Tag: mental health

Address to Tauranga Girls’ College Academic Prizegiving

I had the pleasure of being invited to speak at the Tauranga Girls’ College 2016 Academic Prizegiving (2/11/16), which celebrates the achievements of girls in years 11-13. I learned that the school continues to punch above its weight with our Māori students achieving at the national average (a big issue in New Zealand education).

What follows is the text of my talk. This will not be exactly the same as the talk given as I went off-book a few times, but it is as close as I can make it!

It’s honestly such an honour to be here, speaking to you – I’ve wanted to do this since my first academic prizegiving in 2007, largely because I’m a massive dork. But if I’m being honest, I didn’t have a good time at high school; I realised I was queer and came out to one of my best friends, who was Catholic, and that went about as well as you’d expect, I’ve since been diagnosed with autism which shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who knew me at high school, my depression first started presenting and was mostly unmanaged, and of course being a teenager is weird. The contrast is turned right up on your life which means the highs are super high and the lows absolutely suck.

But before I continue to dispense wisdom – which I am going to do – a brief history of where I’m at. I grew up mostly in Tauranga with a two-year jaunt to Beirut as a child. In year 13 I represented New Zealand in Biology and the only paper I failed in NCEA 3 was biology, a juxtaposition I have quietly enjoyed since then.

Yes, I was a very cute child.

I then went as far away from Tauranga as I could and completed a degree in Genetics at the University of Otago. During my honours year – a final year focussing on research with a major written component – I founded the science students association at Otago, presented at a poetry conference in Los Angeles, and was part of the debating squad that went to Kuala Lumpur, because when people say “now, you really need to focus this year” my response tends to be “wATCH ME”.

I worked for ACC for five months and then left Sunny Dunedin to start my PhD at the University of Melbourne. For my PhD, I investigate disorders where your body can’t generate all the energy it needs. I’m trying to develop new treatments and ways of testing treatments, because the particular set of diseases I look at don’t have any treatment. I’ve also I’ve helped run the Women in Science and Engineering group, science festivals, research students associations and generally been over-committed, which my supervisors, uh, might not be totally into.

Photo by Yao-Li Wang.

I feel like I flail effectively, resulting in a lot of cool things like being flown around Australia, being on TV, and getting published in books. So I’m going to give you a few Hot Tips about how to live your best life, because the future is terrifying and we all need all the help we can get.

Tip number one: Say yes.

Last year I got to go to a youth leaders conference in Australia. My initial inclination was to say no, because I didn’t feel like a leader or an Australian or a capable human being. One of the hardest things to do is to say yes when you don’t think you belong or that you deserve something. I started down this path by responding to requests as if I’m joking, which is literally how I ended up with multiple radio interviews and a podcast!

It took maybe six months before I was confident of saying yes to things – and from there it was a short distance to the nerve-wracking experience of being on national television less than 24 hours after going to hospital with horrible gastro. Confidence is genuinely something you can fake until you have it.

Say yes to things, even if you’re scared, even if you’re still a bit sweaty from being sick, and even if you’re not sure if you’re deserving.

Tip number two: Accept yourself

Accepting yourself isn’t just about body image, it’s about being unashamed of who you are and your passions. I am an angry feminist and I listen to Hamilton and Alainis Morisette to pump myself up and sometimes I spend eight hours playing computer games and once I rapped about bioethics to a room full of hippies.

And I’m depressed – and accepting myself isn’t just chilling on that but understanding that I might need to have ongoing medical intervention for the rest of my life to not want to die 24/7, and knowing that that’s okay, my brain’s just a bit messy but medical research has got my back.

Everyone is a giant dork about something, and it’s weirdly difficult to accept that and have a good time. Don’t feel guilty for liking or wanting or doing things. They’ll inform what you’re good at and help you enjoy and appreciate your life.

Tip number three: ask the question

Adulthood isn’t like, you leave high school and suddenly it all makes sense. From my experience it’s mostly being confused, having a sore back, and wishing you were fitter. You’ve probably heard from your teachers that the only silly question is the question you don’t ask but quite genuinely, that is such truth. I still don’t know if I’m meant to add salt or oil when I make pasta, or how a top-loader washing machine works, or how to make pancakes but thankfully all my high school teachers are here so they’re going to save me right after this.

On another note, I’ve been keeping track of things I’ve googled during my PhD, which has included my favourite, written in a moment of weakness: “how does chemistry even work”.

Screen Shot 2016-09-29 at 9.11.35 PM.png

Seriously though – if you’re not sure about something, or you’re confused, or need help, there is absolutely nothing wrong with asking about it. I’ve noticed that as I collect qualifications, the more that people know, the more willing they are to admit they don’t know things. And people that know a lot love sharing everything they know. Get ahead of the curve and start asking now.

