If anecdotal evidence is anything to go by, there seems to be a strong co-relation between depression and graduate school. Just in the last year or so, I have known of at least 4 grad students who have been clinically diagnosed with depression and have had to either quit grad school or take a break from their research to undergo treatment. I got to know of the most recent one earlier this week, and this is what has inspired me to put my thoughts into words.
A vast majority of grad students at some point or the other would be frustrated by the progress of their projects. Therefore, given that stress is major trigger for depression, it doesn't seem too out-worldly to hypothesize that a significant number or graduate students could be depressed. I tried searching for any studies on this. I found a couple of relatively recent news articles on nature and science that addressed this. The articles quoted from multiple studies that weren't always consistent in terms of relative percentages. But both these articles seemed to agree that there definitely was a sizable number of grad students who had depression or anxiety related problems. Another constant theme was that the resources available to the students to overcome these issues was limited at best.
Even when resources exist I have noticed that it is not willingly taken advantage of. One of the reasons is that stigma associated with mental illness is still pretty real. A lot of grad students are from countries where this stigma is even more acute. The story of the person of whom I heard earlier this week exemplifies this best. She is an Indian girl, who after completing work on her thesis at a foreign university, had an extremely tough time job hunting. This stress led to a breakdown and she was admitted to a hospital for a few days. Her parents came over from India and took her back home. Instead of continuing treatment in India, they chose to hide the problem as they were afraid of the stigma associated with depression. This was not limited to the parents alone. If anything, the denial of the issue coming from her sister seemed to be stronger. While all this was happening, from a neutral observer's perspective her condition only seems to be getting worse. She started posting extremely random and incoherent things on her facebook wall. I hadn't spoken to her personally in over seven years. Even at that time I was, at best, an acquaintance. Yet a couple of days ago she sent me these extremely random messages via chat that didn't make much sense. When I say the messages didn't make sense, they were not random letters typed out on a keyboard. They seemed to be something that she was definitely trying to communicate but written by someone who was extremely confused or disturbed. I spoke to her her friends after I got these messages and they gave me all the background information. The most saddening part of this is that the family is more concerned about the difficulties in getting her married if the news of her condition spreads rather than helping her fix the problems affecting her.
Another thing of note is that of the 4 people that I knew who were diagnosed with depression 3 were people from India. Yes a decent number of my friends are immigrant graduate students, and that does bias the data. Making conclusions based on a small sample size is by itself cringe worthy. When you add the poor quality of this dataset it is completely abhorrent. But, I do believe the circumstances of being a foreigner do contribute to this problem. The access to a support system is limited. Your family and close friends are halfway around the earth. Not finding a job when you graduate would mean you have to forcefully go back to your home country. The opportunities available in your home country may not match up to your dreams and ambitions. All these can definitely be genuinely stressful. A systematic study to understand the effect of these stresses on immigrant grad students would really be useful. Besides these stresses, therapists probably find it difficult to understand the problems faced by immigrants. Maybe, it was just a case of a bad counselor, but one of my friends was essentially shooed away by a therapist saying that there was nothing wrong with her. She went through a couple of years of insomnia and anxiety before she was able to push herself to see a different counselor who helped her get back on track.
I tried looking up resources provided to deal with depression and anxiety by the international centers at the two universities that I am associated with. I could not easily find anything significant on the website of the University of Illinois. At UCSD there was a link to the counselling services center where they seemed to underline the fact that provide culture specific services.
People who are suffering with depression are also usually very reluctant to take help. The first response is almost always denial. At this stage it would really help if there were strong peer networks where they can candidly talk about their issues. A group of students at UC Berkley did set something like this up. The fact of the matter is you don't have to be suffering from crippling problem before you seek help. Either from peers or from professionals. For the last few years I have been posting very rarely on my blog. But if any of my friends at UCSD reads this and would like to help me set up a peer network here please let me know. If there are groups that already do this, please let me know as well. I would be talking in person to a few more friends and the Counselling center and hopefully get the ball rolling on this soon.