PhD blues: Mental health and the PhD student

I have no idea

PhD blues. Second year slump. Impostor syndrome. Thesis depression. Most PhD students will have heard these phrases and used them, jokingly, to describe the PhD experience. Mental illness is a very real problem which is rarely spoken about in relation to post-graduate study. The isolation, stress and pressure to succeed experienced by many PhD students are not exactly conducive to positive mental health, but mental health problems and how to support those experiencing them is not openly discussed. Following some tweets I posted on World Mental Health Day discussing mental illness and doing a PhD, I was amazed by the response from other PhD students who had experienced mental health problems and varying levels of support from their institutions and universities. Clearly this is an issue which speaks to many PhD students.

Why should we talk about PhDs and mental health? It is widely acknowledged that doing a PhD is difficult; difficult and lonely and stressful. The constant criticism of your work by your supervisors can be hard to take, even for the most resilient student. Mental health problems can sometimes be seen as an occupational hazard, part and parcel of the PhD experience.  This should not be true. Nobody should be expected a to do a job which has the side effect of making them mentally or physically unwell. PhD drop out rates are very high, around 40%, but there is little research into which this attrition rate is so high (there’s a PhD in that but, ironically, they’d probably drop out). On average, one in four people will experience mental health problems at some point in their life and some research has shown that mental illness, particularly mood disorders such as depression, may be more common in highly intelligent and creative people and those who would identify as perfectionists. Intelligent, creative perfectionists. Sounds like a lot of PhD students I know. Research councils are spending hundreds of thousands of pounds on PhD stipends for students who will never complete or publish their research. More importantly, PhD students who may be struggling with their mental health are not being supported.

Why don’t we talk about PhDs and mental health? There may be any number of reasons why PhD students are hesitant to talk about mental health issues. Some of these are not unique to PhD students. It is difficult to talk about an invisible ailment which makes it impossible for you to get out of bed, get dressed or do normal people things. However, PhD students have the added fear of falling behind in their research. Difficulties in concentrating can lead to the death spiral of buzzfeed-Guardian Life&Style-Twitter-back-to-Buzzfeed and working ever longer hours to catch up with yourself. There’s also the fear of how your supervisor will react. There’s always the possibility that admitting that you’re not coping with the stress of an inherently stressful job might make your supervisor lose faith in you and, in my case, suggest that you just aren’t able to cope with doing a PhD and that you should just quit.

How can we start to talk about PhDs and mental health? Start by being the change you want to see. Be open about your own mental health with your friends, colleagues and supervisors. Be nosey. Does your friend seem to be struggling? Take them out for a coffee and ask them how they’re getting on. Ask for training on how to promote positive mental health. Ask that your supervisors are trained in dealing with mental health issues. Be proactive. Ask your university what it is doing to help those with mental health problems and make sure everyone knows about it.

How can you get help? Talk to someone. I know it’s difficult. I know you’ll probably cry. That’s ok. Can’t talk to your supervisor? Try your course convener, mentor, adviser of studies, someone else’s supervisor, your mum, your friends, anyone you can. It’s hard to ask for help. It’s hard to fight for yourself when you think you’re worth nothing. I know. But it will help and you will be glad you did. Your university probably has opportunities for student counselling, which are well worth checking out.

Start the conversation. If this post prompts just one person to talk about their mental health then I’m happy. I think this is a really important issue and I’d love to hear about your experiences, both positive and negative, and any tips you have for taking care of your mental health throughout your PhD.


11 responses to “PhD blues: Mental health and the PhD student

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  3. Mental health counseling has been SO useful in helping me cope with the demands of my PhD program, find the work habits that fit me, and celebrate my accomplishments rather than discounting them. I didn’t seek therapy until I went through a rough breakup, but I wish I had been going from the start of my program. I firmly believe that all graduate students can benefit from counseling/therapy, even those who don’t struggle with a diagnosable mental illness. Give it a try!

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  9. I gave up on my own PhD due to mental health issues and I’m rather upfront about it; I am also rather upfront about past achievements and, for me there is no use in hiding any of it, especially not when treating mental health. Hence no trace of impostor syndrome; I never felt stupid or unprepared “per se”, or complained about the workload, just that the real kicker was that the midterms did not stack up to homework-generated expectations. Especially since the one thing that convinced me to milk the particle cosmology cow for an extra six years was the masters research project. It went well, it gave me confidence I could carry a PhD project in particle cosmology to completion. Also I know that in my case, like the majority of the cases I have seen, my mental illnesses were not caused by any lack of intelligence of any kind.

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