Awesome Grad School vs Mental Health
September 20, 2016 7:17 AM   Subscribe

I've started a Master's degree at a top university in the world (for my field) in Europe. It is an incredible opportunity that is very unlikely to come around again. However, I suffer from depression and being away from my support system while in a rigorous academic program does not seem to be the best for my mental health. My friends and family say they support me no matter what, but they all tell me that if I leave this program I will regret it for the rest of my life, and I'm afraid of living with regret.

My apologies if this is scatter-brained - I feel as though I cannot think very clearly right now.

I'm in the first semester of a Master's degree program at a top 10 university (for my field) in Europe. I'm from Canada, in my mid-twenties, and have a B.Sc. in Computer Science.

I have spent some time living in Europe before, but the circumstances were different and I still experienced some depression. Last summer, I researched part-time in a different European city and spent a lot of time solo-travelling around Europe. This experience was net positive, but that is mostly due to travelling. I really enjoyed travelling, but actually living day-to-day life in the city where I was researching made me very depressed.

I also experienced bouts of depression while doing my undergrad, when school got particularly stressful, but my family and friends were nearby so it was manageable. However, now I'm back in Europe (in a different country from last summer) in a very rigorous academic program; I'm alone and worried about my mental health with the stressors from my program and being so far away from my support system. Please don't give the advice "make some friends/go to events" - I have social anxiety and it is very difficult for me to make friends or go to events alone, so that advice will not be helpful.

I actually didn't even get on my airplane to come out here for the start of the semester. But friends and family insisted that I go and one family member bought me a plane ticket and I felt guilty not going. Now that I’ve started the semester and have gone to classes, I’ve been thinking that I want to leave *soon* to start looking for a job. My friends and family keep telling me that I would be making a mistake that I would likely regret for life, by leaving the program so early into the first semester. I feel bad leaving soon too, especially after someone bought me a plane ticket to come here.

For the past few months, I've thought about postponing grad school for a couple years so I can work and reconsider it at a later time. A master's degree is something I thought I was interested in a long time, but after working in a job that I really liked for a few months and really enjoying the day-to-day of working full time, I'm not sure I want to go back to school right now, especially not in a foreign country.

Some other factors:

I cannot delay my program. I either have to do this semester or quit the program. Doing even a single semester feels impossible and in order to meet program requirements I would be taking 7 classes.

This is likely a once in a lifetime opportunity, as I am unlikely to get into the same school with the same scholarship again, as leaving the program so soon probably won’t look great. Without the scholarship, I could not afford to attend this school.

A degree from this university would definitely be quite the accomplishment and would probably open up some doors. Living and experiencing the culture here would theoretically be cool (but the weather kinda sucks and everything is really expensive). My living accommodations here give me anxiety, as the only place I could find would be in a large 9-bedroom flat with 8 roommates.

The job market back home can only really be described as bleak. Even though my undergrad degree is seen as fairly employable, we’re going through a recession and there aren’t a lot of opportunities for new grads.

I feel that leaving is the correct decision for me, but also that I don’t have a good enough reason to leave - that prioritizing my mental health over this opportunity is wrong, especially if I am unable to find a job back home. All my friends and family seem to think that I'll just get over any depression - they say that I’ll be fine and that I just have to give this a try.

Any advice would be helpful, but a couple of specific questions that are on my mind are:

1. How do I come to terms with the fact that I feel I need to prioritize my mental health over grad school? I realize this is an incredible opportunity and I want to want this, but I just feel that right now, this is not a good thing for me. That maybe at some other time, it could have worked out. If the program was at home then it could be doable, since I would be near my support system.

2. How do I cope with people telling me that I’m going to regret my decision - even after I explain my point of view to them?
posted by Robocat to Work & Money (17 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Is there a counseling centre at the school? Could you get treated for your anxiety?
posted by kinoeye at 7:35 AM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Prioritizing your mental health is not wrong. But just leaving the program and going to get a job does not sound like prioritizing to me: it sounds like avoidance.

Can you seek treatment either through your current program, or via the internet?
posted by rtha at 7:46 AM on September 20, 2016 [16 favorites]

The school in question may (in my opinion) should see mental health issues as an accessibility problem and might have various services in place to help support you and provide accommodations.

I realize this is often an obnoxious and imperfect solution (I'm fighting to find some sort of similar arrangement for a grad program in Canada as we speak) but maybe they could help! I mean, they've already offered you money. :)
posted by rhooke at 8:02 AM on September 20, 2016

The issue here really is, how are you going to work on your depression? What have you done so far? What has helped in the past?

I don't see a plan here. What if you get a job and feel depressed as you do now?

Address the underlying issue, now or next, rather than assuming the current situation is causing it or that a future situation will make it go away.
posted by Riverine at 8:09 AM on September 20, 2016 [7 favorites]

Doing even a single semester feels impossible and in order to meet program requirements I would be taking 7 classes.

