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We Teach How We Were Taught

Updated: May 10, 2022

I struggle with anxiety.

No. That's not the joke.

I don't struggle with anxiety. It actually comes very easy to me.

Yes, that's the punchline.

Anxiety--and its fraternal twin, depression--come very, very easy to me. I just didn't know it for a very long time. Not until I was a new mother in the middle of graduate school.

But my journey to help myself--which I will proudly tell you involved therapy and prescription medicine--is why I feel so expertly positioned to be in my role as a college professor.

Sure, you might imagine a professor spending their time debating big ideas with students in a sun soaked office. In reality, though, a large portion of my work is helping students navigate mental health problems (in a dimly lit basement office).

When I tell people that mental health is the biggest issue I see for my students, they assume I'm talking about a frequency of one student every couple of years who needs help. But I'd say the statistics are more like 5-10 students a semester (and keep in mind, I only have 40 or so at any given time). In this, students come up against a mental health problem, concern, or episode in which they either need 1) someone to talk to, 2) an extension on an assignment, or 3) medical (sometimes immediate) intervention.

Now, my relatively small group of students are not unique. Quite the opposite. A 2018 study by Nathan Vanguard at the University of Kentucky College of Medicine showed that graduate students are six times as likely as the general population to experience depression and anxiety, and there are dozens of similar studies with the same results. There are a lot of reasons why this is, but one of the factors is the isolating nature of graduate school. Students may see each other in class, but they do a lot of work alone studying and writing, often missing time with their family and friends for years. Now imagine the mental health issues that occurred when we added a pandemic and lockdown on top of all that.

You might wonder what these mental health concerns look like. How does it show up in class? Why would the mental health of a student ever even come up to a professor?

Some in the university's administration would (and did) argue that I see it more because of my personality. That perhaps my warmth as a person and supportive presence as a professor provides an opportunity for a student to confide in me. This is as gender-biased as it is wrong. And quite frankly, a dangerous assumption.

I see it because I'm looking for it. And I'm looking for it because I've experienced it. And because I've experienced it, I've done exhaustive work to educate myself so that I can be of assistance to my students and my own children (who--by the way--have been genetically gifted with my anxiety).

And yet higher ed does not prepare faculty for this work. Sure, there might be a training here and there (never required), but by and large faculty--who are in the best position to see the signs and refer students to crucial resources--have no clue what they are doing when it comes to mental health.

And why would they? They weren't helped during their own stints in grad school.

The way they were trained to run statistics is exactly how they will teach it. The books they were assigned by their professors are often the ones they assign to their students. And the lack of help they were given with their anxiety and depression during grad school is the same kind of help they will be able to pass on to their own students. The only reason I had the chance to begin a journey of diagnosing and treating my anxiety during graduate school is because I had a baby.

After the birth of my older daughter Lowery, now 10, I lost the ability to hold it all together as I had done so "flawlessly" the previous 27 years of my life. Not only did postpartum depression send me for a loop, but it also showed me a world I'd never seen: one in which doctors were openly discussing the brain and its inability to regulate itself sometimes. In this world, doctors were able to tell me what was wrong, explain how it wasn't my fault, assure me it's completely normal, and provide meds that (by and large) cleared it right up!

It took the trauma of childbirth to even have an opening to talk with a doctor about my mental health. (Growing up in the 80s and 90s, my severe stomach aches in elementary school were brushed off by doctors as IBS).

But when the postpartum cleared, there was a feeling that lingered. It was a different feeling, but not a new one. Without the obviousness of a postpartum, I didn't know what to call the feeling I was feeling, so I chose to ignore it.

Fortunately for me (and I'm being serious here) the feeling got worse and worse during the first year of my daughter's life. It was easily categorized as "new mom worries" or "the stress of graduate school" or "Meg just being Meg." (Dear friends, my anxiety was never my personality. My personality is fly as hell. But it can get buried under anxiety and mistaken for "Meg.")

But so it goes. Motherhood was hard, grad school was hard, and money was tight. It still baffles me that I look back at that time with such fondness.

Because during that time, I had no patience. And I often raised my voice at my daughter and husband, a behavior I believed to be either a hot temper (incorrect) or proof I wasn't cut out for motherhood (so incredibly incorrect).

Then one day, I came home from class to finish working on my dissertation. I sat at the kitchen table reviewing the notes from my professor, and something caught my eye. It was the kind of note I now put on student papers all the time. A simple suggestion, a chance to improve something, a throwaway line. But he had underlined it. Twice. The stress of the dissertation deadline (a document that had accounted for two isolating years of research), financial concerns that were a result of me being a full-time student, and raising a baby I had seemingly no patience for, led to my first full-on anxiety attack. I don't remember much of it, but I do remember crawling across the kitchen floor to get the phone to call Jim at work.

I told this story a few days later (with lots of details removed) to my professor. "Oh, yeah," he said with a soft and sympathetic shrug. "I went through the same thing during grad school."

We teach how we are taught.

But where was the help? Where was the doctor asking the questions that were so routinely asked during the six-week checkup after giving birth? Where was the diagnosis? Where was the treatment?

Look, the university where I work does a lot for mental health. We have an on-site clinic with counselors and an excellent student affairs team who are all extensively trained in this area.

And yet it is still a massive problem for graduate students.

I recognize that privileges abound on a college campus, both in the resources we have and in the students who receive them. But that's the thing that is so frightening to me--mental health touches everyone everywhere and even in the best circumstances (a well-manicured campus with an on-site doctor)--the problem is insidious.

So what about outside the ivory tower? All those mental health problems that don't get solved because they never get seen. Teachers who don't see the signs in young kids. Friends who don't know how to give help, let alone ask for it. Parents who don't recognize in their kids what they can't recognize in themselves.

The minute I was diagnosed with anxiety--an anchor I had dragged around for three decades--was the minute the best years of my life began. It's when the medicine and therapy alleviated the symptoms I had for so long thought were just my life's work to battle. And without those symptoms, I realized I'm one of the most patient parents you've ever seen. Truly. You should see how long I can sustain hearing about The Sims or watching Descendants.

The quality of parent I am now is directly tied to the strength of my mental health. Because of my own diagnosis, I was able to catch it in my daughter and provide her with resources at such a young age she likely won't ever see her anxiety as any more of a hassle than her curly hair.

And the same goes for my teaching. I'm a far better professor for those in a grad program having been to hell and back during my own.

Sure, I need my students to learn the theories and concepts I'm there to teach. I need to challenge their thoughts and improve their writing. And of course I need to advise them on courses, usher them toward graduation, and help them find jobs.

But more than all that, I see my role as being a witness to their stress. Some stress is normal. Some is needed. And some is too much.

How do I know when it's too much?

From a self-taught lesson well learned.

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