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I have not been having a good time in my personal life over the last ~9 months, and I’m currently having therapy (fortnightly) and taking antidepressants. I don’t have a depression diagnosis but I have symptoms of them. I can still study and be productive in my academic work, which I’m very excited about. But I wonder if I should completely avoid the topic of my mental health problems should it come up in conversations (“how are things going?”). My supervisor is hands off and my field is not lab-based, but still I might have therapy appointments during traditional working hours. I don’t really know what the disadvantages of mentioning the topic are, but since this is a sensitive topic, I thought it’s better to ask beforehand.

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    I do not think this can be answered objectively, it very much depends on your relationship with your supervisor. – Aolon Jul 21 at 7:17
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    As you mentioned that you can "still study and be productive in your academic work", it means your medication does not significantly impact your research and work negatively. So, I guess there is no reason to tell your advisor specially when he has a hands-off approach. – Job_September_2020 Jul 21 at 7:51
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    Are you working in a field where your advisor might need to alert medical personnel about your medication in the event of an accident? – nick012000 Jul 21 at 13:56
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    @anonymous Something like working with dangerous chemicals where you might need to get rushed to a hospital in the event of an accident, and you might not be in a state to answer the doctors when they ask "have you been taking any medications?". – nick012000 Jul 21 at 22:00
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    @NotThatGuy Antidepressants can improve a number of mental conditions other than depression as a knock-on effect of how they affect the brain. It's possible that they were prescribed for one of those reasons instead. Of course, all prescription medication should only be taken with a valid prescription from a licensed doctor or pharmacist, of course. – nick012000 Jul 22 at 6:24
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I would suggest not mentioning it unless it becomes an issue. Your medical condition and treatment is your own business. And you are indicating no issues with your progress. Let it go. You are doing the right thing by taking your meds.

If asked about an absence for therapy, just indicate a doctor's appointment.

In a non-lab based field, the specific hours you work are up to you, as long as there are no objections. I was able to take bike rides or play racketball during the day, but worked at other times. Since this didn't interfere with meetings and such, there was no issue. (It helped my mental health, actually.)

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This is highly advisor-dependent! I'll first give an answer from my perspective, and then some advice on whether that applies to your advisor.

My experience in advising is that when students are dealing with anxiety or depression that I can do a better job giving good advice when the student is somewhat forthright about what's going on. So if you were my student I'd certainly appreciate a quick heads up. I don't think medication as-such is relevant, but giving some insight into what you're going through and that you're taking steps to help would be good information. In particular, I'd find it helpful to know that a student was seeing a therapist because sometimes there's topics (e.g. perfectionism, writer's block, avoidance) where I can give some advice (especially if it's specific to mathematical writing) but where it'd also be good to be able to suggest that certain aspects I'd noticed might be more a topic for discussion with your therapist. Of course, there's no obligation to disclose any of this, and this is entirely up to the student.

That said, a lot of advisors are going to have a rather different take on these matters, so you're going to want some indication that your advisor would be open to a mental health discussion. First, think through whether they've brought things up before which indicates that they'd be open to this. Second, you might bring it up more vaguely, for example saying you've been unhappy this year and have struggled a little with motivation, and if your advisor steers things in an appropriate direction (e.g. suggests mental health resources) then that's a good sign that further conversation is ok.

(As an aside for advisors, I've been thinking about how one makes more clear early on that it's ok to talk about mental health if the student wants to. One thing I've been thinking about is always having a brief discussion of mental health resources in the context of preparing for oral exams, which are a very common flashpoint for anxiety and which are also very early in the advising relationhsip.)

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    Maybe it's worth pointing out whether advisors have any non-disclosure obligation toward the advised person. Otherwise, if they may inform someone up the "chain of command" and they do, the OP could be ostracized (I can definitely see some professor not wanting to work with someone with mental issues, even if this could be discriminatory and illegal in some jurisdictions). Without knowing which country are we speaking of, suggesting disclosure to non-medical personnel may backfire in unintended ways. – Lorenzo Donati -- Codidact.com Jul 22 at 12:51
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Disclaimer: I had similar issues during my masters thesis, w/o the anti-depressants. In hindsight I probably should have talked to my advisors about my problems, but I totally agree with anyone saying that it is highly depending on your advisors. Mine very likely would have been understanding.


