The only way round, is through: A mental health narrative of a graduate student

My name is Sarah Martone, I am a public health professional, and I also have depression. Like most people, the COVID-19 pandemic was an incredibly difficult time and took a toll on my mental health. The pandemic overlapped with my time in graduate school, pursuing my Master of Public Health degree, at the University of Guelph. While this was by far the most difficult time of my life, I am incredibly grateful to my friends who supported me through the hardest days and have helped me reach the other side. I hope those of you who are reading this, will have the fortune of meeting equally compassionate, understanding and kind friends during your graduate studies and in life. 

There is a lot of pressure to be an outstanding graduate student. There are never enough extracurriculars, publications or journal clubs to be a part of. You might feel the pressure to take on every single opportunity that comes your way, as each one will seem critical to your success. And even when you are finished, you may find that you are still comparing yourself to classmates as you all find jobs in a similar field. These are all factors that I found weighed on me, and eventually led to me burning out in my last semester. I had put so much pressure on myself to pack everything I possibly could into two years, that I stopped taking care of myself, mentally and physically. The isolation of the pandemic, the pressure of finding a job, the student debt hanging over my head, and trying to uphold the high expectations I set for myself as a student were too much. I stopped exercising and gained weight, I was irritable and pushing away my loved ones, I was slacking off at work and eventually it felt like this was the only state I would ever be in, and the self-hatred I felt was unbearable. Eventually it became too much, and I knew that I needed help. 

I had previously seen a counsellor at the University of Guelph who was really helpful in navigating the stresses and anxieties of graduate school. I had seen her every two weeks but felt that in my current state that I would need to see someone on a weekly basis. I also reached out to my doctor because, even though I was terrified, I thought that maybe medication was what I needed. Finding a therapist on campus was surprisingly simple, just locate your on-campus counselling service and set-up an intake appointment, but this will vary based on institution. Finding a counsellor outside of your university can be a bit overwhelming as there are so many options. I personally found Psychology Today to be a great place to start, as there are so many ways to filter therapists including by price, speciality, and the types of therapy they offer. I would also recommend that you check out your schools’ benefits, as most will have coverage for mental health services and prescriptions. Counsellors on campus, or ones you find in private practice, will be able to help navigate the challenges your face in school and in life. For me, the scariest was going on medication. I was scared it was going to change me, I was scared I would never be able to get off them and I was scared of the stigma that came along with them. Like most individuals suffering from depression, I started on a common selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SSRI). As time went on, I didn’t feel the change I thought I would. I was expecting a surge of motivation and energy but found that I was relatively unchanged. My doctor recommended I double my dosage, which is a common practice, and for me, this made things significantly worse. To reiterate, this is my specific experience, but I think it is important for you to know that sometimes medications won’t work, and can even make things worse, and it is important to advocate for yourself, and track your feelings over time to see any patterns. I was on a medication that did not work for me, and I would not have even realized this if it wasn’t for my therapist, who helped me identify my unhealthy thoughts as a sign that something was not working. I am now on a medication that works for me, and am doing a lot better, but this was not an easy road to find. Taking medication for a mental health issue can make you feel like you are not strong enough to fight them on your own, but they are just one tool in your toolbox.  

I found the hardest thing to comprehend when I was at my lowest, was that this feeling wouldn’t last forever. I was desperate for any solution to the deep feeling of hopelessness that felt like it hung over my head. What I know now, is that there is no single solution, no matter how hard I wished it to be. To quote the great Robert Frost, the only way round, is through. I was able to move through this time with the help of my friends, my family, my therapist, and medication that worked for me. As I write this, I am in a much better space, I am enthusiastic about my future and getting back to doing the things I love. It was not an easy, or quick journey, but I am a long way from where I started. To end this narrative ramble, I would like to share a few pieces of advice to anyone who finds themselves struggling while they are pursuing a graduate degree, or if you feel you are struggling in general. 

  • Identify your on-campus counselling services and the mental health benefits that are covered by your student health plan
  • If you start a medication plan for a mental health issue, be an advocate for yourself with your doctor, talk to them about the reality of negative side effects, these can be particularly prevalent in women as well
  • Don’t be afraid to say no to opportunities if you feel like your plate is full, you don’t have to push yourself to the brink to be successful

I want to thank those of you who took the time to read this lengthy post and allow me to share my experience with you, I hope none of you can relate to it but if you can, don’t hesitate to reach out, my inbox is always open. 

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Environment and Climate Change Canada or the University of Guelph.

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