Home VSMindMatters Depression and Grad School: A Narrative with Lessons Learned
Depression and Grad School: A Narrative with Lessons Learned

Depression and Grad School: A Narrative with Lessons Learned


by Chrystelle L. Vilfranc

Chrystelle VilfrancHeadshot

Where does one even begin? 

Part of my struggle with discussing my experience with depression is deciding how much of my experience to share, especially in regards to my first bout of depression. That story is of a very sensitive and sad little girl with unusual self-harm behaviors. My situation seemed to escalate at the age of 9/10 when I lost my favorite cousin to non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which fueled my sadness further. Yet somehow I managed to keep my “everything is okay” mask on straight. I did well hiding my feelings, but with puberty came an even greater wave of inexplicable sadness. I took to writing plays, poetry and short stories and I drafted book ideas to cope, but by high school my mask began to slip.

For most people, high school is an interesting period within itself, but juggling depression and suicidal thoughts complicated my experience.

I was a great student. I participated in and organized different groups and events with my church’s youth group. I got involved in various student activities. I figured keeping busy would allow me to avoid addressing my thoughts and the persistent sadness. One day during the ninth grade, I found the courage to write a letter to my guidance counselor, reaching out for help. This led me to therapy. I tried individual therapy, group sessions, and other forms of therapy from the ninth grade until the eleventh grade. During my senior year, I convinced myself that I had learned necessary skills to manage on my own for a while. However, I vowed that I would revisit the idea of therapy in my early thirties. I had no idea then that my trip back to therapy would happen long before I hit my 30th birthday.

I was never ashamed of my history with depression. I talked about it when given opportunities. I was so grateful to not have been that girl anymore; it also positioned me to relate to so many others. Although, sharing that experience felt a lot like storytelling. I was so removed from that period in my life, I felt as though I was telling the story of someone else. I could no longer relate to that “sad for no reason” girl. I would reread my poetry from high school with empathy and pity. “Wow… I was troubled,” I’d say to myself. However, I was convinced that girl from back then was just a small part of me who would never resurface. Starting graduate school would soon challenge that idea.

My biggest mistake in graduate school was allowing myself to believe that I did not belong in graduate school.

By the second month of school, I felt overwhelmed. Impostor syndrome and anxiety had welcomed themselves into my life. I had never truly experienced anxiety, apart from the few panic attacks, and even then, it took a lot to get me to the point of an attack. Before I could truly process things, anxiety and low self-esteem had settled in. I was approaching my mid-20s, at the biggest stage of my academic career with not one ounce of confidence. How did I get to this low point? It felt lmask-1427886_1920ike it happened instantaneously.

As I attempted to keep my head above the water that is graduate school, a familiar foe reappeared: my depression. To date, I am still unsure whether my depression resurfaced, or whether I had been in denial about it in the years prior (after all, I have always been good at rocking a mask). Each semester following my first semester got a little bit easier academically, but became more difficult mentally. I was in denial about my depression and anxiety although I recognized all of the symptoms. My insomnia worsened. I found myself thoroughly engaged in my thoughts before bed, keeping me up until three or four in the morning. When I managed to fall asleep, I would have dreams about exams or about my upcoming qualifying exam.

I had random crying spells and completely isolated myself from my local friends. I often dodged calls and texts from my other friends and sometimes my family. I kept in contact with a handful of people daily or weekly; however, it was extremely tiring. I grew tired of trying to be okay. I prided myself on being a good daughter, sister, aunt, and friend to others, but it became more exhausting. Eventually, I opened up about my feelings. I challenged myself and promised my sister and a few of my friends that I would return to therapy after my birthday last October. Since that appointment, I have kept up with weekly therapy sessions. I am hopeful that I will be able to be completely true to myself, my feelings and my experiences, despite my negative thoughts or the thoughts of others.

My therapist has been pretty helpful and I am so grateful for her. One of my biggest issues this time around is being unforgiving of myself and blaming myself for my depression.

During one of my sessions, my therapist asked, “If you could stop being depressed tomorrow, would you?” I answered yes. She then reminded me that I am not choosing to be depressed. If I stop beating myself up about something that is not in my control, then I will be closer to getting better.

Thanks to therapy, I feel as though I am closer to regaining my confidence in myself, my abilities, and my position in every aspect of my life. I am learning not to be so hard on myself, and allowing myself to acknowledge my being human. Most importantly, by committing to therapy and dealing with my depression, I am learning to release the stigmas associated with mental health in the African-American community. Trust me, it’s a tough one.

Here are a few insights I’ve gained thus far:

  • Trust yourself and what you are feeling. No one knows how you feel like you do. You’re not too sensitive. You’re not overreacting. If it hurts you, it hurts you.


  • Depression can be a seasonal experience, while for others it can be long-term. For some depression can be situational, where your current situation feeds your depressive state. But for some, even when tough situations are alleviated, their depression persists. With this in mind, be cautious about comparing your experience of depression or sadness to others’ experiences.


  • Do not be afraid to seek out therapy. You should try it once before writing off the idea. Remember, you can always choose not to see that particular mental health care provider ever again. You can’t really lose anything by participating in one session with a stranger. Mental health care providers are awesome neutral individuals who bring a different perspective than your own, or that of your family and friends. Even if you feel that your struggle(s) are minor, if you’re wanting to get help, give it a try.


  • You cannot fight this battle alone. Seek support. Reach out to your family or close friends for it. Hold onto whoever you feel comfortable being honest with concerning your feelings. Not everyone will give you the support you need. Outsource, if necessary. Build a tribe of supporters. For me, I have a tribe of supporters I rely on for keeping me motivated and encouraged with my academics. Luckily, a few of the individuals in my tribe support me with my mental health, as well.
    • Warning: Be mindful of how much you lean on these individuals, especially in terms of your mental health. For this reason, I encourage building a support system in addition to therapy. This lightens the load on the shoulders of our support system. Remember, they have their own mind to protect as well.


  • You may not be able to discuss your struggle with everyone, including family and close friends. Make sure you are comfortable discussing your feelings with whomever you decide to confide in. The best way to judge this is by assessing how you feel after opening up to that individual. Ask yourself, “How did sharing with ______ really make me feel?”


Finally, be patient with yourself. Be good to yourself. Invest holistically in the person you are aspiring to be in the future. You have one chance in this body and with this mind; protect and care for it by any means necessary.


Chrystelle L. Vilfranc is a native of Brooklyn, NY. She graduated with a B.S. in Biochemistry and a minor in Mathematics from Oakwood University. Currently, she is pursuing her doctorate in Cancer and Cell Biology. Her lab studies BRUCE, a highly conserved peripheral membrane protein of the trans-Golgi network and a member of the Inhibitor of Apoptosis (IAP) family, which has been implicated in biological processes such as apoptosis and DNA damage and repair. One of her projects include understanding a possible role of BRUCE in fatty liver disease progression, and her main project involves exploring the role of BRUCE in maintaining liver homeostasis post liver injury of a liver-specific carcinogen.

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