If you feel comfortable enough, talk to someone besides your therapist. It could be your advisor, it could be someone from your research group, or even someone not work related. Play concerns about the impact of your illness (yes, a depression is an illness - in many cases cureable, in few chronic) on your work by them - get their perspective and don't leave yourself to wallow in your own thoughts. That's not adviseable.

I noticed (way too late) that I wasn't anymore able to think outside the box and clearly reflect my research during that period and it absolutely showed in my thesis. Depending on how severe your depression becomes, you might even not be able to show up to work - this is definitely the point you should already have talked to your advisor.

I suggest you talk way earlier to them. Try to work out a system of adapted feedback. Make them be on the lookout for "unusual" flaws in your work - not in order to correct you, since you can't function as "normal", but in order to point out if you should take a break, take some days off and recharge. Don't fall into the pit trap as I did. Because in the end delivering shoddy work will inconvenient your advisor significantly worse than the need for increased advisional effort on their side and a slightly longer delivery time on your thesis.

I know it can be incredibly hard to talk about this and to ask for help. Nobody forces you - but chances are that people are understanding and helpful. Take this chance.

Please remember: There's nothing wrong with you being depressed - these things happen, especially under the current pandemic situation. Just like a broken leg, it will heal.

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If you have a therapist already, you should ask them for their advice rather than trust amateurs like us to help you. It's what they're for, isn't it?

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    Of course, I’m asking my therapist, but she doesn’t know anything about academia / PhDs, so I wanted to check what other academics think – anonymous Jul 22 at 5:49
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Sorry to hear about this. I don't know if it provides any consolation, but it is a sadly common story. The relationship I had with my supervisor was very much a professional one and he wasn't one I would have turned to for any form of moral or emotional support. I find that is quite a common situation. However if there are matters that are affecting your performance, then you should discuss that there are issues (even without going into specifics) as there will be questions raised as to why dates are not being met, productivity is low etc anyhow so you will need an answer. It is possible though that you can continue and still be able to make sufficient progress. Unfortunately I fell into a lull for both personal matters and those beyond my control, and while I finished, it was long after the original planned date. I would also say that universities in general are usually quite sensitive to such issues and they should have support services. You might want to look into this, but I think they tend to deal more with undergraduates.

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I tend to agree with the other answers, I'll add this advice.

But I wonder if I should completely avoid the topic of my mental health problems should it come up in conversations (“how are things going?”).

Trust your instinct, avoid it if that's workable.

Here are some things to consider:

  • The sharing of information is permanent and can not be undone nor constrained. No matter what your current assessment of your supervisor is right now, situations change and evolve. Should other issues arise in the future, you can not limit how and when your supervisor may choose to share this information with others, conversationally or in emails or messages , that you may never know about. And those have a way of diffusing even further. A good meaning supervisor may tell another lab member to be more courteous or helpful to you in an well-meaning way, but that person may react... sub-optimally.
  • People can not control their unconscious biases and without knowing your supervisor and potentially other people who then have this information may view you through a lens of suspicion. Something breaks or is stolen, there is a complaint, a bit of research has been duplicated and published elsewhere... Despite what we like to think, the veneer of rationality on human thought is pretty thin.

Unless there is a very necessary and compelling reason, don't share personal medical information in the workplace, especially that which relates to mental health.

"How are things going?"

is usually not an invitation to open up and bear one's personal challenges or difficulties, It can be; in fact it can be said with all kinds of different intents, but unless someone goes out of their way to indicate they really are asking about your personal life, they may be completely surprised and not pleased if the conversation goes serious.

And even if you suspect it's an invitation to open up about something personal, unless you have strong reasons to believe it's 100% motivated by a willingness to help and you can trust the person to keep your information confidential forever, you don't really know why they are asking nor what they will do with the information you share.

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'OK, so you've got problems. That isn't MY problem. Can you do the work or can't you?'

That is not something you're likely to hear today an academia, or even in many workplaces. (I HOPE you still would in the military, or in an operating theatre...)

There's no downside to admitting your problem. There may even be an advantage. That's today's game. You might as well play it.

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