Final tip: Don’t worry, it’s okay

There are many ways to get to where you want to be. It’s incredibly important that you know that no exam, no test, no class is worth your mental and physical health. I had a nervous breakdown during year 12 exams – so as long as you don’t do that, you’re doing better than me. And if you have a nervous breakdown, well, I’m doing a PhD now, so you’ll probably be okay.

One of the biggest things I’ve learned since high school is how well Tauranga Girls’ College set me up for life. The great things about girls’ schools is that they allow you to explore and develop your personality, interests, and leadership capacity in a space somewhat isolated from the pressures of society. The unique thing about TGC is that it does it well. You – and all the girls who aren’t here tonight – are being provided opportunities that you wouldn’t get elsewhere.

You’re lucky. You’re brilliant. And I look forward to you changing the world.

Priorities, the PhD Way

I often get asked how to balance a lot of commitments, especially when studying. I suppose I seem capable on some level. Personally, I don’t think I am that good at balancing a lot of things – normally I just ignore how busy I am and hope it all works out.

That doesn’t work long-term – sure, I busted honours year with a ludicrous amount of commitments, but that was never going to work for my PhD. This year I finally made a list of commitments and prioritized them.

Writing a list is one of those things like goal-setting – my dad told me it would make my life a lot easier, and he is probably right. I have never consciously set goals, but if you have trouble envisioning how to get where you want to go, it is a good thing and you should do it. Don’t be like me, be better than me.

The pyramid below is (to my mind) a manageable amount, but I know that not everyone suffers from my total lack of a social life.

pyramid of commitments ranging from PhD to Free Debate
“Ma’am, do you think you do too much?” “I plead the fifth.” “Ma’am, we’re in Australia.”

The important thing to note here is that in the interest of aesthetics, I put one card underneath the PhD card – the “self-care” card.

I’ve learned that self-care can never fall below any other commitments. If you fail at self-care, you will start to fail at everything else.

Sometimes I forget this, and forget to eat, or don’t give myself space or time. I’m trying to get back into yoga (using Yoga with Adriene) to help regularly clear the cobwebs out. It’s important to remember that while undergrad might be a sprint, the rest of life is a marathon, and we need to make sure to take breaks and drink enough water.

I’ve also signed up for Adopt a Grad Student, a wonderful enterprise started by Jess Shanahan (@Enceladosaurus), a disabled astrophysics grad student in the US. The idea is that being a grad student is suffering; you work long hours, have regular stress, and are underpaid. You deserve a Fairy GradParent. It’s wonderful, and I hope other grad students get on board – if you’re in NZ, YouShop is a good way to help get around the “million dollars plus your soul” international shipping fees.


screen capture of a purchase showing item costing $0.01 and shipping costing #23.45
This is why I have trust issues.


Looking back at my list of priorities is a good way to reset the whirring to-do list in my head and remember what’s important – health, relationships, and currently, study. It’s also good to remember that this focus on my studies isn’t going to last forever and one day I won’t have Thesis Fear because I will have Thesis Satisfaction.

No matter what you’re doing, remember to take care of you.

Depression as an Overachiever

Disclaimer: I don’t want to say that my experiences are universal, and neither do I want to suggest that any experiences of depression are illegitimate. We all have our own struggles, whether you’re an academic overachiever like me or talented in other ways. One of those struggles is depression.

Depression is a mental illness that can make it hard to do things, stop you from enjoying yourself, or make you feel tired all the time. One of the warning signs is doing fewer activities, or doing worse at school or work. This can make discussion, and depression, difficult to navigate when you’re an overachiever like me.

I saw my first psychiatrist when I was 15. The first line of the report she gave me on leaving stated that I was “a very intelligent young woman”. It went on for a page and a half, finally stating there was nothing wrong with me – I was just being a teenager. It’s part of that intelligence (appropriate adjectives: brutal, painful, aggressive) that has made depression so difficult.

In my final year of high school, I competed in the International Biology Olympiad, worked part-time, was in five music groups, practiced piano and flute, swam regularly, and did five scholarship exams. I wasn’t withdrawing, or not being involved, or doing badly at school. About the only hallmark of depression I showed was a stubbornly low mood. I was still depressed.

In my honours year I attended national and international debating tournaments, spoke at a poetry conference in the USA, taught for the university, taught for charity, helped found the Science Community of Otago, spent time with friends – I did well, I was brilliant, I was still depressed.

I felt guilty for being depressed and being unable to fix it myself. Whenever I achieved something I believed if anyone found out about my depression, they would take it away somehow. And (this is my favourite part) I was terrified of going onto medication in case it stopped me being smart.

