Therapy and graduate school


Graduate school took its toll on my mental health. Unfortunately, I am not alone. Earlier this year a study published in Nature found that nearly 40% of graduate students show signs of moderate to severe depression and more than 40% shows signs of moderate to severe anxiety (Evans et al., 2018). This is not groundbreaking or surprising by any means. Just take a look at academic twitter and you will see the number of students that are having a difficult time.

There are many ways to go about bettering your mental health. I personally found seeing a therapist to be very helpful. Earlier this month I posted a poll on twitter asking graduate students and postdocs if they have seen a therapist. The majority (55%) do see a therapist and only 17% don’t see one. The remaining 28% do not but have thought about it.

I didn’t start seeing a therapist until my third year for a variety of reasons and found that many people felt the same way.

I am writing this blogpost to share how I overcame some of these barriers and hesitation.

1. Cost

This is probably the most frustrating barrier. There is no reason for mental health services to be so expensive. Mental health is as important as physical health yet insurance rarely treats it that way.

If you are a student, there is usually a counseling center on campus for a low copay or sometimes for free. However, usually there are a limited amount of sessions you are allowed to use. Afterwards you have to find someone off campus and have to pay certain percentage of the cost, which in my case was 20%. Well 20% of $200 is still $40 and if you are seeing someone on a weekly basis that adds up. There is also the added frustration of having to find someone off campus with flexible hours.

I remember I spent months researching this topic and it took up a lot of time. My campus counselor gave me a list of low-cost/sliding scale centers near campus. This was a start, but I still had to call all the places to see exactly what they mean by low-cost.

One thing that I found that I didn’t know about previously was availability of psychology program run clinics or training clinics. Many psychology PhD programs have clinics in which their students can get trained. The hours are flexible and the costs are affordable. It’s a great place to start and takes you a step beyond googling low cost centers. This website provides a great list of training clinics.

Also if you google "low-cost" or "sliding scale" counseling, you will be able to find a good starting place.

2. Where do I start?

This point kind of goes hand and hand with the cost issue. I personally found starting with the school counselor to be a good starting point. It was cheap, close to lab, and she was able to point me in the right direction.

My current insurance has an amazing option called an appointment search. I called them and told them what my preferences were and what times worked for me. They then called different counselors seeing who had appointments and I called and finalized. This removed so much pressure off of me and was extremely helpful. I didn't know this was an option until I called my insurance and asked.

Don't be afraid to ask your fellow students and postdocs! Why re-invent the wheel? If you are a student who has already gone through this and are able to make a list for your younger students do so. For DC students I made this list. If you are director of a program, it will be extremely helpful and beneficial for your students if you provide them with a list. First of all, it makes things easier. Second of all, helps destimatize mental health issues.

3. Bad first experience

This is such a hard one. You find the courage to finally see a therapist and they are bad. It makes you feel worse than you felt before you sought help. I am sorry this was your experience. The road to healing is a long one and shouldn't made any harder or difficult.

If this was your experience, take a break, it's okay. Realize that therapy shouldn't make you feel bad or uncomfortable. Your therapist should cater your experience to you. If one doesn't work out, that's okay. Try again. I know it's hard but you will be able to find someone that works for you.

4. Scared/apprehensive

That was me for 25 years. I thought seeing a therapist meant something was wrong with me. I was afraid it meant I was weak. I was afraid they would make me talk about things I wanted to keep hidden. That I wasn't strong enough to be in graduate school. I was scared of how it would go or how it would start.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. I was so wrong, but those feelings were justified. It's getting better but there is such a strong stigma associated with mental illnesses and seeing a therapist. There is absolutely nothing wrong with seeing a therapist. We are not ashamed to go get a yearly physical. As such, we shouldn't be ashamed to seek counseling. It is simply us taking care of our mental health. Even if you have depression or anxiety, there is nothing wrong with you. They are not a weakness of character or a flaw. I will say this again you are not weak. You are taking care of yourself and that is one of the strongest things a person can do.

As for what therapy entails or talking about things I would rather not talk about, well therapy is in your hands. It is what you want it to be. Do you want someone you can rant to on a regular basis? Do you want to work on certain issues? Do you want to explore certain fears? It is completely up to you.

I personally like to discuss things that are bothering me and seeing if past experiences are shaping my current reactions. I also like to work on certain issues. For example, for sometime my therapist and I worked on interpersonal relationships. My therapist helps me push my boundaries, but never pushes me farther than I am willing to go.

Finally, going to therapy is not an indicator of not being "cut out" for graduate school. Plain and simple.

Ending this post with a picture of Nimir, my cat. He would like to remind you that there is no shame in seeing a therapist and that you all wonderful people.