“A Sad Man in a Suit”: One Student’s Experiences with Depression and Anxiety

Photo by Keagan Henman on Unsplash

On September 28, I was honoured to attend the student-led event “A Sad Man in a Suit: One Student’s Experiences with Depression & Anxiety.” In this peer-to-peer fireside chat, one graduate student interviewed another about his experiences living with depression and anxiety. This student shared his story with humour and candour: from his difficulty recognizing his experiences as depression rather than simply “who I am and how I am” (i.e., something he should be able to “fix” on his own), to his fear that “life would be on hold” if he sought help. He spoke about his super-sized expectations for himself upon beginning grad school, and the recognition that it’s sometimes necessary to scale back ambitions to preserve happiness and health. 

Throughout the conversation, the audience submitted many excellent questions, and time didn’t permit answering them all. I’ve paraphrased a few of them here, with links and resources that may partially address them:

Q: “What can friends or loved ones do to support someone who’s going through depression? And if I recognize signs of depression in someone else who hasn’t recognized it in themselves, how can I help?”

You may be interested in the “How to Help a Friend” module, available through the Wellness Centre: Online Canvas course. Any UBC student can self-enrol in Wellness Centre: Online and browse the modules.

Q: “How do you manage the workload/deadlines of graduate school when you’re in the middle of a depressive episode?”

Although it doesn’t answer this question directly, here’s one student’s first-hand reflections and advice on “navigating graduate school with mental illness.”

Q: “In medicine and grad school, intense ambition and overwork can be normalized and idealized. How do you navigate this in relation to your mental health?”

Graduate Pathways to Success offers a workshop on Overcoming Perfectionism, noting:

We live in a culture that emphasizes being perfect as a virtue in everything from body image to relationships to career achievements. The problem is that life and being human, in spite of our best efforts, is messier than this. Having high standards is one thing, but taking a perfectionistic approach to life can actually get in the way of your success.

Learn more, and register for the November 3 workshop, here.

Q: “How do you manage anxieties around failure and/or rejection – whether academic or personal?”

Part of managing anxieties around failure/rejection is pre-empting them: knowing that you have the capacity to deal with whatever happens when you shoot your shot. It’s an ongoing process to learn that failure is unpleasant, but not a catastrophe: we can live to try another day and another way. The U.S. National Institutes of Health is offering an online series on “Becoming a Resilient Scientist,” and the next session is on Tuesday October 13: Exploring our Self-Talk – Cognitive Distortions & Imposter Fears. Here at UBC, the Centre for Student Involvement and Careers regularly offers a webinar called “Panic to Power – Build Your Confidence” that offers “effective coping strategies to turn your unease into motivated, productive energy that will help you approach your goals with increased comfort and confidence.” Upcoming dates for this and other webinars can be found here, under “Events.”

Q: “Should I tell my supervisor and/or labmates about my mental health problems? And if so, how? There’s still so much stigma around mental illness.”

Although we’ve made some progress as a society, speaking openly about mental illness can still be incredibly difficult. Here is a piece (from 2010, but still generally relevant) about “Sharing your stuff” with supervisors as a grad student. And although the specifics are different, there are some useful tips in this SunLife piece, “How to talk to your boss about your mental health.” If you’re not comfortable approaching your supervisor, you could also chat with your graduate program director/advisor or talk through some strategies with a counsellor or coach.

As your Wellbeing and Support Coordinator, my aim is to find ways that we as a Faculty can help students thrive & flourish, with or without mental illness. This commentary from a graduate student and Assistant Dean at University of Alberta (Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry) offers a clear and compelling overview of the importance, and key actions, of looking out for students’ mental health.