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You Are Not Alone

I went to see a therapist while I was in graduate school. In fact, I went once a week for more than a year.

I decided to start this month's column with that admission for two reasons. First, I want you to know that I practiced what I am about to preach. Second, I want to try, in some small way, to remove the stigma that still seems to be attached to seeking help when graduate school gets you down.

Make no bones about it, graduate school will get you down. And once it has you down, it will kick you in the teeth (or anywhere else it chooses). The competing demands of advisors, colleagues, and a student's own high expectations almost inevitably breed anxiety and depression. My experiences certainly confirm that, and I am willing to bet dollars to donuts that yours will, too. This is not just conjecture on my part. Although I've since forgotten where I saw it, I read an article a few years back that listed some of the most stressful events a person can face during their life. The list included things like the death of a spouse or parent, moving to a new city, and getting fired from a job. Each event was assigned a number corresponding to the amount of stress it would add to your life, and by adding up the numbers corresponding to the events that you were currently experiencing, you could estimate how numerically stressed out you were. If your stress number was above a certain level, roughly equivalent to the stress of sitting in a traffic jam while late for an appointment with your divorce lawyer, the article defined you as being in crisis mode. Sounds simple enough, right? Well, here's the catch: When the author of the article worked out the typical numbers for graduate students, the author came to the conclusion that, at any one time, about 96% of all graduate students are living in crisis mode.

The moral of the story is that you are not alone. At some point, just about every graduate student suffers through a crisis period. But the terrible irony is that, even while surrounded by people going through almost exactly the same struggle, and while working in a university that probably employs several people whose job it is to help them, many graduate students try to deal with their stress by ignoring it. They sequester themselves in their office or their lab or the library. They work long hours. They turn down invitations for dinner. They simmer.

This is a dangerous strategy. Depression and anxiety are not problems to be trifled with, they can kill you as surely as cancer or AIDS.

So where do you turn for help? The student health center at your school is a great place to start. Mental health is a major priority at most colleges and universities, and the student health center will either have a staff of qualified professional therapists or maintain a list of local practitioners. The price is usually very reasonable. At my university, I paid a dollar a session. The rest of the fee was picked up by my student health insurance.

People in Your Neighborhood: A Therapist

What can you say about therapists that hasn't already been said? Therapists often do have couches in their offices, although you are free to sit anywhere you like. They generally do like to scribble notes on legal pads. And they always have a gentle way of telling you that, while they would love to hear more about your mother, your hour is up.

Outside of that, I am not exactly sure what a therapist does. I have talked to several other people who have also seen therapists and come to the following conclusion. A therapist is someone who listens to you tell stories about your life and then helps you to understand the meaning of those stories. Simple as it sounds, this can relieve the pressure of grad school like letting steam whistle out of a teapot.

But going one-on-one with a therapist isn't the only way to lighten the psychic burden of graduate school. Some people prefer going to support groups, where students meet with their peers and talk about their struggles. Many student health centers organize support groups and will even provide a trained facilitator. And there are some less formal groups. My favorites were a thrice-a-week Frisbee game and a once-in-a-while poker night. Granted, these weren't traditional support groups, but they served a similar purpose. Unfortunately, I am not a great poker player, so these sessions were generally somewhat more expensive than an hour with a therapist.

If you do decide to look for a little help to ease your burden, you won't be alone. After I first visited the university therapist's office at the student health center, I thought I was the only graduate student who had ever ventured through its doors. But then one day, I noticed a friend of mine taking a leisurely stroll through a grove of trees near the building that housed our offices. He could have been out getting a breath of fresh air, but I knew better. It was 5 minutes before the hour, and the university therapist's office was on the other side of that grove. I smiled and thought to myself, I'll have to remember that shortcut.

Next month, we'll talk about a different storytelling environment: the scientific conference.