Depression and the PhD

Are PhD students depressed or do depressed people tend to study for PhDs? The issue came up in a roundtable discussion on what we needed to be fully present in the classroom. Four out of the thirty graduate students mentioned anxiety or depression.

Praise to the first person that revealed his anxiety. His words had a domino effect. It gave the rest of us permission to talk about our own struggles with mental health. Depression has no respect for appearance. It gnawed away at the manly forty-something guy with the patrician face. It nibbled the petite woman with a voice like a bear.

They did mention mental health services at the PhD orientation. At the time I paid little attention to it, as it was just another speaker among the many. I was already overwhelmed, feeling like I was in over my head.

Generally, about ten per cent of the population suffers from depression. So us graduate students were just slightly just above the average. But this is based on the ones who spoke up. My feeling was that the rate was probably a bit higher.

The rates of depression vary by gender, age and ethnicity. Twice as many women suffer from depression compared to men. The rate is higher among people of colour compared to whites.

Depression seems to follow the general rule in society – the closer you are to the top of power pyramid, the better your health, including mental health.

Treating depression is relatively easy. Lots of talk therapy usually does the trick. Sometimes it has to be combined with medication. The illness might be easy to manage, but the hard part is getting to the help.

Access to mental health services is also stratified. The lower you are on the totem pole the less likely you are to receive help. Black men are the least likely to seek or receive any kind of help for mental health issues.

I could see, and feel the many triggers for depression among PhD students. First, is the loneliness. The work that is fascinating to me is tedious to most people. It’s easy to lose friends and family and get buried in theorizing. Isolation is never good for the soul. Even the hermits took a break from their religious-imposed loneliness. Either that or they went mad or died.

Then there is the money. A full scholarship does not cover all the expenses of living in a big city. The first term I bought all the books for my courses. I treated myself each day to a fresh mug of tea. I did not repeat that mistake. Books were read at the library, tea was made from home. Economise became my new mantra.

Trying to figure out the unwritten rules of academia can lead to depression. There is the competition among students, and competition among academics. Navigating one’s way through the politics, without exploding any mines, is stressful.

Next is the self-doubt. Original thinking is hard work. It is tough to be enthusiastic when my bright idea seems so dull compared to the vast literature on the topic. There is no guarantee that I will produce anything significant at the end of four or more years of thinking. That is a depressing thought.

The depression rate does tend to be higher among graduate students. The best way of avoiding it is self-care. It is doing all the stuff that our mothers nagged us to do: eat well, go to bed early, go out with friends. And the best advice for me is get outdoors. A hike, a bike ride a canoe trip all bring me back to nature. She refreshes and sustains me.

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Meet the New Minorities in PhD Programmes – It’s Men

Thank goodness I am doing a PhD at mid-life. I don’t have to worry about trying to find a husband among the fellow graduates. As it is, I am having a hard time trying to find the men in the seminars. They are outnumbered, almost five to one, by women.

This was surprising to me as I had expected the reverse. I guess a lot has changed since the days of my first degree, where women were the minority in most subjects. From the latest Statistics Canada report the majority of graduates are now female, from the first all the way up to the third degrees. We have left the men behind. They are struggling, trying to dust themselves off as they face the new competition – the one dressed in heels and pink lipstick.

Female graduates dominate the traditional feminine fields of health and education – so that explains why there are so men in my education department. The number of female science graduates is increasing faster than the men are able to hold the line. Engineering is the last area where men are a clear majority, outnumbering women three to one. But even here women are making slow but steady gains.

Back in the day, way back when I was doing my first degree, my friend and I stood out in the faculties. There were about 120 male undergraduates in her department. She was one of only three women studying physics. And she was the only Black person there as well. I had better odds, as there was another Black woman finishing a chemistry degree. And there was a Jamaican guy doing his PhD in the department. They did their best to mentor me.

Why are women doing so much better in universities today?  A century ago, we were not allowed to even enter the buildings. Our brains were supposed to be so feeble that an abstract idea could permanently ruin them. Women were first allowed to enter university in Canada in 1877. In Britain it was 1878 and in the USA it was 1831.

So what has changed? Over the century, have women gotten smarter and men dumber? That can’t be right as evolution does not move that fast – usually.

It seems to be a combination of reasons. Women are better at learning: we know how to sit still, listen to the teacher and we do the homework. All of this leads to higher grades and therefore a better chance of getting into university.

The job market has shifted from brawn to brains, increasing careers options for the educated, and decreasing it for those who are not. This means women have an incentive to stay in school and profit from the knowledge-driven economy.

The third reason is sex. Women can have the fun without the risk of getting knocked up thanks to the contraceptive pill. As they can control their fertility and have fewer children, it leaves more time to get an education and pursue a career.

We will need an equity programme for the next generation of PhD students; to ensure that the men, the new weaker sex, will have a chance to sit at the academic table.

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Spot the Black PhDs in the Class

‘Thank God I am not the only one.’ That was my first thought when I entered the seminars in my PhD programme. In both classes people of colour were the majority. It was not what I was expecting.

Ages ago, and it was not in the time of the dinosaurs, when I did my first degree I was the only Black person in my class. I was not the only person of colour, or ethnic minority as we said in Britain, I recollect that there was a South Asian student there as well. We were the second generation of post-World War II immigrants in the mother country, so it was not surprising.

And I was studying for a degree in chemistry, an ultra-nerdish choice for a working-class Black girl from a small-town.

About a decade later, I came to Canada and did my master’s degree. Things were supposed to be different here. In Toronto, I had met a lot of middle-class Black professionals who did not think it was odd that I had a degree. They did not accuse me of being a sell-out or ‘acting White’. Yet, as I entered the classroom I groaned. Different country, different decade and I was still the only Black person in the class.

Fast forward another two decades. I was shocked when I saw so many faces of different hues in my PhD seminars. And half of them were Black Canadians, not foreign students. I wondered if it was due to being in the education department, and the narrow speciality of social justice education. Then I remembered that Toronto is one of the most multi-cultural cities in the world, where half of the population are people of colour.  Still, it was surprising to see so many of us in an elite setting.

How many Black PhDs are there in Canada? I don’t know.

In Canada we pride ourselves on being a multicultural country. We welcome diversity. Therefore, race-based statistics are rarely collected. It’s a nice way of avoiding discussions on racism. We don’t measure it, therefore it doesn’t exist.

Things are more transparent in the USA. Some seven per cent of African Americans have a PhD, from the US National Centre for Education Statistics, 2012. The number is increasing each year, but needs to double to reflect their 13 per cent share of the population.

Women outnumber male PhD graduates across all racial groups. What was striking was the huge gap in the Black community: some 65% of African American PhD graduates are women. This is amazing news. But why are the Black men falling so far behind?

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