Depression isn’t something that can be whisked away by listing your achievements. I can’t get out a book of newspaper clippings and use that as a shield to make my brain be better. What I can do, what I have done is get medication that brings me up enough to function. It doesn’t stop me from having depressive episodes, but it’s enough that I don’t lowkey want to die constantly.

Medication doesn’t work for everyone, but my second go at it (and five psychiatrists, two psychologists, and three counselors later) did work. I’m not doing more, or more awake, or nicer at all – I just have the ability to be happy again.

This hashtag was a great thing 10/10 would recommend.

There’s a belief that intelligent people are often depressed. I was told it a lot. Ignoring for a moment the fact that higher-educated “intelligent” people often have a higher socio-economic status so are better placed to get official diagnoses, it’s a bad thing to say even if it is true.

Connecting mental illness and intelligence can transform itself into perverse beliefs in the depressed mind – like the idea that without hating myself I wouldn’t be as motivated or intelligent. That’s obviously not correct. But it’s important to remember that the depressed mind twists things very readily.

I know I do well. I know I am good; good at science, writing, speaking, running events, and generally being a fantastic knowledgeable gorgeous all-rounder. But none of that changes the fact that I have depression. Being good has made talking to mental health professionals difficult, as my work doesn’t suffer and I don’t stop doing things. Being good has made accepting that I’m not good at depression difficult.

Recently I got called one of 20 Young Australians on the Cusp of Greatness. It’s amazing, I’m incredibly flattered and excited to be listed alongside other amazing people. I’m still depressed. I’m still a suicide survivor. I’ve still struggled with self-harm since I was 14.

Being good doesn’t change any of that. But I’m finally in a place where none of that changes my ability to be good – and maybe quite soon, great.

If you might have depression, or have been struggling with your mental health, check out Beyond Blue or call Lifeline on 13 11 14.


Higher Degrees are Broken

I’m in the middle of my PhD. About two months ago, I cried inconsolably for two hours because I felt I wasn’t good enough. I would never finish my degree, disappoint everyone around me, and bring shame on my family.

Many of my friends are currently pursuing or have recently completed higher degrees. Some have quit PhDs because of mental illness, taken months or years off, developed insomnia or night terrors, and almost all of us have had a meltdown. Most have depression, anxiety, or some combination of the two. Many are medicated.  We’re one failed experiment or bad meeting away from a total nervous breakdown.

All of this is expected and accepted as part of a higher degree.

It was reassuring to tell people I had my first PhD meltdown and hear that it was due about now. Isolation is terrible. But we need to take a step back and realize that if this is typical, accepted, and part of the process, there is a systemic problem.

There is a lot of discussion about what a higher degree is, what it should be, and how to educate for future jobs. The academic and training discussion is an important one to have. So too is the fact that mental illness shouldn’t be an accepted part of a higher degree.

There was a great interview on The Atlantic with William Deresiewicz, who wrote a book about Ivy League schools, elitism, and depression. A lot of the discussion surrounding high achievers can be seamlessly transferred to higher degree students because unsurprisingly, the kind of people that choose to go back to school for a pittance for three to seven years tend to be high achievers.

Basically there are two types of graduate students: the ones who powered through and the ones who got a real job. Neither is cut out for a higher degree.

Powered Through

If you powered through, you probably got straight As, or a few papers out, or did something else pretty great. You might be doing a PhD because you don’t know what else to do (bad idea, get out!), but more likely you genuinely love your work and your topic. You’ve always pushed yourself – a couple of all nighters each year, at least – but it’s always paid off. And besides, with the regular affirmation that comes in the form of being published, or getting another A, or just coming out of an exam knowing you tried your hardest, you know you’re doing okay.

Enter the higher degree. Suddenly you don’t have regular affirmation you’re on the right track. There’s no metric to measure you against your cohort because you don’t have a cohort. You might have just moved countries. You might not speak the language well. You’re good at sprinting, you’re good at semesters. You have no idea how to run a marathon, but you’re terrified of disappointing people around you, so you push yourself until you crash, recover, rinse, repeat. The end isn’t in sight. There might as well not be an end. This is terrifying.

Got a Real Job

You worked for a few years, maybe in research, maybe in industry. You’re self-directed, you’ve got some savings, and you’re ready to knuckle down and get this done. You’re better set up than people who powered through, you spent some time looking over projects, and you know you want to do this.

And now, money is tight, and things aren’t working, and you second-guess your decision. You haven’t written an essay in a while, much less a thesis, and a lot of other people are a lot younger than you. You might be juggling a family with your work and you can’t tell if you’re working too hard or too little. Your relatives, and some of your friends, are probably being a bit critical about your life choices. Some days you agree with them.

