with my own experience in mind to begin with since that’s the most solid one I have. I would like this to create a conversation about the state of mental health in academia. I have seen sites like Depressed Academics among others and the issue has been on my mind (no pun intended) for quite some time. I would love to hear your thoughts, what you’d like to share, and how you handle your own mental health and that of your students when you suspect that they may be sinking too far).

I was on the phone with a dear friend who’s still in her graduate program and we were joking about the weird paradigm you live in while you’re in graduate school. My comment,

“it should come with at least six counseling sessions once you defend.”

I was not joking.

Grad school and academia is this weird vortex of suck where one day, you’re on top of the world and the next, you’re eating a pint of ice cream (or drinking several pints of beer) in rejection. You are constantly looking to your department head, your P&T committee, the grant review system, or some pie in the sky for affirmation or rejection and quite frankly: it takes a toll on you. I’m not saying that other professions aren’t any more or less stressful here, but perhaps we need to rethink our views on the perceptions we have of mental health. Many professions outwardly frown on people who acknowledge they’re struggling personally-whether it be emotional or mental, or just plain old life sneaking up.

No matter how healthy your ego is when you start grad school, odds are: it kicks your ass several times over. While I’d like to think it’s like the military, where they break you down to re-program you, it’s not. Grad school just breaks you down. It does very little to reprogram you for anything else past that. Many grad programs will say, “we prepare future leaders” but what the hell does that even mean? Bueller?

Academia is the silent killer of emotional well being like hearing loss is a silent killer. I never would have thought that working in academia would take the toll on my mental state that it has and my mom will tell you, I’m pretty tough 🙂 thanks mom! All jokes aside, it eats away at us-stressing us out, deteriorating our physical and mental health. The academy is slow and yet so fast all at the same time.

I’ll use myself as an example. I finished my program and didn’t really feel like I’d dumped “grad school mentality” for a solid year. Another year has passed, and now am I finding my own individual voice for things related to the academy. Maybe it is the counseling because yes, I did seek counseling after grad school and NO, I don’t feel ashamed to share that. We accumulate a lot of mental and emotional “stuff” and sometimes, we can’t sort it all out by ourselves. Family and friends are great, but sometimes we need someone else with an objective and unbiased lens to help us view things a bit differently. Sometimes, we just need the affirmation that our brain still works correctly and that we are indeed perfectly capable once again. I have no personal stigma if people share with me they’ve gone to counseling. Couples who want to get married are often offered counseling, trauma victims receive counseling, people who work in high risk environments are offered it, so what’s the big deal?

I don’t want this post to turn into the ‘mental illness post’ because that’s a big old ball of wax I’m not ready to delve into (I am working on it), but this is what I know from my own experience:

  • I needed to rap it out with someone
  • It doesn’t mean I’m weak, mentally ill, or ‘sick’ in any way, shape or form (and if I was or am, who the hell really cares as long as I’m not putting anyone, including myself, in danger?)
  • I feel better, I got the perspective I needed on things (in my faculty and personal life)
  • My personal life affects my faculty life and vice versa so for me, it was a necessary evil
  • I’m thankful for insurance to help cover the cost, but when I looked at what the true cost would be without benefits, it was still a worthy expense considering how much lighter and more peaceful I feel at this moment

My life will continue to be chaotic at times. I will still get myself stuck in the mud and get thrown weird curveballs that no one in the MLB would want to swing at, but I will. You know you will.

If you gleaned nothing from this post today, know this: academia can be a real buzz kill for your psyche and it’s perfectly OK to talk to someone about it. You’re not signing your life away, just a few hours and if you can take away one or two valuable nuggets or walk out feeling better about yourself, it is worth it. You’re worth it and your brain will thank you. If you’re concerned about cost and access, think of these things:

  • Many universities offer counseling free of charge or for a minimal fee (what’s $25 to keep your sanity? it’s priceless).
  • Check with your insurance provider, they may have an EAP (employee assistance program) or some equivalent that will help connect you with someone who can meet your needs.
  • Be honest with yourself and the counselor if you do speak to someone. What’s the point of going to the appointment if you’re just going to sugarcoat?
  • If and when you do go to a counseling session, ask for resources. You are an educated, independent person, you can help yourself between sessions and do some of the work yourself.
  • If you can’t afford it, this might be one time where it’s ok to ask for help–from a family member to pay for a few sessions, from another sort of ‘spiritual guider’ of sorts, perhaps even a church.
  • Journaling. Sounds cheesey, but it works. Sometimes, getting it on paper (or MS word in my case) can really help. When you can empty those voiding thoughts from your mind, it’s a place to start. At least you’ve told it to someone. Then, if you do go to a session, you can reference it to help organize your thoughts and be more clear with the valuable time you do have.
  • Be kind to yourself. You didn’t get all confused overnight and odds are, it may take some time to feel ok about your brain again. The human experience is one that cannot be replicated or imitated by anyone else and I’ll be the first one to tell you–getting burned out and backed up on things really sucks.

What do you think about the state of mental health in academia? How do you address it if you have a student or colleague who you feel might be struggling?

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2 thoughts on “Academia Should Come With Free Counseling

  1. AKT says:

    If I hadn’t chosen a counselor who had a PhD, I don’t think I would have been so resilient to the failure I experienced and find the confidence needed for job interviews in “the real world”. She understood what I was feeling because she’s experienced a PhD program. This article gives a better understanding of why having a good strong self-esteem is still a work in progress for many graduate students who have withdrew or completed the program. It’s like we’re all recovering from PGSD…”post-graduate stress disorder”.

    • thanks for the comment. good call on finding a counselor w/ a phd! it’s a strange ‘world’ you get stuck in! i once heard that “my mind is a dangerous place to be” and it’s true for many of us!

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