What It's Like Having a Mental Illness in a Scientific Field


It’s been a little over four years since I first set foot in a laboratory, and I must say the sciences have somehow always been my saving grace. Research always gave me a place to escape my thoughts and throw myself into something greater than myself. That is, until graduate school got the better of me and I cracked under the pressure. An inpatient stay during winter quarter of my first year of graduate school derailed me and sent me into a downward spiral. I ended up in residential treatment, partial hospitalization, and an intensive outpatient program for the better part of a year. When my classmates asked me why I missed a week of classes, I just said I was really sick. I thought, “How am I supposed to bring up the topic of mental health into the sciences? How am I supposed to admit to them without feeling weak, inadequate and inferior that I struggle with mental illness?”

After this hospitalization, I had to take a medical leave from my program. During this time, I began to feel as though I had to keep a “professional me” and a “personal me.” There are things I’ve found difficult to talk about in the field of sciences without turning heads and causing eyes to roll. I feel as if I have to hide my entire personality, my entire being while I am at work and around my peers and colleagues. Why? Because we in the sciences, in my experience, are often expected to be professional and cannot show professors or potential future PIs (principal investigators) we have any “weakness” in us at all. We can’t show our true colors.

There was a brief time during my break from graduate school when I would feel strong enough to attend the weekly seminar my department hosts. I typically ran into faculty and classmates, and they would ask how I was and how things were; cordial interactions, these were. At one of these seminars, though, I ran into a senior professor, someone whose class I didn’t do well in (I had been struggling since the end of fall quarter leading up to my break from school). He took one glance at me, smirked and remarked, “Oh, you’re back?” While this may not seem harmful, in the context of my leave, I felt his words to be very hurtful. It felt like I was being judged for my medical leave and being told I was weak. It felt like I was being told I could not return to my program because of my illness.

I wish I could broach the subject of mental illness in the sciences, but I don’t even know where to begin the conversation. There is such stigma in the general population around mental illness, and when it comes to the sciences, I feel like it is magnified a hundred times. I’ve found there can be this association of “weakness” when it comes to mental illness in the sciences, and I live in fear of being found out, of being told I am not worthy enough, not good enough for my program.

That I am not strong enough to continue on my journey to my PhD.

But what gives me hope are people like my wonderful boss. I have the most supportive PI I could ever ask for, and I have worked for many PIs now in my time in the sciences.

I can’t begin to say how much I appreciate her asking me how I am doing each day. She sees the exhaustion on my face, and I can’t help but wonder, can she see my sadness and pain, too? She asks if I am tired and “What does the doctor have to say?” I go to therapy each week, individual and group. Things get brought up, and sometimes they weigh heavily on my mind throughout the week. I try not to bring my emotional turbulence into work, but sometimes I can’t help if it shows on my face. I try to wear a mask and hide my pain — but sometimes I let my façade down just a little, and she always seems to notice.

Ultimately, I believe change will come, and it will start with opening the conversation with and amongst the next generation of scientists. While I am not comfortable admitting to my PI why I am exhausted, not sleeping well, or struggling, I am fortunate to have a classmate with whom I can talk about mental illness. We have conversations ranging from medications for psychiatric illnesses to going to therapy and various forms of treatment.

It is my hope and wish that anybody reading this, and especially people in the sciences, understand this: We, those of us who have a mental illness, are not less than anybody else. We are not “crazy,” “incapable,” or “weak.” We are just as capable as the next person over. Please see past our illnesses and see us for who we are: strong, capable fighters.

Image via Thinkstock.

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