Thursday 21 June 2018

Facing Fears: Taking on Mental Health as a Postgraduate

So, you’ve started your PhD without any issues with your mental health. But what happens if, like me, your mental health starts to suffer during your PhD? I’m going to offer some points of advice based on my own experiences of dealing with anxiety and depression during my PhD.

1. find your ‘person’
As a PhD student, I’m surrounded by academics, research associates and other PhD students who all know what it is like to have done (or be doing) a PhD. Among these people is my ‘person’ – someone who I could trust with anything, and who I could tell anything to.

In short, there is no way I could have made it through my mental health problems without my person. I’m extremely fortunate to have him as a mentor, friend, brother. He always listens to me, gives out hugs, and is generally brilliant at getting me back on track when I have a wobble. Find your person and tell them what’s happening.

2. talk
When my mental health problems were starting to affect my work, I knew that I needed to tell my supervisor what was going on. I worked myself up and worried about the conversation I was going to have for days. I was stressed about being stressed, but I knew I needed to have the talk.

Talking is easy but trying to articulate what you’re feeling can be really difficult – it was for me! It was difficult – I won’t deny it – but I felt so much better knowing that what I was thinking and feeling was no longer confined to my own head. My supervisor was wonderfully supportive and sympathetic, and the conversation was everything I hoped it would be. It was also the first step to getting the support I needed. They want to see you do well and be happy in what you’re doing.

3. get to know what works for you
Everyone has their own way of dealing with their mental health. Maybe it’s mindfulness, exercise, meditation, counselling, socialising and recreation – there are loads of things that work for different people to help them relax, de-stress, and improve their moods.

After trying loads of things to help my mental health, my go-to thing now is to find a cafĂ© somewhere (anywhere) and read a book by one of my favourite authors. I also find that going for a run after work helps too. The important thing is to find what works for you – this might take some time, but, just like with a PhD, it is important not to give up.

4. know that you aren’t on your own
I’m not sure what percentage of the Earth’s population are currently studying at a postgraduate level, but everyone has led different lives, and had different experiences. However different we might feel though, know that you are not on your own. You aren’t the first person whose mental health has been affected during a PhD (there are loads of papers on it too) and in all likelihood you aren’t the only person to have gone through the things that have happened to you.

I thought for a long time that I was on my own with how I was feeling. It was only when a friend (and fellow PhD student) told me about what was happening to them that I realised – I wasn’t. When I looked into this a bit more, I found that there were loads of students like me whose mental health issues had first cropped up during their PhD. I wasn’t alone, and neither are you.

5. take time away
If you feel like you need to get away from your studies to deal with your mental health, that is absolutely fine. Your university should have a way that you can take ‘leave of absence’ where you can take extended time away without affecting the time on your PhD. Use this if you think it might be helpful for you!

It’s also important to take guilt-free time for yourself every day: take holidays, have lunch away from your desk, have 15 minutes in the afternoon for a cup of tea and to read a book, leave early one day. Just make sure you look after yourself!

to finish…
‘Help will always be given at Hogwarts to those who ask for it’ said Professor Dumbledore. I am pleased to say that this phrase extends to us Muggles too. Help and support are always there in a variety of forms, but it can only be given if people know that it is required.

Identifying a problem is the easy part, doing something about it is the hard part. It usually all starts with a conversation.

I'm Will and I'm a final year PhD student. I've been dealing with anxiety since I was 14, and depression since I was 23. I found that writing and talking about my own experiences of mental health as a postgraduate student were hugely helpful to my recovery (and stress levels). I'm now working on improving student wellbeing at all levels and raising awareness of mental health.

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