Struggling in the ‘Ivory Tower’: Mental Health in Grad School

Monday marked the start of the Canadian Mental Health Association’s (CMHA) Mental Health Awareness week (May 6th – 12th). Across the country, various branches of the CMHA are holding a whole slew of awareness events that can be found by visiting their official awareness week page.

Improving mental health literacy is a crucial step in the breaking down of the wall of stigmatization so often associated with mental illness. We need society to understand that struggling with a mental health condition is IN NO WAY DIFFERENT from struggling with a chronic physical illness; both are exhaustive and all-consuming, both require assistance from health professionals and, more importantly, both are deserving of respect. We wouldn’t tell someone with cancer to ‘suck it up and bear it’, so why ask that of the 1 in 5 Canadians struggling with a mental illness?

The point is, those of us with mental illness aren’t asking for sympathy or special treatment, we’re just asking to level the playing field; we want society to recognize the importance of mental health in the very same light and with the same amount of compassion as physical health.

This week also sees the launch of Partners for Mental Health’s #NotMyselfToday campaign. Starting tomorrow, this fantastic national initiative will aim to improve awareness and acceptance of mental illness within the workplace. Each and every day approximately 500,000 Canadians will miss work as a result of mental illness. This has huge economic ramifications: nearly 30% of short and long-term disability claims are the result of mental illness. What does this mean for the Canadian economy as a whole? Of the staggering 51 billion dollars mental health costs the Canadian economy annually, nearly half, or 20 billion dollars, is the direct result of mental health related workplace losses, including missed work days or reduced productivity.

But more important than financial costs are the challenges faced by those attempting to combat mental illness within a toxic work environment. A 2008 study found that only 23% of Canadians would feel comfortable disclosing their mental health concern to their employers. And can you blame them? When society sees mental illness as dangerous, unpredictable, unreliable. When society continues to lack awareness, information, and understanding about these common health concerns. Can you blame them for not wanting to talk? For choosing to conceal? For preferring to struggle in isolation from employers and work colleagues?

It’s time for a change – it’s time that we begin the conversation about workplace mental health. By engaging various businesses and their employees in discussions about mental health, it is hoped that we can create mental health stigma-free work environments and improve the overall wellbeing of the millions of Canadians struggling with mental health concerns.

Now, it’s hard for me to speak about the topic of workplace mental health for one major reason – I have never worked. Sadly, it’s true. I started my university education when I was 18 and haven’t stopped, continuing directly into graduate school, completing two master’s degrees and now on the way to finishing my doctorate. So I can’t specifically speak to what it’s like working in a unhealthly workplace, and I can’t begin to understand the shame and isolation associated with a secretive mental illness at work.

But I can, however, speak to these same experiences during my long tenure as a graduate student. I’m not employed per say, but I have a ‘job’. My ‘workplace’ is just a little unconventional.

Graduate school, in many ways, is a lot like employment. As graduate students we work consistently long hours, we are generally underpaid, and there is always someone overseeing the work we do.

But unlike work, graduate school has other stressful elements:

  • the funding is never consistent (or if it is, it’s consistently lacking) and we are limited by the amount of hours we can work outside our respective institutions.
  • our ‘field of work’ costs us money (we pay tuition in order to make our institutions look good).
  • the pressure is always on (weekends and holidays mean nothing and the hours worked are up to us).
  • we must always ‘up your game’ in order to get ahead (‘publish or perish’, as they say).
  • there is no definite end in sight (there are limited jobs and we are all fighting for them).
  • for those of us in graduate school who work as research or teaching assistants, our workload in the same environment is doubled.

And the mental health stigma that shows its ugly face in the workplace also ravages graduate school. Graduate students may be afraid to disclose their concerns to professors and colleagues for fear of discrimination and further stigmatization within close-knit faculties. Resources on campus are overcrowded and underfunded, and most student health plans have limited coverage for off-campus help seeking. Additionally, the graduate work itself may be emotionally and psychologically taxing and support systems may not understand how to best assist the struggling grad student. It can be all too overwhelming.  Putting it bluntly, the stress is high and the support (financially, emotionally, psychologically) is low.

For me, graduate school has been a difficult journey. Struggling with anxiety, I have found it challenging to manage my excessive and often times emotionally taxing workload and various other responsibilities all the while ensuring to take time for self-care and anxiety management. I have found it all the more difficult to disclose struggles with graduate school colleagues; the cut-throat nature of the academic environment has made me fearful of telling my story for fear of not getting ahead, not competing at the level expected of me, and, worst of all, of my mental health challenges being ‘used against me’. It sounds neurotic (even as I write it), but sadly I’ve seen it happen before.

Along the way I’ve learned that balance is key, but still struggle to maintain it. As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been fortunate enough to have a great support system that includes family, friends, and healthcare professionals. Also within this group includes several professors and colleagues. Disclosing my mental health concerns wasn’t easy, and it hasn’t always been a positive experience, but it has made all the difference in my work, my graduate progression, and in my everyday life.

But this is not the norm. Many other graduate students aren’t fortunate enough to encounter the same positivity as me. Many still struggle and do so in silence.

This is why the #NotMyselfToday campaign is important. Because regardless of where we work, what our work environment entails, or what work we do, those of us with mental health concerns will likely feel afraid and will likely become victim to the societal misconceptions about mental health that plague our workplaces, just as they do in any other setting.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. We deserve better and we, as a united collective, can work to change our current reality.

As part of the #NotMyselfToday campaign we can advocate for workplace mental health literacy and make our workplaces more accepting, safer, and healthier for all of us now, and for those joining the workforce in the future.

So I encourage all of you, whether you’re a grad student like me, or a top executive in a corporation – please become part of the #NotMyselfToday campaign and advocate in your workplaces on behalf of mental health: pledge your support for mental health, plan an event in your workplace, invest in the future of mental health awareness.

Because millions of us are counting on you.

For more information on how you can get involved with the #NotMyselfToday campaign, please visit

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One thought on “Struggling in the ‘Ivory Tower’: Mental Health in Grad School

  1. robynlisa23 says:

    Thank-you for posting this. Really hit home for me.

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