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I'm an undergraduate student (20f). I have 2 academic advisors - one in the Honors College & one in my department. I met with the Honors advisor recently to discuss study abroad and we somehow got on the topic of me not ever taking breaks. My GPA had fallen the past semester, and she warned me that if I don't start taking care of myself, I could burn out before getting my PhD (which is my goal).

I've suffered from anxiety/depression for years and recently begun to see a psychiatrist and counselor when I stopped eating, starting passing out, and developed repeated thoughts of suicide. All of that happened this past semester when I took an independent study with my Dept advisor, and I don't think he noticed. I want to be able to continue my research, so I'm trying to take care of myself. Unfortunately, that means I need to diminish my work load some.

I've been working with my Dept advisor closely for 2 years. He's helped me go to undergrad research conferences, get published, get grants etc. Always there for me academically, but the relationship's still very professional. We're officially starting my thesis work in the fall, but I told him I would start the readings this summer (halfway through the list). However, if I'm going to slow down the pace, I feel like I ought to give him reasons so he doesn't just think I'm slacking off. At the same time, I don't want to make it overly personal and make things awkward between us. He always asks how I am and it's a joke between us that I always say "tired" and he says "me too." I know that he pushes himself incredibly hard and never gives himself a break.

I would really appreciate examples of how I could word the email. I was thinking of asking him to meet some time (we're both in town over summer) to discuss and then tell him. Would it be better to do it over email? How do I tell him that I can't handle my current workload and still expect him to respect me as an academic?

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    I just have to say this: congratulations for standing up for yourself and go get help. that's a huge, not-easy-at-all step that you took. i hope everything turns out great for you :) – essay Jul 2 '15 at 9:59
  • I've been in a comparable situation, suffering from a depressive episode for one year at least, and it really helped (but it was also difficult) to talk to my advisor. I did not even mention depression expressly; I just said that I had a lot of worries at the moment that make me less productive than I wish I was. In retrospect, I wish I had approached my advisor earlier, because it was a reality check. I imagined my advisor to have expectations that I simply could not meet. It turned out that I was the only one putting pressure on myself. A huge relief. (Also, google "impostor syndrome"). – henning Jul 2 '15 at 20:15
  • Just to point out the obvious, you need to take a proper vacation, one where you go somewhere and switch off completely and unplug from the internet and do other activities. And not feel guilty about that. This is very important self-care. – smci Jul 2 '15 at 20:34
  • You might consider consulting with your university's mental health services about this as well, if you're not doing so already. They have a lot of experience with these issues and they could communicate with your advisor on your behalf if that is helpful. – Jair Taylor Jul 3 '15 at 1:44
  • Thank you for mentioning impostor syndrome; I'd never heard of it, but it sounds a little too familiar for comfort. @JairTaylor - I tried. Multiple times. It took them 4 months to get me to see the school psychiatrist & I never managed an appt in the school counselling center. The mental health services here are underfunded and overcrowded (the school had ~5 suicides this past year). – stressedout Jul 3 '15 at 15:45
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Good for you for recognizing your illness and for getting professional help.

My answer has two parts.

Regarding how to tell your adviser, I suggest that you can write a short, factual, but non-personal email that contains all the information you want him to know. Something like this:

Dear Professor X,

I need to tell you about a health condition that I have struggled with for some time. I have a psychological condition involving anxiety and depression, and I am receiving professional medical treatment for it. We have a course of treatment that is appropriate but it will take some time to be effective.

One consequence is that I will need to be more careful about the amount of stress I am experiencing, including avoiding a stressful work load. I have decided that my past work load (including X, Y, and Z) is too much and not healthy for me.

Considering the alternatives, I have decided to focus my effort on X and Y, and to discontinue (or cut back on) Z. I remain committed to academic excellence and my career goals, and I believe this new work plan will be more likely to be successful than my previous work patterns.

I will be happy to meet with you to discuss this decision and alternative suggestions you might have. However, there are aspects that I hold private and will not be open to discussing. Thank you for understanding.

Best regards,

Student

You only need to meet in person if the Department adviser requests a meeting.

The second part of my answer comes to me intuitively based on the way you have written your question and the background.

