Tell academic supervisor about depression?
May 27, 2016 10:59 PM   Subscribe

I want to disclose to my (former) supervisor that I've been struggling with depression this year, but I'm hesitating.

I completed my PhD last Spring, and subsequently fell into what was a very bad depression. After suffering with the worst of it for about 6 months, I recently sought help, was diagnosed with depression & generalized anxiety disorder, and began CBT therapy and anti-depressants. I seem to have come out the other end. I wish I had sought treatment sooner, as I'm amazed at how different I feel, and how obviously awful I felt before. Prior, I was unaware that this is what was going on, and sort of just trudged along in silence, trying to buck up. I sought work outside of academia for a brief time after my defense because I was completely burnt out. This was unbeknownst to my supervisor (I'm currently living in another country than where I studied and am not around the department).

As a bit of background, I struggled a lot during my PhD and I think that was quite apparent to my supervisor. She mentioned that in passing once, that I had had challenges. At my defense I was asked to do major revisions and she was incredibly supportive of me and defended my project. Looking back, I can see that so much of my struggle during the thesis was the anxiety and depression zapping me of my focus and screaming at me to run.

Now that I am feeling better, my focus, drive, and ambition are back, and I have started to look for academic work and begin new research for a postdoc. I want to reach out to my supervisor and send her an update on my end, as she hasn't heard from me in a while. However, I am reluctant to tell her about my illness. I have a feeling she would be very supportive, but I fear stigmatization. The reason I ask is as I'm writing the email and I get to "I have been experiencing illness this year..." it sounds so vague, and comes off like an excuse, no? I don't want to sound whiny in my email, but I feel like I owe her an explanation for my relative disappearance, as she hasn't heard from me in ages.

Would this be a big no-no?
posted by anonymous to Education (7 answers total)
When I quit my master's in 2013 (as is documented on MeFi), I told my academic supervisor and he was great. He was great overall, so it was an easy choice to tell him, but of all the people I talked to, he was one of the most helpful. Academia is a breeding ground for anxiety and depression, it seems, so your supervisor might have experienced those things herself and just didn't want to push talking about them onto you.
I'm not sure what disclosing now might do for you, unless you need her for a reference? But if you want to contact her and think she'd like to hear from you, why not? I wrote to my supervisor last year to tell him I had found a job, and will write to him again to ask about re-entering grad school if my treatment goes well. I also wanted to tell him about my recent diagnosis of a non-mental health thing that was a contributing factor to my troubles back then, in case it helps some of his current students who might have similar problems.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 11:44 PM on May 27, 2016

I've had a student go through something similar. I was very anxious for her when she left. It was a great relief to all of us when she contacted us a couple of months later to say that she'd found her feet again and was past crisis. We hired her again for a short-term contract, in fact. But her reaching out was really appreciated on our end. I was very happy that she went to the trouble.

You don't need to explain, I don't think you "owe" that, but I'm sure she'd be glad to hear from you and know that your energy and ambition are recovering. I'd tell her where you are now and speak mostly about your future and your plans. I'm sure she will be happy to hear from you, from your account.
posted by bonehead at 12:38 AM on May 28, 2016 [5 favorites]

I would reach out with an update, letting her know that after having some time to recharge you're really excited about finding a postdoc opportunity in X or Y, and that you are so thankful for her mentoring/support through your ph.d. Do you have any projects to finish up with her? Any conferences you'll be attending? Mention those things and get on them if you have work left to do with her.

I personally wouldn't disclose your medical information with her, I know it's tempting because looking back you probably feel some disappointment with yourself and want to explain but it's not necessary. Almost everyone experiences issues during their phd, some more serious than others, you did great if you finished and are now feeling better.

Source: I was a depressed/anxious grad student who is now doing much better post-phd (I was having panic attacks daily at the worst of it). I am close to my former advisor, but I never disclosed explicitly what was going on, they were supportive of me already so telling wouldn't have changed anything, and it could have changed their treatment of me or their future references. Sometimes now I want to disclose because it was a big part of my phd experience but I'm a few years out now, I've won awards since then and we have a positive collaborative relationship going back nearly a decade at this point, so it wouldn't affect anything going forward.
posted by lafemma at 8:47 AM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Agre with LaFemma above: you can give them an update along the lines of "I feel refreshed after my break and am now ready to..." without disclosing medical info. If your supervisor knows you, they will probably read between the lines, but you do not need to provide specifics.
posted by rpfields at 11:03 AM on May 28, 2016

"I've been through some distracting personal issues this year but am through the other side and look forward to renewing my energy toward etc etc".
posted by Potomac Avenue at 11:47 AM on May 28, 2016

If you think that your supervisor probably knew anyway, then you have nothing to lose. In fact, you have a lot to gain. You can address the elephant in the room. By putting a name to the challenges you faced while you were completing your PhD, and acknowledging that they're over now, you're putting her in a much better position to be able to recommend you for post-doc work.

Depression is far less stigmatized than it was even 10 years ago. Pretty much everyone has either experienced it themselves or seen a loved one go through it - and come out the other side. Is that something I'd disclose to a potential employer? Hell no (society isn't there just yet). Is it something I'd disclose to a former supervisor / boss / reference who I trusted? Yes. (And I have done).

But I'd do it in a matter-of-fact way. "Ms Supervisor, I'm sorry it's been so long since I've been in touch. Since I was awarded my PhD, I've been doing blah blah blah. I was recently diagnosed with depression - which explains some of the challenges I faced during my PhD, but I am in treatment now, and am completely back to my normal self, and am looking forward to the next phase in my career."

Good luck with your future career!
posted by finding.perdita at 1:44 AM on May 29, 2016

Hey, no fair copying my autobiography.

As a more serious answer, you're ultimately going to have to make this decision for yourself based on what kind of person you know your advisor to be and what your relationship with her is like. Me, I chose to disclose to both my Ph.D. advisor and my postdoctoral advisor when I started getting treatment, and I think it was a good decision. I'm still struggling somewhat with the depression and anxiety, but being open and honest has been very good for reducing the shame and anxiety associated with making excuses or using vague circumlocutions. Both my mentors were very receptive, particularly my Ph.D. advisor. I can't guarantee you'll have the same experience, but this was mine.

Good luck!
posted by biogeo at 1:54 PM on May 29, 2016

« Older Help someone be a (phone) genius in France   |   Do I make a lateral career move strictly for... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.