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How to handle having depression in a research career?

I'm looking to become a psychology researcher. I understand that research careers can be fairly stressful. However, I've also suffered from depression for a decade and expect I will still be dealing with it when I attain my career. How can I go about handling my illness while also successfully pursuing my passion? What kind of practices should I employ while on the job, and what mindset should I have?
research psychology mental-health mental-illness psychiatry clinical-psychology depression stress passion science brain-sciences highered phd

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Kim’s Answer


This question is one that you will need to answer, along with the help of the professionals who currently help you in managing your depression. The reason I say this is because hopefully you have identified those things that trigger your depression. If so, you can best know how to prepare for them. For example, let's say that completing a challenging task leaves you feeling empty and unfulfilled. Then perhaps you would want to have something else that you are also working on, so there is always a challenge.

But, if depression comes on for inexplicable reasons, then you won't be able to anticipate and prepare. However, perhaps you will be able to recognize warning signs when it first starts, and make appropriate medication adjustments.

It is important that you continue to work with a support team. It is easy to want to consider ourselves "cured," and, when that happens, and we leave the doctors and therapists behind, we have no one to turn to when we crash.

Although there is much more to managing depression than simply basic healthy living, I encourage you to be mindful of diet, exercise, sleep, stress -relief, and friendships/family - all things that can help with stress -management.

The other thing I want to talk to you about is legal job protections. You should read up on the ADA - Americans with Disabilities Act, EEOC discrimination laws, and FMLA - the Family Medical Leave Act. Knowing these protections are out there, and having a basic understanding of the protections they provide, will help you through the difficult times. Some of these protections apply only to employers that have at least a minimum number of employees, so you may want to consider working for a larger employer.

It is great that you are thinking ahead - best of luck!


Thank you, Kim! I didn't think about the legal job protections as applying to me. I'll definitely have to read up on those. Alexandra C., Team

You're welcome! Sadly, I am older, and have been through a few things in life. I do not want to discourage you, but, at the same time, I want you to be prepared. I hope you never have to use those tools! Good luck in your research endeavors! Kim Igleheart

Absolutely! I appreciate the honesty - that's definitely what I'm looking for as opposed to sugar-coating things. Thank you so much, and best to you as well! Alexandra C., Team

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G. Mark’s Answer

First, depression affects a LOT of people to some degree, and many of them are not even aware of it. Second, this sounds like a cliche, but get counseling. It may be a group, a doctor or a general counselor. It might not impress you, but what do you have to lose? Third, look to your diet and activities and check on the web the sort of behavior you have that may add to depression. And fourth, the popular reply, is to find what antidepressant medication might work for you and what dose. Be patient, because it's not a simple task. You may go through several medications and several doses each and have to wait through a lot of weird symptoms, mood-swings, more depression and lots of frustration over a long period. But if you hit the right one, it'll make a tremendous difference in your life.

Now that being said, lots of people do research and are depressed, and if anything, research takes your mind off your mood in my experience. Obviously, you could be depressed to the point where it really paralyzes you and even to the point where you need a tremendous act of will to even bother trying to correct it. Non-depressed people have a really hard time understanding an illness that makes you not want to do anything. ANYTHING.

Bottom line -- depression in a research career is probably not much more daunting, on average, than depression in everyday life. You still need a desire to do something to do anything.

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Dr. Ray’s Answer

Dear Kim,

I'm sorry to hear you are having to cope with depression. Unfortunately mood disorders have been on the increase for the past 60 years, including among adolescents. I will echo the other people who have urged you to seek psychotherapy and medication, if you have not already done so. There are some nutritional supplements, especially omega three acids and NAC (short for N-acetyl-L-cysteine), that have been shown to help with mood disorders. They are over the counter nutritional supplements that are available in pharmacies and health food stores. To the great surprise of scientists, certain intestinal bacteria can actually precipitate depression and schizophrenia, so probiotics can also help. Proper diet, exercise and good sleep habits seem to help people stave off depressive episodes.

Having said all that let me address your actual question. Functioning in any job, not just as a research psychologist, is harder when you are depressed. It can be helpful to remember that depression is usually episodic and tends to improve after six to eight weeks. Reminding yourself that you won't feel miserable forever can help you get through it. Depressed people often have little energy or initiative. It is important to pace yourself but continue to perform the really important tasks. I agree that having people you can talk to openly about how you are feeling is important. However I also agree with Kim that you need to be careful about telling your employers. Most will follow the law and be supportive but others may see you as a liability.

While I would not wish depression on my worst enemy, there actually is a modest correlation between mood disorders and creativity, so some positives can come out of the experience. Having experienced some pretty severe episodes has made me more able to relate my clients.

Above all, remember that you have people in your life who love you and want the best for your. Good luck!!!

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Mason’s Answer

I have adult ADHD, which causes anxiety and depression. The key to being able to contribute in a professional setting while living with the disorder is self-love. Act with compassion for yourself first in all things, and the rest will fall into place. You are not less-than or inadequate because you have different needs than most people. You are not defective. Anxiety tricks us into thinking no one likes us, or everyone thinks we're useless. Remind yourself how far you have come. Review goals that you've accomplished and meditate on the healthy relationships you've cultivated. Count your blessings and loved ones. Utilize the resources your employer makes available to you, be that a behavioral health employee assistance program or your health insurance. Even when you think you don't really need it, stay in regular talk therapy as much as you're able to. Have a treatment plan and stick to it; be an active participant in your mental health treatment. Be deliberate with your time: make time to care for yourself in ways that only you know how. Take a no-responsibility day once or twice a month. Allow yourself time to be vulnerable and weak if you need to. It is all right to feel sorry for yourself, but only in a way that is self-empathetic. If you're prescribed meds, take them exactly as ordered and make note of how they make you feel. Be open and honest with your care team.
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Kim’s Answer

okay, so, I don't know how old you are , but you seem to have a mature grip on things. So, I will add a little more.

Even after you read up on all the protections, here are some things to remember.

1. When choosing where to work, and remembering the various disability protections, also try to consider the perspective of the employer. If you are the sole person doing a certain job, and need frequent unscheduled leave, it will leave them in a bind, and they will grow to dislike you. But, if you are one of six case-workers, it has less of an impact.

2. Be careful who you trust. Once you tell someone, you can never un-tell them!

3. HR (human resources) will (convincingly!) swear they are there to help you. They are there to look out for the well-being of the company. Be careful!

4. If you are somewhere where you are not wanted, it's time to move on. The fight is more stressful than it is worth. (experience, x2)

But, all that being said, hoping you don't need any of it! There are still some good people in the world. . . hoping you find them!