How can I support you?
This is a question my partner asks me whenever I feel helpless, depressed, or anxious. Often times, I don’t know how to answer because I struggle to even know what I need in that moment.
Being a graduate student is a lot. Very soon you realize that the expectation is much higher than when you were an undergraduate student. You quickly see how much you don’t know and may feel under-qualified compare to that one student in class who seems to know everything. It also feels endless. PhD students, in particular, are prone to isolation and many other stressors that can affect their mental health. Speaking for myself, these are the thoughts that run through my mind 95% of the time (the remaining 5% is when I’m sleeping… LOL half jk):
- I know nothing.
- How I managed to get this far, I will never know.
- How do people know what to do with their research or paper? I’m struggling to even know the basics.
- I’m so tired.
- Did I eat today? I can’t remember.
- I am so behind on everything. I should have published “x” by now. I should have presented “x” by now.
- I feel isolated.
- *anxiety attack*
- *cries on bathroom floor*
- *cries in bed and feels bad for being a potato*
If you are in graduate school or know someone that is currently a grad student, these tips are for you.
When a graduate student is sharing their latest struggles with you, are you actually listening or just hearing what they say? What’s the difference? You may say. It’s like when you read a full page of a book but realize that you don’t know what you even read. Your eyes saw the words, but your brain didn’t internalize the content. When someone is sharing their struggles with you, be intentional with how you listen.
After you’ve taken in what they have to say, validate their experience. Don’t compare, don’t de-value, and don’t assume that they’ll get over it. Verbally express that you see and hear them. Your job isn’t to judge how valid their personal experiences are. Try the following:
“It sounds like you’re going through a difficult time. I can see that you feel overwhelmed.”
“It sounds to me like you feel stretched thin or burnt out.”
“It’s okay to feel this way. You’re going through a lot.”
“Thank you for sharing with me. I can see that you are feeling _____/ that you are struggling with _____/ that you are thinking ____.”
Ask how you can be supportive.
Don’t assume that you know what they need. Sure, last time all they needed was some ice cream and Netflix time, but that doesn’t mean that’s what they need today. Like I mentioned above, sometimes they may respond with a “I don’t know” and that’s okay. It takes courage to ask how you can support someone, but it also takes courage to know what you need and ask for it. Be patient with them. Show them some love. Most importantly, don’t shame them. If they come to you saying they’re overwhelmed with everything on their plate, don’t say “Well, when was it due? Why didn’t you get it done earlier?” This isn’t helpful because it doesn’t change their situation, but you can support a change in attitude.
Be mindful and reach out.
If you know that this graduate student has been having a difficult time for a few days, it doesn’t hurt to drop in a text and say “Hey, I’ve been thinking about you. Just wanted to check in and see how you’re doing :)” If you know they have a big presentation or exam coming up, be a friend and shoot them a message “Good luck on your test today! Sending you all the good vibes.”
Know you aren’t the solution, but you can be their cheerleader.
As a graduate student, I know that my partner, family, and friends can’t solve my problems. They can’t do my PhD for me. They aren’t the answer to my anxiety. But I know that they are walking this journey with me. I often get caught up in a dark cloud of depressing thoughts, sadness, doubt, and fear. It’s hard for me to hear the voices of those rooting for me and sometimes, weeks go by with this dark cloud blinding all the goodness that’s around me.
I know I can’t do this alone. In the moments that I’ve spent all day curled up in bed, I get a call from my sister who at my “Hello?” she immediately asks, “Hey. Oh, what’s wrong? Everything okay?” In the moments that I’m on my bathroom floor crying, I get a text from my partner that says:
“You are loved by many, potato.”
…and sometimes that’s just enough to catch some clarity to take one step forward.
To my fellow graduate students…
I hear you. I see you. I’m rooting for you.
Join our community of graduate students that are speaking up and bringing visibility to mental health awareness.
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