Susanna L. Harris, Founder and Chief Executive Officer
From my seat at the front of the conference room, I turned around to scan the group of science graduate students excited about changing the world. Had someone told me last March that 1% of those students dealt with depression, I would have shifted my gaze to the back of the room for the student who rarely spoke, hardly paid attention, and was likely staring down at a blank paper. Then, I would have added myself. Two. Two people with mental illness were sitting in this room.
Instead, the Nature Biotechnology paper in front of me, titled “Evidence for a Mental Health Crisis in Higher Education”, said that one-in-four students were likely to currently suffer from symptoms of clinical depression or anxiety disorder, not to mention the myriad of other mental illnesses. Looking around, I saw only smiling faces; but apparently, forty-nine of the minds behind the faces were ill in ways we rarely discuss in academia due to stigma and fear.
I wished these statistics had been released the year before, during my longest and darkest depressive episode. In addition to suffering from the pain and confusion of depression, I was trying to hide all of my issues. Why? Because I was obviously the only one struggling, which meant that I shouldn’t be there. I feared that if I told someone what was really going on in my head, I would be exiled or pitied for being a fraud.
Thanks to my own support system, including a very supportive PI and a progressively-helpful program, I had made it through that time and was feeling significantly better. Still, I hid how much I had struggled and how I almost left my program in multiple ways. Had I known that a fourth of the people around me wouldn’t recoil from my story and would instead say “I understand”, maybe things would have been different.
I couldn’t go back in time to help myself. I couldn’t change how our community reacts to and thinks about mental illness. I couldn’t find the people who needed help just by looking around a room of students. So, I decided to just start talking and hope that the right people would hear me. The PhDepression LLC began as a small act of defiance – showing the world a cheerful face of a young PhD student and sharing the story of darkness behind it.
Abigail J. Courtney, Chief Operating Officer
My Instagram used to be filled only with my childhood friends’ life events and, naturally, entertaining animal videos. I wanted to repopulate my feed with a community similar to the science tumblr, to which I used to anonymously contribute. My life no longer paralleled those of my childhood friends. I was over 30, struggling with mental illness, and in grad school. Using the search term, “PhD,” on Instagram, brought up mostly the same accounts as before.
I don’t remember exactly when I found The PhDepression, but I immediately felt some connection to the stories shared by other grad students around the world. Oftentimes, these stories were exactly what I needed to hear. This was a period of time where I was struggling with feeling like of not belonging in grad school, and The PhDepression showed me I absolutely wasn’t alone.
I began opening up about my own mental illnesses one-on-one with friends and fellow students. Prior to this, I was one of those people that always seemed like my life so put together, which was an image I actively maintained for fear of judgement. This new openness allowed others to see me as less of someone who has their shit together, and more of someone who they could relate to. As a result, people have opened up to me about their own issues and ask me how to find help. This experience has been rewarding – possibly even more so than sharing my own stories.
A few months later, Susanna reached out to the community to build a team. I immediately responded, hopeful to remind others they also were not alone and helping to share their own stories.
Our current mission is to fight stigma and increase visibility of mental illness in Higher Education through support conversation. Our vision is that PhDs and students may someday feel comfortable discussing and seeking help for mental and emotional well-being in the same way they do for maintaining physical well-being.
Since June of 2018, our team has grown and changed so much but our goals remain the same. We both feel lucky to be a part of this incredible community.
The idea that mental illness is only something that is visible and therefore if we look fine we aren’t suffering is not unique to academia, but this community comprises some of the brightest and hardest-working people of today, most of whom are dedicated to making the world a better place. We have the abilities to push back against the stigma surrounding mental illness and erase the lie that being ill and being successful are mutually exclusive.