A digression about mental health in grad school

About a week ago, I was in a car accident, which kind of threw off my studying plan for my comprehensive exams. For several days, it has been hard to think (as it often is when one’s brain has been rattled around in its casing). I can’t concentrate on much of anything–not my reading, not my data, not my students.

This frustrated me to no end. The voice in my head that I have come to think of as mini Donald Trump kept screaming, You’re on a timeline! You’re slacking! You’re a waste of space! and on into further obscenity. I was violently angry with myself, and for what? Driving in the rain on the best feasible route from my starting point to my endpoint?

As grad students, we’re trained to work all the time, with no mercy for ourselves. If we’re tired, we’re supposed to drink some coffee and power through it. If we’re too sick to come into the lab, we’re supposed to take the day to catch up on reading. There’s a culture of unwillingness to admit that we might have taken time for ourselves, and might want to KEEP taking that time to save our health and sanity.

EEB at UC Santa Cruz does a better job of this than many departments. I have been very lucky to find people I am able to speak to candidly about the need to treat my own body and mind with respect. However, it makes me anxious to imagine admitting to a student at another institution (or maybe even in another department!) that I didn’t put in my forty-plus hours last week. Certainly I would never say something so bold to a faculty member. I’m terrified of the judgement, that seemingly inevitable pronouncement of my uselessness and failure as a scientist.

Is that truly what we think science should be? A slow grind into death by exhaustion? I suspect very few scientists would say total mental collapse is what we should aspire to. We want to be creative and productive and passionate about our work, and to do this, we need space and energy for ourselves to grow and change. An exhausted mind walled in by impending obligations has neither of those things.

Even as I write this, I know that I am doing an awful job at taking my own advice. It is incredibly difficult to embrace slow solutions. I know, logically, that there is no instant fix, apply-directly-to-forehead solution to my injuries, but I want to be back at work. I want to be learning and discovering and teaching. Still, I’m trying to give myself the grace and space I know I need to do things well, and I hope you, dear reader, can find a way to walk this better path with me.

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