Sunday, 10 May 2015

A PhD: Is this the cost of your mental health?

Before you read this post I want you to think about the PhD students you know.  Think about the post-docs.  Think about those you consider your peers in the academic world.  Think about yourself and how you relate to them.  

What does that picture look like?

For many, they see themselves as an outsider.  As inferior - intellectually or otherwise - or as uncomfortably different.  For some people, this may be a fleeting bout of Impostor Syndrome, which passes once they regain their confidence.  But for other people, these comparisons and the negative self-image which results has a much more worrying, deep-rooted cause.

The rate of mental health problems in the PhD-student and academic community at large is a silent behemoth.  As a small introduction to this idea, there are two excellent pieces by the Guardian that describe the problem.  In a blog post on the Guardian website, an anonymous academic documented the culture of acceptance around mental health problems, where they describe the following:

"Among the people I do know who have done PhDs, I have seen depression, sleep issues, eating disorders, alcoholism, self-harming, and suicide attempts. I have seen how issues with mental health can go on to affect physical health. During my PhD I noticed changes to my skin, and changes in my menstrual cycle which persist to this day."

I can echo the author's observations, and that's what worries me.  Having previously been treated for depression as a teenager, I thought I would be alert to the symptoms should they re-emerge, but it took a long time before I realised my feelings weren't 'normal'.  I was constantly exhausted.  Some days the thought of getting out of bed reduced me to tears.  I would drag my feet all the way to my office, only to sit at my desk and stare at my computer screen for hours without actually doing anything.  I stopped keeping up with friends, I stopped interacting much at all.  I felt like a robot.  I started drinking more.  I would go through cycles of binge eating then eating nothing for as long as I could.  I hated my life, and hated myself for feeling that way, because I had so much to be grateful for.

In short, I was suffering from pretty bad depression.  I got an appointment with my GP and got put on fluoxetine - an anti-depressant - immediately.  After eight weeks of still not feeling much better, I was upped to a medium dose and I finally stabilised.  Throughout this process I was very open with my supervisor, who was very supportive, and I took some time off to recuperate.

I feel like one of the lucky ones.  The anonymous academic goes on to describe some awful experiences of other students with mental health problems:

"I have seen students asking:
"How do I tell myself that it's OK to take time for me?"
"Have I worked so hard that illness has become normal?"
"How can I recover my relationships with my friends and family?"

Despite this, I see students and academics who view the researcher development service as unnecessary. I see students who imagine using our services as an "admission of defeat". To come to us, is to announce that you are not a perfect researcher. I see students ashamed to admit to their peers that they had come to any of our sessions, let alone found them useful.

I see students forcibly removed from our sessions by their supervisors. I see leading academics decline to advertise our services, for fear that people will use them. I see students who feel like it is not OK to admit that they are not OK. And this is not OK."

It is this culture of acceptance that concerns me.  I have heard fellow students and other academics describe working all day in their office, then all evening and each weekend, as if this were a totally normal work-life balance.  I have heard others discuss how they feel exhausted and tearful all the time, but that they feel this is the expected cost of doing their best - because they belief if they are not working themselves to the brink of self-destruction they are not working hard enough.

Now I want to make it clear that no one has ever told us that this is what is expected of us.  But I think it links back to what I described at the beginning - how we feel we compare to our peers.  Most people who are successful in getting a PhD studentship were big fish in the undergraduate pond.  But everyone at PhD level was a big fish, and you can't all be the best.  Suddenly you are adjusting to working alongside people who seem light-years ahead of you on the IQ scale, and it can shift your view of the world upside down.  To try and combat the insecurity we push ourselves to work harder and harder.  And no one can burn the candle at both ends forever.

What I want you to know is that it is okay to be struggling.  I was on anti-depressants for 18 months and that didn't stop me getting my PhD, or getting work afterwards.  I was open with my supervisor about my mental health problems, and he was great - I got lots of support.  If you're struggling, please reach out.  Please don't suffer in silence. 

You are not alone.

If you think you might be suffering from a mental health problem, seek advice from your GP as soon as you can.  I've included links for symptom checkers below, as well as the contact details for a number of help-lines.  Remember, if you or someone you know is at immediate risk of committing suicide, call 999.

There are lots of people out there who get through their PhD without any ill-effects, and many who suffer illnesses during their studentship to recover fully (myself among them).  1 in 3 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem in their lifetime, so if you find yourself feeling unwell, you are not being silly or over-reacting, you just need a little support to get yourself on your way.  If, as a PhD student, a friend let their diabetes or epilepsy go untreated, you wouldn't stand for it - you'd usher them to the GP and support them to get help.  Mental health problems are no different.

If you think you might be suffering from a mental health issue, or are looking for support, please check some of the links below.  Remember that your University will have student services that can offer counselling and other mental health advice, and their services are tailored to those going through higher education.

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