Academics and Assorted Musings on Mental Health

So, read this charming piece in the Chronicle today. It fairly well confirms one of my favorite descriptions of graduate school–that it isn’t for the sane. Yes, indeed, studies indicate that graduate students are a mentally unhealthy bunch:

Social isolation, financial burdens, lack of structure, and the pressure to produce groundbreaking work can wear heavily on graduate students, especially those already vulnerable to mental-health disorders.

Studies have found that graduate school is not a particularly healthy place.

You think?

Before I left for graduate school, one of my profs sat gave me a piece of sage advice that I fear I took far too well. “Choose an addiction now,” he said, “because every English professor has one, and usually at least three, of the following addictions: sugar, sex, alcohol, or narcotics. Pick your favorite and focus on it.”

Now, I admit that I belonged to a fairly…um…unhealthy discipline. Comparatists are not known for their sanity, patience, nor humility. Generally, when I introduce myself as a comparatists, I get some form of the following reaction: Slow eye blink. “Oh. Wow.” The remark is inevitably followed, depending on the relative experience of the speaker with either “That’s a really demanding program,” or “I’m sorry.” The sorry, not incidentally, regards the atmosphere associated with most comp lit programs–we are often not exactly the most well-regarded department on campus. Troublemakers, every single one.

My fellow grad students and I observed (as grad students are wont to do) that most of us were given to depression, anxiety, and other forms of mental distress. In fact, academics in general seem to be drawn to academia precisely because it is one of the few places that tolerates our more unfortunate behavioral patterns. Take the classic “absent-minded professor” type; I’ve met several, and I can say with absolute seriousness that academia is the only place for them. I cannot imagine what happens to those who don’t end up teaching. In any event, many of us are somewhat less than socially graceful, and as the article notes, a whole vat of us belong in therapy (as to whether we seek it or not…another story entirely). My dear former therapist, himself a retired prof, remarked once that he thought that a year of therapy should come with every PhD granting, seeing as how most of us are in dire mental straights by the time we finish.

Which suggests perhaps that the sane folks get the hell out of the program, right?

So, I’m wondering (thinking about Sixx’ remark that I blogged on earlier this week), are we born academics? I don’t mean anything regarding intelligence here (indeed, one might make an argument against the wisdom of those of us who choose, perfectly willingly, to submit to the whims and demands of other people who survived the whims and demands of their own professors and have chosen to take it out on students for the next 40 or so years); rather, I wonder about the type of personality that is driven into grad school…

What comes first: grad school or insanity?

Perhaps my prof was on to something about the nature of the addict, or, at least, of certain addictive personalities. Few career paths really celebrate the ability to obsess in great detail on a single subject that, quite potentially, no one else in the world really gives a damn about. Well…except at comp lit conferences, when minutiae become the stuff of the finest of cat fights. Seriously, though…could I function in an environment that wasn’t friendly to odd behaviors and habits? An environment that was comfortable with the socially inept and the compulsive?

A for instance: one of the great complaints among faculty is that students don’t read the course catalog and prepare themselves for advising. Leaving aside the fact that we no longer print catalogs, one of the images often used in such discussion is the “dog-eared” catalog that so many of us faculty carried around and read, highlighted, and memorized during our undergraduate years. It turns out, though, that the then proto-faculty were the weird ones, and we have a tough time seeing why normal folk don’t obsess over which English track to follow or whether to take Milton or Advanced Grammar this semester, while we are taking that freaking Literary Criticism course. Our students aren’t defective. Our students are normal.

We are obsessives.

So, are we born academics? Do we attract and protect the unstable…providing a sense of place for some and a sense of incredible stress and displacement for others? Other than the stresses of graduate programs, why is there a high incidence of mental illness in academia (because it doesn’t magically disappear after grad school)?

You can tell I’m having one of those weekends, yes?


4 responses to “Academics and Assorted Musings on Mental Health

  1. This is perhaps poor timing for me to be reading this, given my recent career changes. Because based on this, yes, I am a born academic. I LOVED reading the damn course catalog as an undergrad and not only plotted out my own courses for semesters into the future, I did so for my friends. And the ability to focus on one silly, arcane little topic that nobody else cares about? Yup, that’s me.

    Had I found myself in a different grad program with different (or fewer) real-life limitations, I’m certain that I would’ve stayed. Well, I’m sure I would’ve finished a few years ago, really…

  2. solitary kitsch

    Well, since Grad school tends to exploit, rather than make use of, our worst habits, I’d say you made an excellent choice in getting out. The professoriate is protective, for the most part–at least outside of the R1 schools, but grad school…not so much. Of course, my saying this assumes an identifiable professoriate, which, as the article linked suggests, is probably not accurate anyway.

    Did I mention that it is the sane who get out? 🙂

  3. I laughed, I identified, and I sit here with a wry smile. Just because I got out doesn’t = sane! 😉

    there’s PGSD. Post-Grad Stress Disorder….

    I experienced it myself and I see so many students go through this….and it’s particularly distressing for those who’ve experienced grad school, but also I see it as students exit college…

    we’ve been in school so long that it’s a shock to the system to not being in school. I don’t have any stats off hand but the number of student who go into deep depression upon graduation is significant. even worse in a bad job market.

    those leaving grad school with their dreams crushed are some of the most woeful because they are absolutely bright, useful, amazing people without a mission. perhaps for the first time in their life, their vision or focus has disappeared and been replaced with a brick wall echoing of not being “good enough.”

  4. I’m just now reading your blog so please excuse the late comment/acknowledgment. After reading this entry, I feel almost normal, except that in this case being normal means being mentally ill — sounds right to me!

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