Well, I don't really have direct advice about your situation, but I have to say that as a professor and current DGS you're not wrong to think that taking 7 classes in a single semester, if these are US-style regular classes is very, very intense. I think it's pretty rational regardless of mental health to be daunted by that courseload. I'm not saying this to try to determine whether or not you do it (it is probably just doable, and funded masters are very rare), but I think if you did decide not to do it, or to leave partway through, that would be a pretty reasonable/rational decision to make, regardless of what relatives who aren't in your situation think. Also, if you have an advisor who is reasonable I would at least approach them about trying to figure out a way to drop 1-2 classes now, do them in the summer or even potentially extend the program by a term if it comes to that.

For those talking about accessibility mental health accommodations may be available on a class-by-class basis but they won't typically mitigate the overall program requirements or (most importantly) extend funding beyond whatever term it is set for now. (I.e. one of the best things to do might be to approximately halve the courseload, but this would double the length of the program and I doubt the funding would double with it.) YMMV depending on school and locality.
posted by advil at 8:14 AM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

I don't have very specific help for your situation, but I wanted to say: I've chosen in the past to prioritize my own mental health over a grad school program, and I don't regret it one bit. It was difficult for a while to see friends from that program graduate and get awesome jobs, but with some time to look back on it, I'm so happy with the choice I made to leave my program. I think that the people telling you you'll regret not going have likely never dealt with mental health issues, and don't have the important perspective that you do in knowing what you can and can't handle while still taking care of yourself.

I also wonder if maybe you're similar to me in that being a really good student has always been a major part of your identity, and part of the difficulty in this decision is feeling like you're leaving that piece of yourself behind if you don't choose this program. If that's the case, I sympathize SO HARD! Know that making a decision about a grad program changes NOTHING about yourself and your intelligence and everything that makes up who you are. There is so much more to life than academics (although that world can be awesome and rewarding too!) and honestly, I regret not leaving my graduate program sooner so that I could have spent more of my twenties learning some self-care and enjoying time with friends and family.
posted by augustimagination at 8:21 AM on September 20, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm in the US and we have the PROMISE program which provides an additional layer of support for grad students, particularly if their external social circle may care, but be clueless, about the journey for an advanced degree. This is not my specialty, but it's followed by AGEP which might be a phrase for finding additional support, and acts as a bit of informal group therapy when you show up for an event, even if the topic is something you know, you hear how others are navigating. Universities have these programs because they want you to succeed, know it's hard work & easy to feel alone, so the gatherings help you find your tribe, or a few go-to people. The mistake grad students make is thinking this is for "other people" and pay for it with rework. It tends to be staffed with friendly people, so maybe that's your quest. Also, our on-campus counseling center connects students to local providers for specialized care, so ask about that as well.

Yes, see what mental health resources are local, but also be a tourist in your new home town. Google & Yelp & trip advisor have helped me find parks & hikes as well lunch off-the-beaten path that sometimes end up being quite close and I've tucked into a house of worship at times for some quiet meditation time and pick something beyond Christ on the cross (there is typically plenty of art & architecture) to meditate upon if I need a focal point. (Ymmv) labyrinths are good for this. Best wishes.
posted by childofTethys at 8:56 AM on September 20, 2016

Check out student disability services on your campus, too.
posted by childofTethys at 9:02 AM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

A few years ago I too experienced severe depression when I left for grad school in another country in my mid-twenties (after a lifetime of moderate depression). I went through the entirety of my MA program in abysmal mental health. I also have Aspergers, so not the kind of person to "make some friends/go to events" either.

My psychiatrist back home advised me not to make major life decisions when depressed. This is why I didn't quit my program. In retrospect, I always felt this decision was right. If I had quit the program and moved back home, I would still be depressed, perhaps even more because I might have been plagued by thoughts of perceived "failure" to complete grad school (which I had been highly looking forward to, just like you). In fact, I did move back home shortly after graduation and remained severely depressed for a year until the effect of therapy kicked in.

I went to my uni's counseling/disability office and was assigned a counselor that I met every week. I was also given extensions for projects and with these accommodations I was later able to graduate on time. Can you check with your uni if they offer such accommodations? If they understand mental illness and disability and have a system to help you, I would stay and finish grad school.

Are you on antidepressants? If not, get a prescription in the country where you currently reside. If they don't work, try a different dose or type of medication. This is very important and can make the difference between being able to participate in your program and not being able to get out of bed until 3 PM. If you have severe depression, antidepressants alone won't cure you, but they are a good start when you want to function normally again.

