This is a much more personal post than any I’ve posted on this blog before, but I’m hoping that what I have to say will put things into perspective, and encourage other PhD students to speak up.
I have depression.
I think I’ve probably struggled with depression since the first year of my undergraduate degree (2010), but I didn’t tackle the issue and get help until January this year. Last year was a really difficult one for me personally, and after Christmas and New Year I decided that I was fed up of being mopey – to be quite honest I was boring myself, and I missed being excited about stuff. I went to see my GP and she was brilliant (yet another case of ‘I love the NHS’) – she gave me medication and arranged a follow-up appointment to check how I was doing in a month’s time. Since then I’ve doubled the dosage but stayed on the same medication, and things finally feel like they’re starting to get easier.
If you have never had depression, it’s difficult to get your head around – looking at it from the outside people can think you’re lazy or workshy when you become the textbook flakey friend/colleague who cancels more than usual. The only way I can describe it, is that it feels like you’ve got a really heavy blanket over you all the time, it’s so heavy that it’s tiring to drag around with you whilst you do normal tasks like go to work or go to the gym. For me, it’s been a constant source of frustration. I want to do loads of things, I’m still really excited about my PhD, but when I sit down and try to focus this big heavy blanket seems to cover everything. Motivation has been in short supply, but I’m just as stubborn as I am miserable (the fact I’ve maintained a sense of humour helps!) – so I’ve kept on going as much as I possibly can. That might mean going into the office on a Sunday purely because my motivation has come back and I want to make the most of it.
I’ve read a lot online about PhD students and the mental health problems that come with the pressure of academia – here, here and here are decent starting points. My depression has in no way been a result of my PhD. If anything, I think that doing the PhD has kept me going – so I wanted to add my two cents to the internet of ‘terrible things PhD students go through’, with a more balanced perspective. To be clear, I know lots of PhD students will have mental health issues that are linked to their studies; I’m not belittling their experience at all, I just want to even things out with my own experiences.
As I said earlier, I think I’ve had depression for about 7 years now, and I have no doubt that my PhD was the thing that made me get help. It wasn’t because I was under intense pressure, or that I didn’t think I’d ever be able to write a thesis – the reason I finally said something to my GP was because I was so bloody annoyed that I couldn’t drag my ass to work each day and I wasn’t able to read papers or write coherently anymore. It was purely frustration – it felt like my PhD was slipping away from me, and I really love the work I do so I wasn’t willing to let that happen.
I don’t feel unsupported at work. Lots of posts I’ve read online say that PhD students are left alone, they suffer from isolation and they get lonely. Again, I don’t doubt that, but it’s not the case for me. The colleagues that surround me are brilliant – some are hilariously funny and mean I’m left smiling all day even after a 5-minute chat in the morning, others express surprise when I’m not myself and ask how I’m doing completely unprompted, some especially brilliant colleagues have been known to leave a little note or treat on my desk, my Supervisors are amazing and always seem to pick up on a down day before I’ve even mentioned it. It’s not that I’m lonely, it’s that I’ve got this heavy blanket weighing me down, and to be honest dragging it around is just too much hassle and it’s easier to stay at home for the day sometimes. Other days I get up and sort myself out as normal, go to work and have a totally normal day – whatever that is.
For now, my PhD work is on target. I’m working weird hours because I’m a bit rubbish in the mornings – I’m very much a night owl and whilst I’m in a bit of a funk it’s just better to roll with what my brain is willing to do. If that means abstract screening at 11pm after snoozing until after 9am that’s fine.
I’m aware that I’m very lucky with my PhD experiences, I genuinely wish I could remain a PhD student for at least another 3 years – I’ve never heard anyone else say that!
The world of academia isn’t all doom and gloom, there are research teams up and down the country that create the most brilliant learning environments for students. So if you’re considering doing a PhD bear that in mind, and make sure you find a team you click with before you start. If you’re already doing a PhD and you’re experiencing these kinds of problems, please do speak up and ask for help. 9 times out of 10 people are not actively isolating you, they’re just too busy to realise you need support – tell them, and then try your best to get rid of the British stiff upper lip and take the help when it’s offered. A PhD is not some sort of horrendous mental health journey, it’s supposed to be part of your career that allows you to learn and build your research experience; it’s meant to be (at least somewhat) fun.
I’m not really sure how to end this post, but I hope it’s showed the other side of the argument when it comes to PhDs and mental health. Mental health issues are so common, and I think it’s important that PhDs and academia are not blamed for those issues entirely – sometimes they’re just what’s needed to make someone realise they need a helping hand every now and again.
If you’re struggling – one of my earlier posts on academic self-care might have some useful tips.