Choice is overemphasized when it comes to mental health
It was almost like any other day. It was nearly 10 am and I had an important meeting with my supervisors at 11 am, when I suddenly received an e-mail from Clarinda Cerejo of Editage Insights. This was following a recent mental health survey that I had participated in. It included a document with a collection of stories on mental health and having gone through it, I felt compelled to tell my story, even if only for my sake.
I remember growing up as a happy kid in a religious, conservative household. I have always been a little odd, and so I expected to be bullied. It seemed to be the norm to me, but no more so than to most other kids. I just accepted it and believed it would get better. Like so many other things, mental health was a near taboo concept for most around me and I am ashamed to admit, me too. Although I have never had a problem with people who are different from me by way of mental health and sexuality, I was convinced these were choices people could make.
When I first left for university, I realized, by no choice of mine, that I am gay. It was a long, tough road to accept this about myself, but I am gay and I am here and it wasn’t a choice. Soon enough, I embraced my sexual orientation and started dating during the 2nd year of my PhD. I hadn’t come out to anyone in my life then, so when the relationship ended, I was all alone. It was devastating, and I realized in that moment that mental health, too, wasn’t a choice. I have since apologized to many of my gay friends for my former prejudice, and I’m slowly making my way out of the closet to the people close to me.
I have always been a nervous kid — a do-gooder and a people-pleaser. I denied my homosexuality and mental health for a long time by burying them under work and studies, so much so that when I reembraced them, I could not keep up with my work and studies. I was struggling to cope and this did not go unnoticed. One morning I woke up and I couldn’t move. The damage had been too severe – I felt mentally and emotionally paralyzed. I knew I could move my body, but I couldn’t move despite the mental command to get up and go to campus. I couldn’t do anything. Eventually, I sent my supervisor a message saying I was sick. Desperate and alone, I spoke to a campus counsellor, who referred me to a psychologist, who referred me to a psychiatrist and I went – it turned out to be the best decision I have made.
I was diagnosed with burnout, depression, general anxiety disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, all of which had been triggered by a near-fatal car accident I was in just over a decade ago. A few days prior to my “paralysis,” I was involved in a fender bender, and that event brought back an onslaught of feelings and thoughts of the two accidents that I had never processed – again, burying it under heaps and heaps of research and people-pleasing. The cascade opened the floodgates to reveal my mental health issues. It now seemed like I had no choice. I had no control.
I was not keen on going on medication and my psychiatrist was happy for me to practice cognitive behavioural therapy. It worked wonders for a while, but following some significant changes in my circumstances, I am reconsidering medication to get me through the last few months of my PhD.
Now I find myself stuck in a situation with several supervisors who are aware of my condition and say all the right things, but their actions make it clear to me that they don’t really understand what it means. Academics are becoming increasingly aware of mental health issues related to academia, but older generations who are rather set in their ways usually don’t really understand it. My experience with my supervisors seems to be a case similar to my upbringing (the “decide not to be sick and move on” attitude) to the point that I have lost much of my passion for what I do, and I wonder what I will do with my life after I graduate. I cannot come back to this type of work environment. I know it isn’t the same everywhere, and I plan on riding out the wave that is my PhD (medicated and with a now supportive home base), take a well-deserved holiday once I graduate, and then re-assess.
I am curiosity incarnate. I love logical thinking and creativity and innovation. I like to research everything I encounter and that interests me. I like to ask questions. This is why I chose science. This is why I will always love science. But the current reigning culture of science/academia does not readily accommodate or support mental health everywhere, and my main consideration when I start looking for work will be the environment in which it is set - which will require careful research and questioning which are as I’ve said before, things that I love.
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