June 17, 2020

Class of 2020: There’s empowerment in recognizing the work you’re doing for your mental health

For recent PhD graduate Dr. Elena Favaro, it’s not just the degree that’s the accomplishment

Elena Favaro describes graduate school like a marathon, with a series of mini-sprints. This might sound unnerving, but her story of resilience is anything but. After the defence of her PhD in the Department of Geography, Favaro shares her insights into a not-so-straightforward path along the way.

"Grad school can be so overwhelming that you can’t see the forest for the trees, so you don’t always recognize you’re suffering," she says.

"When you’re in it you feel like you must be the only one who feels like this — you look around and see people going at a good pace, and so you wonder why you’re always trying to catch up. That was a hard state to be in.”

  • Photo, above: Elena Favaro learned to manage her anxiety about tests by building new skills through workshops and counselling.

It wasn’t until after experiencing severe test anxiety, and the all-too-familiar probing question from a subsequent appointment with a psychiatrist: “How long have you been feeling this way?” that the graduate student realized she needed to seek further help for her mental health.

For me, I wasn’t able to ignore it (anxiety) anymore. The only way for me to hold onto an assemblage of myself was to open up. I had lost myself, and it had been such a slow progression that it seemed normal. So I started to tackle a very specific trigger: exams.

 From resource to real-world application

Favaro first utilized workshops through Student Wellness Services, and then for more long-term support accessed sliding scale counselling services through the Calgary Counselling Centre. The workshops, Favaro found, were comforting, occasionally intimidating, but overwhelmingly worthwhile.

“I realized this isn’t going to fix itself, and my previous coping mechanisms just weren’t up to par to deal with this level of pressure. I had to build a foundation of new skills and new coping mechanisms so I could progress in my degree. Through the workshops and counselling, I built up resistance, built that toolkit of things I could pull out at any second to recognize what was happening and try to change the pattern I felt uncomfortable in.”

When an exam had a delayed start, Favaro found a quiet place in a hallway and practised a breathing exercise she had recently learned in an anxiety management workshop through Student Wellness Services. “I knew that would give me the five minutes of calm I’d need. Even just knowing I had strategies in place kept me from giving in to the panic," she says.

"You’ll never make your way through your degree in any sort of fulfilling way if you don’t take time for yourself, which is just as important as the work you do in your research."

Favaro found empowerment in knowing herself, her needs and limitations. “I was done trying to make everyone feel better at my expense. When I had accommodations for my exam, I realized this was leveling the playing field, not special treatment.

We all have different experiences, come from different places. Everyone is on their own journey. By recognizing our own strengths and weaknesses, and talking about them, it’s easier to let go of pretending.

Words of advice to current and future graduate students

With the culmination of her education, Favaro has some advice for graduate students:

“It’s very likely at some point in your degree, you will feel overwhelmed, burdened, sad, anxious. It’s important to recognize that, seek help, and talk about it. One particular thing could bleed out and contaminate the rest of your experience and it gets harder and harder the longer you wait to talk about something.

"If it was bronchitis, you wouldn’t just tell yourself to get over it, so why are we treating mental health any differently? I realized if I don’t give myself time, I will inevitably dig a deeper hole and it’ll take longer to get out of, just like being sick.”

While Favaro thinks university campuses have come a long way in offering mental health resources for students, she thinks there’s still work to be done that involves everyone shifting the broader narrative.

"Until we feel safe in discussing how we feel, you’ll likely get a lot of people hiding how they’re feeling. My grand plan for fixing this is to continue to talk about it, and talk about it, and talk about it. Make it normal — so no one feels ashamed or guilty about speaking up."

The University of Calgary’s Campus Mental Health Strategy is a bold commitment to the importance of mental health and well-being of our university family. Our vision is to be a community where we care for each other, learn and talk about mental health and well-being, receive support as needed, and individually and collectively realize our full potential. Find support and connect to the strategy.