Opinion guest column

Mental health must be top priority

Learn to treat yourself with the respect that you deserve

In the past year and a half, I’ve emerged from what I now realize was the most challenging period of my adult life. The other day, it hit me that I am no longer dreading waking up each day, dreading the start of each week, dreading working on my research.

It was hard to comprehend how much dread and unhappiness I was experiencing at the time. I knew I was unhappy, but happiness felt like such a distant memory that I couldn’t even see how far away I had gotten from it. I almost forgot how good happiness and contentment could feel. I got glimpses of it, a few hours or days at a time, but then a wall would slam back down, and I felt terribly stuck in my unhappiness. I hit what some call “the third-year slump” of my PhD, and I hit it hard. COVID-19 isolation and a stressful workload triggered the start of a depressive episode. I was floundering, trying to find a research topic that mattered and that I found interesting, but nothing felt interesting to me. I hated the research I was doing every day. I was completely burnt out, but I was not able to take a long enough break to remedy that. What I was feeling was so different from anything I had ever experienced. My normal quick fixes for a bad mood, like making a comforting meal, didn’t seem to help. In fact, they even pushed me deeper into despair because it felt like nothing was working, and I couldn’t see a way out. Then someone in my life died — horribly, suddenly — of suicide.

I felt like I was hit by a truck. All the life was knocked out of me. For a week I could do nothing but cry, sleep, and watch television. I was in so much pain because I felt an extraordinary amount of guilt. I kept replaying our last interactions and wondering what I should have said differently, what I should have done differently, why I hadn’t reached out more recently, why I hadn’t read more into warning signs. It still hurts when I think about it. However, this loss was also a turning point for me. Somehow it revealed to me that life is serious. Life is not a game. If I let my mental health continue to slide, then it could cost me my will to be here. This is not to say that I was actively suicidal at any point, but that I was depressed and that the abstract concept of suicide was crossing my mind more frequently than was healthy. The loss of my friend shook me in part because it made me think about the difference between myself and a person struggling with suicidal thoughts, and I realized that there was not as much of a difference as I’d thought there was.

I started taking care of myself more. Not self-care in the “do a face mask and order take out” kind of way that I had been doing, but in the serious, this really matters, this is the only life I get to live kind of way. I realized that I didn’t feel depressed while I was out in nature for a few hours, so I started hiking more. I remembered how painting and artistic pursuits gave me balance, and I started oil painting again. I reconnected with the meditative state that running could put me in, and I started running longer and longer distances. I started taking my therapy sessions more seriously, opening up to my therapist instead of dragging myself through each session. I began saying no to getting involved in student leadership responsibilities that I knew would overwhelm me. I stopped feeling guilty for putting myself first and taking care of myself. I want to enjoy my life. I want to wake up every day and feel content. And it’s been working. And it’s amazing. Sometimes it doesn’t feel real that I can enjoy my life again.

I encountered a quote about depression in a book recently and it resonated with me. The quote reads:

“My mother crawled out of her deep, dark tunnel, but perhaps this phrasing is too imprecise, the image of crawling too forceful to encapsulate the relentless but quiet work of fighting depression. Perhaps it is more correct to say that her darkness lifted, the tunnel shallowed, so that it felt as though her problems were on the surface of the Earth again, not down in its molten core.”

Transcendent Kingdom, Yaa Gyasi

I put in work to become mentally healthy again. When I was stuck in my depression, I thought that I was working hard to get out of it by just surviving each day. Really, I was dragging myself along, crawling through an infinite tunnel, and not making any progress. The real hard work was in choosing myself and my happiness: prioritizing balance, boundaries, and making time for the things that make me feel alive. These actions are what caused the darkness to lift, the tunnel to shallow, the journey to become manageable enough that I was able to make my way through it.

At one point in my depression, my therapist pointed out that I could consider dropping out of my PhD program. The idea both terrified and thrilled me. She was right; I had two options in front of me: stay in my PhD program and make changes to improve my mental health or drop out. I could not keep going as I had been before. I ended up choosing to stay in grad school, but this choice has required me to change the way I do grad school. I do not skip a weekend hike for research. I do not cut my runs short to spend more time debugging code. I do not miss out on social events to perfect a presentation. This is the way that I have found for me to be able to do grad school and stay mentally healthy, and that is all that matters — not how my labmates do grad school, not how my peers do grad school, not how my perfectionism wants me to do grad school, not even how my advisors want me to do grad school.

Your mental health is more important than getting an A, submitting a conference paper, or hitting your degree milestones on time. This is your only life. Learn to treat yourself with the respect that you deserve. You deserve to enjoy your life. You do not have to earn happiness through suffering. Learn to treat yourself with the compassion and grace that you would extend to a friend, that I wish I could have extended to my friend if I had known how much they were suffering before their death.

It takes work and attention every day to keep my problems on the surface of the Earth, to stop myself from being pulled down into the dark tunnel. The darkness is behind me but in many ways, it is still around me, or at least the threat of it is. It is up to me to pull the light in closer.

September is National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. If you or someone you know is struggling, please reach out for help. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline is available 24/7 at 988. MIT Mental Health Services can be contacted via phone at 617-253-2916 during weekdays and at 617-253-4481 during nights and weekends.

Lena Downes is a fifth-year graduate student pursuing a PhD in AeroAstro.