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Depression in Grad School: What You Need to Know

While graduate research is often stimulating, fulfilling and rewarding, most graduate students will also experience periods of high stress and frustrating experimental failures or obstacles. Lifestyle choices, such as a healthy diet, exercise, sufficient sleep or meditation, can help students manage stress. However, many graduate students also have symptoms of clinical depression, a serious medical illness that may not respond to lifestyle changes alone.

girl sitting on a bridge at sunsetI was diagnosed with depression during my fourth year of graduate school. Fortunately for me and for all students, as universities become aware of the prevalence of depression among graduate students, they are creating new resources to meet students’ needs.

I am very grateful for the resources provided by Johns Hopkins, which have helped me identify, understand and manage my illness, and would like to share what I’ve learned:

1. Depression in graduate school is very common.

Before my own diagnosis, I did not know of any other graduate students dealing with depression. My depression felt isolating and amplified my feelings of imposter syndrome; I felt that I was failing to manage my stress and workload while my classmates were successfully overcoming similar obstacles. In fact, my situation was very common.

Following a 2014 survey, The UC Berkeley Graduate Assembly reported that as many as 47 percent of Ph.D. students — and 37 percent of master’s students — showed symptoms of clinical depression. This followed a 2005 study in which 10 percent of graduate students admitted to having thoughts of suicide.

When I began to share my diagnosis with friends and co-workers, I learned I wasn’t alone. Knowing that other students I knew had also dealt with similar issues helped me deal with my own depression.

2. Johns Hopkins provides helpful, free resources and counseling for students.

The Student Assistance Program (SAP) and University Mental Health at Johns Hopkins offer many resources for students seeking to manage stress, as well as those dealing with depression or anxiety.

SAP provides free short-term counseling and online self-help resources to assist students with study skills, stress management, personal and family issues, burnout, and work-life balance. SAP also provides relationship counseling, crisis response counseling and helpful information for students who are concerned that a friend or classmate may be depressed. If you need more intensive counseling, University Mental Health can provide more in-depth help for those who are depressed or suffering from an anxiety disorder.

3. Depression is a medical illness.

When I was depressed, friends would try to encourage me by reminding me that “everyone has stressful days” and “at least it’s not worse.” While well-meant, these sentiments were more hurtful than helpful because they trivialized my illness and discouraged me from seeking treatment. Likewise, telling someone who is depressed to “be strong” or “just push through it” can reinforce feelings of helplessness or self-blame. Depression is a serious medical illness that may require treatment, not just willpower, to overcome.

It’s true that all of us will confront stressful times in graduate school, but if, as the Berkeley report suggests, as many as half also suffer from depression, it is important that we learn to recognize the difference and support each other. Symptoms of depression can include persistent low mood — including feeling hopeless, overwhelmed or defeated — changes in sleep or appetite, social withdrawal, and loss of interest in things you usually enjoy.

For me, recognizing my depression and seeking help were difficult but necessary steps toward recovery. I know that depression will not prevent me from being successful in my graduate career. I hope that sharing my story may help other students recognize early signs of depression in themselves or others and seek help. I continue to take advantage of the resources provided by Johns Hopkins to monitor and manage my depression and day-to-day stress, and I strongly encourage others to do so as well.

If you are having thoughts of suicide, please seek help immediately. You can call University Health Services or University Mental Health during weekday business hours, a close friend or family member, or a 24/7 suicide hotline.

Visit our Health Library to learn more about depression and how to recognize signs of suicidal feelings or behavior.