I have said this line to my degree. More than a few times.
I began my undergraduate degree at WITS University in 2011. I was a fresh-faced 18-year-old and had the world at my feet. Then reality set in and I went from being a top achiever at the high school to failing my chemistry block test (“Oh sweet girl, if you only knew you would fail a few more before finally passing”). That was the first time I thought, “We need a break”. BSc undergrad and I had hit a rough patch; my first-year spark was dying down; our love was dwindling. At the time though, as a first generation WITSIE, I knew I could not call it quits. My family had made sacrifices to get me here and BSc and I simply had to work it out. Eventually, we did, a few more downs, a couple of failures (so many) and at the end of it, my marks afforded me the opportunity to join an Honours program.
Honours was a tough time, the course was intense and it was the first time I had undertaken a ‘big’ research project; a bit overwhelming. I had a great support system in some of my classmates but I was still exhausted, I would leave for campus at 5:45 AM, endure a 30-45 minute bus drive to campus, work all day, get home at 6pm and start working again before an uneasy sleep only to repeat the cycle again the following day. I was tired, I knew it, my family knew it but I justified it by saying “everyone goes through this”. I found myself getting sick frequently as stress was taking a toll on my health. I was unravelling but I did it with a smile on my face because I thought that this was normal and that I had to be grateful. ‘I’m fine’ is the default answer, when it is usually the waving red flag.
After I completed my honours I made an important decision and said: “I think we need a break”. I took time off before my MSc and went to work for a few months. Although there were many contributors to my decision, ultimately I needed time off from my academic path. My supervisors and I stayed in contact and a few months later, they offered me a place in an MSc project that I was really excited about, so I returned in August of 2016. I felt so energised that I decided I wanted to plan my project so that I could complete it within a year. My approach was different, I didn’t work from sunrise until sunset, instead I set myself weekly goals and how much time it took to reach them was completely up to me. I kept my supervisors updated frequently (maybe too frequently) and they were supportive of my approach. One of my advisors had recently relocated back home to America early on in my degree and we had a 10 hour time difference but still managed to make it work (and work well) this showed in my project. It was big, it was stressful but it was flowing, relatively smoothly because I had to supervisors who didn’t see me as a work mule but instead allowed me to thrive through gentle guidance and many open conversations. I am grateful for that support, it is rare in academia.
Academia and I broke up once more as I took a year off between my MSc and my PhD (which I am beginning this year) and I went to work full time. To some, it may seem that I am not as dedicated to my degree as students who choose to go through it all in one go but I am dedicated, to myself first and foremost. It is another mechanism to protect myself from breaking; a stop to gain momentum again and make important decisions such as the choice of institution, supervisors and potential projects.
The Guardian published a great article early in 2018 on mental health in universities, more specifically the experience of PhD students. This article also highlighted the ripple effect, stressed senior academics (who are often the product of a flawed system themselves) can often take frustrations out on their students leading to anxiety-ridden postgrads. There are numerous other examples of articles highlighting mental health problems in academia, from different perspectives, in different fields and the fact that it is so common means we can’t write it off as the experience of a few ‘weak’ students because it is clearly a systemic and deeply engrained problem.
A recent study that looked at over 3,500 PhD students in Belgium found that one in two PhD students experienced psychological distress during their PhD. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) released statistics in October stating that 1 in 4 university students had been diagnosed with depression. Although I think that number is higher because, within our communities, we are taught that mental health and mental illness is not legitimate, it is embarrassing and we do not discuss it. We are yet to examine these statistics in a South African context especially amongst first generation people of colour entering the university space. This demographic often has compounding stresses as we try to survive in a world our families often do not understand but one that we want to thrive in because we feel we owe it to the people we love to do so. I was fortunate to have my family and support system within reach, not many first-generation students do and this is possibly one of the toughest journeys to walk alone.
Academics can’t afford to adopt a ‘well I went through this and I survived’ or a ‘they just were not cut out for it’ mentality when students are dropping out of programs, leaving the field or most saddening of all, taking their own lives. That approach leads to a ‘lost generation’, students who had the potential to succeed but were derailed by unsupportive and negative mentors. As an academic community, we need to address the stigma surrounding mental health problems and work toward an environment and a people that are conscious of their mental wellbeing.