I sense that you might have a belief in perfectionism -- that the only acceptable level of effort is 110% and the only acceptable level of results is perfection. You might have a very negative association with being perceived as "lazy" or "slacker" if you take any vacations or breaks. You might also believe that any error or misstep is a sure sign of unrecoverable failure.

If these resonate with you, then they need to be addressed to avoid recurring patterns of overwork, exhaustion, and eventually burnout.

Since you are seeing a professional psychologist and counselor, I suggest that you raise these questions and your responses with him/her. No need to respond here (in public).


EDIT: Anticipating some objections, I know that making explicit mention of "psychological condition" and "anxiety and depression" may be risky and may go against cultural norms. As a matter of ethics and morality, I believe it is important and necessary for all of us, individually, to act against those cultural norms that are harmful and counter productive. In this case, it is prejudice against mental illness, but I hold the same views regarding racism, sexism, and other cultural dysfunctions.

Of course, each individual needs to weigh the potential consequences of going against cultural norms. If you can't bear the potential consequences, then don't do it. You'll have to leave it to others to push for changes to cultural norms.

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    I agree that it is better to involve the adviser sooner rather than later and to keep the message factual and, i would say, non-apologetic. However, consider that by writing an email rather than seeking a personal conversation, you are putting your health issues on record, once and for all. This may become a problem eg. if you are on a fixed-term employment contract (as many PhD students are, at least in Europe), once you need an extension, although employers are ethically and often also legally obligated not to discriminate on grounds of health. – henning Jul 2 '15 at 13:04
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    @henning I understand the objection you are raising about "putting your health issues on the record, once and for all." But this sort of avoidance behavior is what helps to maintains the cultural stigma against mental illness in the first place. Also, by not being clear in the email exactly what the condition/problem is, the student is leaving room for ambiguity and misunderstanding, which offers "plausible deniability" later for the Professor and the department. By explicitly stating the health issue now, the student has stronger evidence if there is discrimination later. – MrMeritology Jul 2 '15 at 20:29
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    i tend to agree to the second point, and i also like your text suggestion. but i don't think it's the responsibility (although it would be brave) of people who suffer from mental health issues to fight against their stigma. – henning Jul 2 '15 at 20:31
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    I'm not really sure the OP has to disclose that it's a mental health issue. She could simply communicate to her advisor that due to a health treatment, she won't be able to work as many hours as before. – Quora Feans Jul 2 '15 at 20:47
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    @QuoraFeans - Of course, the student has the option to be somewhat or very vague. As in any complex social situation where the "whole truth" may be uncomfortable to one or both parties, we can use vagueness and euphemisms to attempt to steer around the discomfort. However, the more vague you are, the more room you leave for the other person to infer meanings that you might find even more negative than the "whole truth". The phrase "health issue" without any other supporting evidence might be interpreted as a "white lie" to mask something else (e.g. social discomfort with the Professor). – MrMeritology Jul 3 '15 at 1:31
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I believe that the letter suggested by MrMeritology is fine. I just want to add a remark which might help you overcoming the burden of writing such a letter. Chances are that your advisor already knows about part of your problems, and is actually pondering about how to formulate the question "How do I tell my student to slow down and get professional help?" on academia.se. Academics might not be the most observant of all people, but they do talk to each other, and most would honestly try to help. However, approaching someone who has problems is quite delicate and even the best intentions may do more harm then good. So in writing such a letter you may well do a favour to your advisor and save him worries about how to go beyond the tired-joke.

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This has happened also to me, and only you know how hard this is.You have to be really,really strong but very careful also.
It is highly possible that if you are too honest he might not be so open-minded.
Something like
"Currently, some health problems I am dealing with are making me slower in my research"
would be a good approach through e mail.
It is a good way to mention that you have some issues but not necessarily mental.
See how he responses to this and then you can talk face to face and explain (if he asks) the details.
What you really need to do is explain yourself in such a way that you will be honest and straight.This will act against anxiety since you will have earned some time to breathe.
Next, focus on doing research just for a small amount of time every day in order not to feel "out" of academics but not to feel sick again.

Good luck!!! Remember,all you have to do is breathe in and out,and life goes on.

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