One of my classmates/colleagues in the PhD program died this week. It seems she took her life. She was a very loving person, and one of my first friends in grad school. She was a guest at my Thanksgiving table for a couple of years, and once or twice she came to lay out at the pool with me. She struggled with a lot of personal challenges, but she kept trying to find happiness and peace.
Grad school can be a shattering experience for even the most grounded, emotionally sanguine people. I have seen it, and I have been through it. But it’s not just grad students contending with various kinds of precarity and pressure who struggle with mental and emotional health issues. We all have seen this, I’m sure, in the academy: the incredible strain and pressure that people labor under and constantly contend with — and not just among grad students or undergrads. Up and down the ranks in higher education, people are struggling with significant mental health issues.
There are walking wounded among us, always. Sometimes we are those wounded, hiding our brokenness as best we can and hoping we can get it together or hold it together long enough to put it behind us. But sometimes it’s people we know, and maybe we even know they’re broken, but we don’t know how bad it is, or we don’t know how to make it better, or we are so burdened under the weight of our own struggles and pressures that we don’t feel able to offer any help or even know what help to offer. It hurts something awful to learn that someone in our midst has been hurting so badly that she felt she had to do this to make the pain stop.
I don’t know the details of my friend’s situation, and I would not discuss them here in any case. But I do know that this time of year can be awfully hard for a lot people, and really rough for academics. Fall semester is just one long season of deadlines — for grants, for jobs, for editors waiting on manuscripts, for tenure files, for students who need letters — and the end-of-semester teaching/grading workload is substantially greater in volume and extraordinarily compressed in time. Those on the job market, interviewing or hoping to interview at one of the major national conferences, are facing intense pressure and long odds. And all of this coincides with the stresses and demands of the holidays and the end-of-year financial pressures that so many face.
It’s really rough for a lot of folks, and what makes it so much harder is the feeling that it’s not okay in academe to acknowledge just how rough things are. That pressure to seem perfect, or nearly so, before one’s colleagues may be the most brutal pressure of all, because it cuts you off from people who can be a source of encouragement and support.
If you are struggling to hold it together, to keep your head above the water, to keep the darkness at bay, to live with whatever pain you live with — please know that you don’t have to face these things alone.
If you have been bearing a world of pain, and you have been waking up every morning and having to decide to keep living one more day, that doesn’t make you a failure. It means you are a very brave person. And you don’t have to brave by yourself.
If the people around you don’t understand or don’t know how to help, there are people who can.
Here are some sources of immediate support for you.
National Hopeline Network
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN)
The Trevor Project (LGBTQ)
Treatment Referral Hotline (Substance Abuse)
Crisis Text Line
Text “TWLOHA” to 741-741
A trained crisis counselor receives the text and responds quickly
I found these national resources at the website of “To Write Love on Her Arms,” one of the charities my friend’s family has designated for memorial donations. TWLOA also provides links to local resources by state and city — you can search for those here.
Whoever you are reading this — an undergrad, a grad student, a full professor, or someone who has left the academy for whatever reason or was never in it to begin with — whoever you are, if you feel like you just can’t take any more pain, before you do anything else, please call one of these numbers.