So I've been thinking for weeks about what happens to people who go to grad school - especially to particular types of grad school - with a severe tendency toward depression or other mental health issues.
This thinking has been prompted by a couple of very, very bright - let's say brillliant, actually, in at least one case - students of mine, both of whom are struggling with their own issues right now. Both have legitimate reasons for the hanging around of leftover work from last term. One - shy and reserved - has kept this mostly at arm's length from me, though I know the contours of the thing. The other, the one I know is brilliant, has let me in a bit, has come to see me and chatted about things a few times. About the challenges of keeping herself on track when battling severe depression and OCD. This week we made a plan for her to submit her late work. All of her energy right now is directed toward not fucking up this year. She has been in university for seven years, and her transcript is a patchwork, reflecting a couple of years when depression swallowed her up and she couldn't complete her courses. Right now, she is looking toward graduation and the years beyond with such fragile hope.
She has applied to several graduate programs, including a couple of top-flight ones in the US, ones that are so competitive that I imagine the F's on her transcript will disqualify her, even when accompanied by an explanation. That is the first problem, right there. Can grad school admissions even take account of mental health?
She is, as she told me somewhat emotionally this week, in love with theory. The programs she's applied to are theory programs, and she wants to be there, I can see, because this is what she knows. Theory is what she knows she is good - great - at. It is where she feels safe. There's a really charged psychic identification there.
But the hairs on the back of my neck go up when I think of the environments and the expectations she's in for in those programs. I did my PhD in such a program, and it was a vile, noxious place, sneakily competitive and sexist and nasty. I managed because I had my life outside, I kept my distance, I removed myself.
But I worry about this student - and others with similar histories - in such environments. Because I see how expectations - including, most importantly, her own - have crushed her, even at this undergraduate level. Goodness, if the walls closed in on her even last term, in her last year of a degree in which she is clearly the shit, clearly at a level above almost everyone else - well, then, what's going to happen when the pressure is really on, when she's surrounded by insecure people who are as smart as her, but who (try to) work out their insecurities by making other people feel small??
When we got on to talking about the culture of such programs, a couple of weeks ago, I just said, "you'll need to make sure you have lots of support." But I felt panicked for her.
This might be really condescending; she might be able to manage just fine. Perhaps I am re-victimizing her. If I managed by making a life outside, there's nothing to say that she can't, too. But I just see her fragility and her hope so clearly right now, and I so don't want her to be crushed.