Imposter Syndrome: Thoughts on Mental Health and the World Around Us

In my short life, I have had the immense privilege of experiencing two graduate programs, one at the University of California Los Angeles and the other – my current program – at the University of California Irvine.  My time in both programs can be easily characterized as stressful, but perhaps not for the reason you might think.

Graduate programs are notoriously difficult, what with the heavy workload and the immense social pressure to network with everyone in walking distance.  But that wasn’t quite all it was, at least not for me.  Rather, the pressure to conform to a particular way of speaking, to the use of a particular kind of vocabulary, and to a rigid, almost elitist way of thinking, made it very difficult for me to reconcile the environment I had come from, with the environment within which I found myself.

Basically, it wasn’t the amount of the workload, but the way that I was required to contend with it, that made me so anxious.

Imposter Syndrome, that’s what many call it: the phenomenon in which one feels – even in spite of their expertise, their passionate, and their drive – that they do not deserve the position that they have attained.  Unfortunately, it is one of the most common features of academic life, both in graduate students and faculty.

According to one study, nearly 39% of graduate student respondents registered as moderate to severely depressed, with the number jumping to 55% and 57% respectively for transgender students and gender-nonconforming students.

Sources point to the primary causes being the isolating nature of graduate school, with a heavy course load, reading list, deliverables, and any outside research or activities a student may feel compelled to do.  They also point to a graduate student’s relationship with their advisor or principal investigator as a consistent source of stress; all this culminates in the question of work-life balance, which this study found that only 21% of graduate students with depression agreed that they had a healthy work-life balance.

Seeing those numbers puts my own time both as a Doctoral student and now, almost two years after I left that program, as a Masters student into perspective.  I couldn’t say that my own troubles with mental illness were born of these experiences, in fact I had been diagnosed with anxiety disorder and depression years before.  However, I can say without a doubt that they exacerbated the depth of the struggle that I had to face.

It was only once I was deep into my program that I had come to understand that “higher caliber” did not necessarily mean better or more useful.

One of the biggest issues, and most difficult to overcome, was the way in which my being forced to communicate in a manner befitting a graduate student made it much more difficult to communicate with my family and friends.  Every conversation would be stunted, with me stopping mid-sentence at the realization that no one knew what the hell I was talking about.  And no, it wasn’t because they couldn’t comprehend the level of the stuff I was talking about it.  It was because the way I spoke had become so pedantic and flowery that the point I was trying to make seemed lost in translation.

I went to graduate school to learn about the systemic inequities affecting my community and to communicate better with the people to whom I wished to dedicate my work.  It was only once I was deep into my program that I had come to understand that “higher caliber” did not necessarily mean better or more useful.

I have to wonder that providing for the basic needs of people might be the one panacea that we refuse to acknowledge.

The specter of Imposter Syndrome brings another, broader issue to the fore; the extent to which mental illness may be caused or exacerbated by one’s own environment.  As you probably know, I often dream of a world in which no one goes hungry or is sickened with poisoned water.  A world in which people receive the healthcare they need regardless of the severity of their need, and which they receive education that will give them the best chance of thriving as individuals.  And I often wonder if, in such an idyllic world, mental illness might cease to exist.

It seems a pipe dream, I know, but

…given what we know about the way hunger can stunt physical, emotional, and mental development in children, given what we know about the role impoverished conditions can play in the onset of severe depression and anxiety, and given we know that so many homeless people and incarcerated people are afflicted with mental illness, I have to wonder that providing for the basic needs of people – that is, providing a stable and healthy environment for them to rest, to grow, to heal, and to thrive – might be the one panacea that we refuse to acknowledge.

The fact that so many people in such elite institutions as graduate schools experience mental illness at such high rates in part due to their immediate environments should give us pause.  If graduate students are so stressed as to develop mental illness in institutions that society considers to be the zenith of intellectual development, imagine the kinds of stresses we allow to go unchecked in impoverished communities due to the same kind of negative environmental features.

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