This post is a little more personal than those usually on my blog, and not specifically about history, so feel free to look away now.
Today is Time to Talk day, and because of this, I wanted to offer a few thoughts on having mental health issues as a PhD student. While I don’t want to go too far into my own personal experience – not least because of potential triggers for others – I thought it might be helpful to share some practical ways I’ve tried to cope with it. Not every PhD candidate with a mental health concern will find this applicable, but if it helps one or two people then it’s worth five minutes of blogging time. I have lived with anxiety, depression, and an eating disorder for quite a long time, and am finally getting proper treatment. Sometimes it’s fine and under control, other times it isn’t. There are aspects of my health conditions that exacerbate or are exacerbated by the stresses that come along with being a PhD student. Personally, I think that the culture of academia could be better adapted to helping those of us with mental health conditions. Isolated working environments and the expectation of long working hours to meet often-competing deadlines, the very personal engagement with one’s work and the consequent criticism it might receive and, especially for those in the early stages of their career, financial pressures and career uncertainty – all of these common features of academic life can act as trigger points. For anyone who does experience regular periods of illness, the lack of sick pay combined with three-year funding limits is a real problem (for those lucky enough to be funded – the commitment-juggling for those who aren’t is even worse). There’s a lot that needs to change if academia is to become more accessible, but in the meantime, a few things I’ve found helpful:
- TELL SOMEONE. An obvious first step, but one which a lot of us resist. It takes recognising and admitting a problem, and asking for help. I was afraid to bring up my health issues because I felt I was being weak, and that it would look like I was asking for special consideration. It was only when I found myself really struggling to work that I decided that something had to change if I wanted to do this PhD thing. I’m lucky that at Queen Mary, there’s a designated Mental Health Co-ordinator, so I approached him via email, then we chatted in person, and worked out together how best to proceed. He informed my department for me so that they could make appropriate allowances if I needed them, and enrolled me in a mentoring scheme so I have someone unrelated to my degree who I can check in with regularly and talk with honestly. My supervisors have been excellent, offering me additional support and encouragement, and assisted me with taking some time out when I needed to. I recognise not everyone has such a positive support network at their university, but I would urge anyone to try to seek some support inside or outside the academic environment – whether as informal as a friend who knows to check up on you, or something more structured like the scenario above.
- MAKE LISTS. This is a strategy suggested to me by my mentor. At the beginning of each week, I write down everything I need to do in both my academic and personal lives. I split these into ‘thinking’ and ‘non-thinking’ tasks. Then, on the days when my brain really isn’t up to focusing on anything intellectual, I know what other things I need to do, work out what I can accomplish, and am usually still able to cross something off the list, even if it’s just cleaning the kitchen. It doesn’t always work, but when it does it helps to motivate me and remind me of what I can, rather than what I can’t do, thus breaking the cycle of panic.
- TAKE TIME OFF. It seems an obvious thing to say, but when you see your colleague tweeting merrily about their research while you’re slumped in front of the telly, the guilt does set in. This is not to blame those tweeters – we’ve all done it – but just remind yourself that they might work better at different times than you. I find I can only really work well, in a fully engaged way, for about five hours a day. The way I spread those hours out and what I do in between varies, but the key for me is to get the best out of what I can do rather than worrying about doing more. If I do take time off, I work better for the time that I am working.
- TRY NOT TO COMPARE YOURSELF TO OTHERS. Again, that feeling when you check Twitter and everyone else you know has got some funding, or an award, or finished a chapter, and you’re still sitting in your pyjamas. It sometimes feels like everyone else is racing ahead and you’ll never finish. But they don’t have your life – with whatever complications it brings – and equally, you don’t necessarily know what’s going on behind the positive image they understandably want to project in a public forum. As my boxing instructor Pat tells me: “You do what you need to do to get done what you want to get done.”
This might all seem obvious and perhaps a bit patronising. Again, I’m aware that this is my experience and might not be shared by others – in many ways I’ve been very lucky with the support network available. But I can still find it easy to lose track of rationality when the panic sets in, and if this post helps no one else then at least I can use it as a written reminder to myself. I’d also encourage anyone who feels able to share their own strategies for coping so we can help to support each other. Despite the challenges, I’m pretty determined to finish my PhD, but I don’t think I would have got this far without taking that first step and asking for help. So I’m going to continue to do so without worrying that it makes me look weak, or lazy, or less employable. I have a health problem, I’m taking steps to get better, and I’m not ashamed to say so.
To quote Pat again (quoting Winston Churchill): When you’re going through hell, keep going.”