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Student Is 'Open Book' About Her Struggles

Several issues led doctoral student Wainella Issacs to attend counseling. (Video: Sandra C. Roa, USF News)

Wainella Isaacs isn’t shy about discussing mental health issues she has confronted in recent years.

“I’m an open book about my struggles,” she says.

A native of Guyana, South America, Isaacs came to USF in January 2015, earning her master’s degree in engineering science, with a concentration in environmental engineering, in 2017. She anticipates earning her doctorate in environmental engineering next May. In addition to her studies, Isaacs is a graduate assistant in the College of Engineering’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion Programs.

She has dealt with several issues, including imposter syndrome – where people doubt their accomplishments and fear being exposed as a fraud; worries about finding a job; family challenges; and feelings of isolation.

While most studies of student mental health focus on undergraduates, there are some studies that suggest the issues Isaacs faced are common among graduate students. Nature’s 2017 survey of science doctoral students, which included 5,700 students worldwide, showed high levels of satisfaction with doctoral programs overall. However, “More than one-quarter listed mental health as an area of concern, and 45 percent of those (or 12 percent of all respondents) said that they had sought help for anxiety or depression caused by their PhD studies.”

For Isaacs, the sense of isolation began during her first semester at USF.

“I came in the spring semester, most students start in the fall,” she says. “I didn’t have a sense of community, I felt isolated. After spring break, I discussed my struggles with a professor, who brought me to a lunch with other graduate students. I had my first community and I wasn’t feeling as isolated.”

But, late in the fall of 2015, other issues created a new level of stress. There were family challenges. And Isaacs realized that with all the time she was devoting to teaching and the needs of her students, as well as her research, she was sacrificing time for herself.

In search of ways to manage her anxiety, Isaacs visited USF’s Counseling Center. Within 30 minutes of her arrival, she was introduced to a counselor who served as a mentor for the next three years. Sometimes they met on a monthly basis, other times, every two or three weeks depending on Isaacs’ anxiety level. She also participated in group counseling for a semester.

Now, Isaacs says, “I’ve learned to manage any curve ball. As I tell others, your worst day only lasts 24 hours.”

She sees other doctoral students struggling at times – “all five members of my research group are in counseling.”

“You worry about what you are going to do with your life as you finish your last year of school,” Isaacs says of herself and her peers. “You ask yourself if you will get a job, if you have the necessary qualifications and experience. You ask yourself if you are doing enough, publishing enough.”

She uses her experiences to help fellow doctoral students.

“I am happy to help reassure them that they are not alone, that feeling overwhelmed is not abnormal,” she says. “Some of them are lacking community, just as I was. I encourage them to talk with other people in their program.”

Rita DeBate, associate vice president of health and wellness and a professor in the College of Public Health, also serves as a health and wellness coach.

“About three-fourths of the students I have seen as a coach are graduate students,” she says. “They were experiencing a lot of stress.”

DeBate says that being a coach means offering guidance, rather than telling a student what to do.

“You’re their ally, you’re there to help them explore why they’re stressed out, why they’re not doing well,” she says. “Some students would get to the point of saying that they stopped attending a class because they don’t like it. In that case, I would refer them to career services or to counseling. A faculty member might think that a student who misses class is just being lazy. It could be so many other things.”

Isaacs encourages students who may be struggling to seek help.

“I knew I needed help, and I asked for it,” Isaacs says. “Why would I not want to spend an hour talking to an outside source who is trained to help? People self-impose a stigma about getting help.”

She believes that as she continues her pursuit of “mastery of self,” she is empowering others to do the same.

“Prioritizing your mental health is necessary for achieving your limitless potential,” Isaacs says.