This isn't your question, but people around you seem kind of shitty to me. They tell you you're going to regret your decision, they believe you can "snap out" of depression ... Do you count these people among your support system? Maybe they, not solely in the aforementioned ways, make a significant negative contribution to your depression. You might find that far away in a foreign country you're better off without them and your health improves. No guarantee, just a thought.
posted by frantumaglia at 9:43 AM on September 20, 2016 [9 favorites]

I realize this is an incredible opportunity and I want to want this, but I just feel that right now, this is not a good thing for me

I wanted to touch base on this specifically, as I have some personal experience with depression and being abroad that may be helpful to you. I spent a year living in Norway, and spent a semester at an amazing school and had the opportunity to complete a masters program that would of been amazing for my career at the time. I spent the winter semester there, and struggled with depression and anxiety to the point where I couldn't go to classes and spent most of my time alone hiking or in my room.

This is a very difficult decision, and I'm sending you happy vibes as you work through this. I would encourage you to reach out to your university health services and anyone that you think might be able to help you. I know this is incredibly hard, but it will help. I reached out to my advisor who hooked me up with a doctor and support group, and I was able to function better as the semester went along with a change in medication. My suggestion is to take the time to get some support going and treatment (on preview, what frantumaglia said!) before making any major decisions. Are you on any medication? If not, seriously consider it to get your head above water in the short-term.
posted by snowysoul at 9:47 AM on September 20, 2016

Strongly consider treating your depression/anxiety as the emergency it is and also trying to stay in school.

Getting a job isn't going to fix this. It's going to be day after day of dread because even though work isn't "fun" it's real damn social and you will still be you no matter where you go.

If nothing else, at school you should have more flexibility in your day to go to the doctor and go to a therapist and straighten out any comorbidities like eating/sleeping issues. Jobs aren't that forgiving.

You've said this program is awesome, you've said this opportunity will not come around again. It's not the program that's making you not get on planes - even though it may be the current primary source of pressure in your life, it is entirely replaceable with the next primary source, there's no not-having-responsibilities in most lives - it's your nervous system.

Treat the problem in your body and see if that doesn't allow you to get through this. If you have to Plan B later, that will still be an option, but don't greener-grass yourself into believing all these problems will go away if you do Plan B, plus you'll have to grapple with losing this opportunity.
posted by Lyn Never at 10:13 AM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

On the one hand, I gave up a really prestigious scholarship and the opportunity to go to one of the top unis in my home state and I have zero regrets. I made that choice in part for mental and physical health reasons.

On the other hand, I made that choice many years before I had a proper diagnosis for my medical condition. So it just wasn't possible to ask for the kind of support I needed. People acted like I was a hypochondriac.

Years later, after getting diagnosed, I stuck with a prestigious and intensive (bootcamp style) uni program. Getting through it helped resolve some of my mental health issues. I think it was worth it for that alone.

One of the things about being in a foreign country is that they likely have assumptions, mental models, and best practices that are different from your country of origin. If you can go talk to someone at the uni about the issues you are having, you may be presented with options and ideas you have never heard of before.

If it were me, I would look into my options simply for that reason. That sort of dynamic was a huge saving grace for me when I chose to stick it out after having a diagnosis. (I was not in a different country, but I was now a college student instead of a homemaker and I was able to get a boatload of good drugs as a college student whereas when I was just a homemaker, my serious health problems were largely blown off. I think that literally saved my life.)

So, I think you have a unique opportunity here to possibly get answers that you have never before seen that might make a profound difference. I wouldn't want to squander the chance to at least ask.

If you ask and it just does not come together, it is fine to do what makes sense to you. I absolutely do not regret giving up my scholaship at age 18 and the chance to go to one of the top unis of my home state. But I also am so thrilled I finished the other program -- even though I have never had a job in that (well paid) field. I just feel so much less like a broken human being psychologically and it was a huge turning point for my physical health because doctors were more willing to pull out all the stops to get me through my impressive school program than they ever had been merely because I was deathly ill.
posted by Michele in California at 10:43 AM on September 20, 2016

Forgot to mention this in my reply above. Job prospects in the field of my MA were bleak, both in the country where I'd studied and in my home country. This was one of the worst factors in my depression. As I mentioned, I moved back home after graduation because I couldn't find a job in my field. To my surprise I was almost immediately employed in my home country. I enjoyed the job and being employed but it had no positive effect on my mental health. The depression was still there, and indeed persisted for a long time. I also often thought that I could give so much more if I were healthy.

Getting a job is no guarantee that depression will magically go away. Whether you remain on your MA program, you return home or you get a job in any country, taking care of your mental health is unavoidable.
posted by frantumaglia at 11:54 AM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Would agree with advice to stick it out and treat the issues, except, 2nd that seven classes per semester would be rough (unless the assessment standards are very different, which they may be... but I doubt they're more lax. Or are they? Can you update with some examples of course requirements?). There may be accommodations and support for mental health issues... I'm sort of doubting it.