So where does this leave us?

It leaves the grad student in a pretty dire position, as they have to be in control of their research, but also the incredible mental toll that research is going to take. They not only need to work hard, but figure out – often for the first time – when ‘too hard’ is. And they need to learn how to ask for help, how to ask for time off, the difference between feeling a bit lazy and being depressed, all of which is a lot to ask of someone who has probably moved countries to do this.

I did the MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) ANU offered this year called “How to Survive your PhD“. I’ve “managed” my depression for almost my entire life, so a lot of the suggestions, tips, and classes covered knowledge I had. But I knew a lot of the thousands-strong cohort were getting significant value from it. Thesis Whisperer (the blog of the organiser, Dr Inger Mewburn) also has many good posts on similar topics.

But is it good enough to expect graduate students to heal themselves? Is it sufficient to simply provide resources when 47% of PhD students and 37% of masters students suffer from depression? By putting the onus onto the individual student, we ignore the unifying feature – that higher degrees have this effect on people.

Unless we recognize that higher degrees are broken, there is very little we can do to help graduate students. It is an incredible waste of talent, time, energy, and money, to allow brilliant researchers to sink into the pits of despair, to have breakdowns and to not to anything preventative about it.

I don’t know what to do. But I know nothing will change if we keep ignoring the fact that these degrees risk destroying the brightest minds out there. Higher degrees are broken. Let’s start talking about how to fix them.


This week’s issue of Nature is a feature on depression and that means I feel like I should say something, although a lot of thoughts have been buzzing around my head since R U OK week (and before that, when Robin Williams happened, and before that, every time depression and mental illness gets front page coverage again, I think a lot of things but I never know if it’s right to say them).

I’m fairly open about my mental illness, by which I mean, I talk about the fact that I have it. It can be really difficult for people to understand what that means (DepressionQuest is a really good starting point), and it does mean something different for everyone, which is part of the problem science is having.

For me it means I am often tired, some days I forget to eat, some days I can’t sleep and so stay up all night watching Parks and Recreation and eating a packet of white chocolate Tim Tams, I can forget how to interact with people, I get headaches, stomach aches, brain fades, and even when I am happy and things are going well that doesn’t stop a creeping emptiness from tearing at the edges of my being. It means I hate myself a lot, I hold myself to a higher standard than I will ever meet, and I want to talk to people all the time even though I don’t know how to or what to say. It means I feel erratic and out of control. It means I’m frustrated, so incredibly frustrated by the fact that I eat well and love my work and do exercise and get outside and nothing gets particularly better.

It means I’m terrified that this isn’t real, that every meeting I have with a psychiatrist is me trying to prove myself and having this constant sinking feeling that actually I’m fine and everyone is like this, I’m just a bit more of a complainer.

I dislike the idea of biological tests for depression for me. I don’t want to know if I have a genetic predisposition towards depression because if I don’t that makes it either my fault or unlucky, neither of which I’m really prepared to deal with. I realize having a test can provide better treatments, and that is an incredibly positive thing.

(I was once told that if I wasn’t considering medication I wasn’t being responsible with my mental health. Having tried medication with mixed results the choice to not go down that path is as responsible as the choice to do so. And having tried medication, I cannot be anything but supportive of attempts to try and improve the fairly dire success rates we have currently.)

It’s like how I dislike R U OK week – yes, mental health awareness is great, I’m super happy it’s a thing and this week and this foundation are fantastic, but I personally spend the entire week on edge, scared that someone will ask me if I am okay and I will get to choose whether to lie or ask what they mean by okay. Because I think I’m okay, but I don’t really have any yardstick for what okay is, and I’m coping, in the way that a C- is still a pass. I spent that week wanting to cry whenever I saw something encouraging people to ask each other if they are okay because I hate leaning so hard on my friends, I hate the outpourings of emotion I require to break the weird cycles my brain gets into, and yes, I can talk about my depression and make jokes. I emphatically dislike talking about what is happening right now and yet need to have that option. I just need to steel myself for those conversations.

I don’t like being like this and spend a lot of time feeling like somehow it’s my fault for not being better by now. Every psych I saw as a teenager told me I would grow out of this. It was probably meant to be encouraging, but was ultimately counterproductive. Talking about it helps, because I know logically these feelings are shared, in the same way it helps to see other people writing well on the topic.

I don’t think I’d ever want to research on depression. I follow the updates but it is too close to study. I’m glad there are people out there that are doing this work, because that makes me feel like I’m not the only person fighting against this. There are research groups full of science heroes, fighting to protect and help every single one of us.