To my fellow LIS Black, Indigenous, and People of Color [Series]: Imposter Syndrome, Mental Health, and Surviving Another Day

Nearly everyone in grad school has dealt with or is currently dealing with imposter syndrome. Those who claim to have never suffered from it are either lying or actually are the imposters. Alyssa wrote about imposter syndrome in September; so, for this post, I’d like to focus on imposter syndrome as a person of color and especially for those of us who also have mental illnesses.

Mental health issues can lead to extreme imposter syndrome, especially for people of color. We see the signs that tell us we don’t belong in this field: all white management and staff, lack of representation in collections, etc. For many of us, we feel we have to work twice as hard as white people to be at their same level. But even with numerous accomplishments, publications, and experience, we might still feel like we’re not good enough. 

I’ll be graduating in June of 2020 and have already started writing job applications. But just like before when I’ve applied for internships and scholarships, I’m faced with the struggle of writing about myself. I’ve had depression and anxiety nearly my entire life and have had varying degrees of success in controlling them over the years. I fully believe that my mental illness has increased my imposter syndrome – I worry that I’m not doing well enough or even doing enough in general and become depressed with that realization. The anxiety pushes me into saying “yes” to everything; the depression makes me hate myself for being unable to balance everything. Because of this, writing about myself in a positive manner can feel impossible at times. For those who struggle with these same issues, this article was eye-opening and helped me better understand myself.

I don’t have everything figured out – some days I feel like I’m just barely above the surface. Here’s some advice that I’ve given to others and am trying to follow myself:

  • There’s no shame in taking medication. Fellow writer Hanna wrote a great piece on medication as self-care earlier this year. I started getting panic attacks my first quarter of grad school. It became so bad I found myself unable to sit on a bus for longer than ten minutes. I wasn’t able to ski anymore as I tried to jump off a stopped chair lift, even though I had been teaching children how to ski the year before. It seems that my anxiety and depression had been building up until it finally exploded. If it wasn’t for the medication my doctor prescribed me and therapy, I’d be unable to even fly. While medication may stave off certain feelings or emotions, therapy is where you can begin to better understand your mental illnesses and develop strategies to better cope and even overcome them.
  • Finding a therapist of color, especially a therapist that looks like you, is a gamechanger. They are more likely to understand what you are going through and can help you work through your issues. You don’t have to spend time trying to explain why something was racist or battle against their white tears. My Asian American therapist understands the pressure American society places on Asian Americans when it comes to assimilation and fitting the model minority myth. Having a therapist who’s already knowledgeable about these issues means we can focus more on finding solutions and strategies. Therapists can also help put your accomplishments in perspective and help you learn how to say “no” (something I still struggle with). However, there are very few therapists of color in the country. Sites like the National Queer & Trans Therapists of Color Network, Therapy for Black Girls, and Melanin & Mental Health have directories to help you find thearpists of color in your area. Psychology Today also has options to search by specific issues such as “Racial Identity” or type of therapy like “Multicultural Therapy” that will result in more therapists of color. Look into local organizations as well; in Seattle, Asian Counseling and Referral Services offers mental health services including “culturally, linguistically and clinically competent counseling services.” Also see if your university has resources: for example, Swarthmore College has a page on their Counseling & Psychological Services website on therapists of color.
  • Connect with fellow students of color, whether in your program or across the country. As an online student, it can be really difficult to even connect with other students in general and especially across cohorts. This quarter I started a student organization focused on students of color in LIS as I realized there wasn’t a space for us. While we are just starting out, the positive and eager responses I’ve received from other students of color about joining the leadership team has been tremendous. Other students of color were eager to connect with each other, especially those online, and wanted to help in any way they could. When some of us met for the first time, it was one of the only times where I wasn’t the only person of color in the room at an iSchool-related event. Hearing about other people’s struggles in the program helped us all realize we weren’t alone in this and that our struggles were valid. I’m also part of the Spectrum Scholar and ARL/SAA Mosaic family (Mosaic is no longer accepting applications but check out the Kaleidoscope Program). Not only do you receive a lot of support when it comes to navigating the profession as a person of color but you meet incredible librarians and archivists of color – both current students and alumni. These folks can also be great supporters when the imposter syndrome gets particularly bad, reminding you of your achievements and that others before you have succeeded.

I’d like to write another post about mental health and people of color, and possibly turn this into an ongoing series: if you have any suggestions for something you’d like to see, please leave a comment or reach out via Twitter or email: kayakabu@uw.edu.

Photo by Cristian Newman


Kelli Yakabu is a MLIS student at the University of Washington focusing on archives. You can follow her on Twitter @kelliyakabu.

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