I'd also question whether this degree would increase your value on the Canadian market. Employers / hiring managers here, generally, seem to be most comfortable with known quantities, i.e. Canadian or US qualifications. I can't speak to your industry, though, best to talk to people who can comment on that. (I have staff experience with a university ranked in the top 20, globally. Its name is known everywhere except here, it seems. I've had to introduce it to interviewers many times. Foreign experience just doesn't seem to matter here, no matter how great it is.) Unless your long-term goal is to work in a different market, you might be better off coming back, working, and doing a Canadian (or US) masters. (But check this against the knowledge and experience of people working in your field.)
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:29 PM on September 20, 2016

I think if you feel that doing a challenging masters abroad, with no support system, under the conditions you describe - unless there are really fantastic resources - is more than you can take this year, prioritizing mental health is a sound decision. They're expecting people to be ready to hit the ground running. Realistically, you'd be spending your limited emotional and cognitive resources and time on dealing with adjustment and basic survival, with probably not a lot left for your demanding courses.

If working felt good to you, working is what you should do. The economy's still not great, but, you've got a comparatively valuable education, and you're young. You're well positioned to find more work, do internships, etc. (Anecdotally, the people I know who are doing the best, financially, all do computery stuff.) You could always do a masters here at some point (and as I say, my sense is that might actually get you further, here, than a qual from an institution unfamiliar to most HR people. but again, double check that ). That's assuming you want to work in industry in Canada. If your goals are different, not sure.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:50 PM on September 20, 2016 [1 favorite]

Definitely prioritize your mental health!! Depression can be kind of like a deep pit. If you can avoid falling into it, that is far easier than having to drag yourself back out of it.

Grad school is really hard. Living abroad is really hard. (Seriously, I know fairly psychologically stable people who had a really hard time with each.) Doing both together is very, very, very hard (unless you happen to get lucky).

I honestly can't believe the lack of support, care, and concern you've received from your IRL community. I also can't believe a number of comments above. I can only guess that people lack experience with the stressors of grad school or life abroad, or have not seen the impacts of falling into serious depression.

Depression is an illness that can be fatal and needs to be managed appropriately. While leaving grad school might feel like a slight setback, it's better than ending up depressed, having to drop out due to suicidal thoughts, and then having to try to get a job in that state of mind. I'm not trying to fearmonger; I'm just taking your concerns seriously and discussing why I believe you should trust yourself and take the action you want to -- I think you may well be right that it's the best approach.

The fact that you're having these protective thoughts is very good. Trust yourself and heed your instincts here. And not only because of the risks above, but also because it can be very uplifting and empowering to take control of your own life and follow your own guidance. Making a powerful move based on your own wisdom can create positive momentum and propel you into another good action. (E.g., you might come home feeling like "yes! I am so glad I did that! Now what kind of jobs do I want?" and let that confidence and happiness propel you into finding the perfect thing.)

1. By congratulating yourself on having the self-knowledge and self-protective instinct that your awareness here represents. That's a very healthy thing. Following it is the best thing you can do for yourself.

2. By thinking "fuck 'em." No, but maybe by reflecting that not everyone has had the experiences you've had with mental health issues, and that this is wonderful for them. If they're truly obnoxious, maybe call them on it. If they know what's going on, you could explain, "Have you ever been deeply depressed? No? Trust me, it's worth preventing." Or you could try "your comments aren't actually very helpful, can we talk about something else?" For people who barely know you, I'd either go with "I got sick and had to come home" or "it just turned out not to be my thing at all." For the person who bought you the ticket, I'd explain that it was worth a try, and you're grateful you could go, but it became clear that it wasn't going to work.

I know what you mean, going home might feel hard. I would view this story like this: "Going was a Bad Idea. I worried it might be, but I thought I might get lucky and click with the place. When I got there, I could feel things starting to get worse. I know myself, I've gotten depressed before, I know the warning signs, and believe me, I saw them. I did the right thing by heeding the warnings and coming home. In the past, depression snuck up on me, but this time I saved myself because I am wiser than before and because I trusted myself. I had my own back and protected myself -- go me. Now, finding work might take a bit of time and effort, but I'm happy to be here, and I can do all of that work, because I have energy and health. I'll find a way to reach my goals. I already navigated this difficult international situation in a smart way, so I've got what it takes to find a good job that works for me."
posted by salvia at 9:18 PM on September 20, 2016 [3 favorites]

What salvia describes is what happened to me. I cannot even look at my first few questions here anymore because they're so painful to see.
And guess what? I went back home, then moved to a closer country for work, did well there and am now considering readmission to grad school because my underlying health problem is being treated and therapy helps helped me, and because circumstance means that my fiance found a job in the city grad school is in. It's okay to not want to do grad school alone abroad, it's really hard and you're so brave for trying.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 11:16 PM on September 21, 2016 [1 favorite]

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