The Bad in Good Advice

This is the third and final installment in my series on Mental Health in Graduate School. Click here for part one; click here for part two. Today's guest post, written by Jake Jackson, generally talks about how to cope with mental health issues during graduate school under the constant barrage of advice from colleagues, advisors, friends, and family.

 

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“Well, I always exercise so I know I’ve done something at the end of the day”

 

“Let me tell you, antidepressants work” […or don’t]

 

“You should always be sure to write for at least two hours every hour when you wake up, no more no less; otherwise it just falls apart”

 

 

My research is based on the social perceptions of mental illness; I also have spent my entire time within my PhD program open about my experience with depression, anxiety, and other related conditions. The result is that I have been all-to-often bogged down by well-intentioned “good” yet nevertheless unsolicited advice from other grad students, faculty, and literally whoever has ever asked me about my research. The admonition that one has a mental illness (or just simply “personal problems” as often euphemized) is mistakenly seen as an invitation for advice from advisors, colleagues, or whoever. We are in midst of a major boom of advice for graduate students with mental illness, unfortunately it’s often forceful or misleading and leads to further epistemic and ethical harms in terms of duping students into thinking that there is only one truth path to managing extreme moods in academia.

 

Sometimes, advice is “good”, at least in the sense that the person giving the advice has benefitted directly from the activities they suggest and maybe in fact some of them can be helpful to the person being advised. Other (and most) times advice is just simply bad, playing on outsider or neurotypical stigmatizing attitudes. Professors have told me over the years all sorts of contradicting advice here and there, hardly any of which that has been helpful.

 

Just about all advising within academia, academic philosophy especially, comes with a strong hand. Where academia typically fosters a culture of all-encompassing advising and knowing what’s best, advisors themselves insecurely suggest whatever they can to feel effective. The trouble comes in advising too heavily and confusing what works for oneself as if it’s what works for all. We all imagine ourselves as experts, even in the things that we do not ourselves study. The unfortunate result of good advice that doesn’t apply to those advised is further alienation. Where one believes that one is at odds and suffers from impostor syndrome, even the best-intentioned advice can lead to further feelings of being inadequate or unable to cope with academic “rigor”.

 

The unfortunate truth is that mental illness, both in general and in the particular, is too idiosyncratic to be understood in simple solutions or lifehacks. Even looking at the APA’s diagnostic criteria for major depressive disorder (pulled for its high co-morbidity rate) shows that depression has a wide variety of symptoms. Those with major depression experience either a depressed mood or lack of interest or pleasure in activities and at least four of the following seven symptoms: weight/diet changes, changes in sleep patterns, psychomotor problems, fatigue, feeling extreme guilt/worthlessness, problems thinking/concentrating, or continuous/obsessive thoughts of death/suicide, according to the DSM-5. Even one of the most common mental illnesses is individual and existential to its sufferer. The feelings of worthlessness and guilt especially bring further problems when one cannot live up to the expectations of the advice given, let alone one’s own expectations for oneself and one’s work. With such varying problems/symptoms where many could have such different experiences while still being under the same diagnostic umbrella, it is hard to imagine that one person’s easy fix is one-size-fits-all.

 

Rather instead, faculty advisors, peers, and others need to understand that mental illness is pluralistic; just as every depression or anguish is different and original to the individual, so is its treatment. Instead of supplying a heavy-handed “this is a thing you should do” advisement, we must instead understand that each individual’s coping must also be idiosyncratic. Coping and self-care come in a multitude of forms and cannot simply be figured out from authority. For some, exercise works, others medication, but ultimately one cannot go it alone and needs a good support system, professional and otherwise. Not just something given through shallow advice and platitudes given to anyone, but something empathetically understood and deeply heard. 

 

Or rather, I’ll forcefully say this, you do you. Figure out what makes sense to your own coping.

 

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Jake Jackson is a PhD Candidate and Graduate Fellow in the Philosophy Department at Temple University. You can (and should!) follow him on Twitter: @CrankyEthicist

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