Morning everyone! I am really excited to introduce our first ever guest post! This massively brave and honest post touches on a lot of my own concerns about the way in which mental health issues are handled in academia. Understandably, the author has requested that they remain nameless but I am happy to pass on any comments or messages of support.
I am a fairly new PhD student and I started my studies with a naïve hope that, as I wouldn’t be working as well as studying (like I did for my masters) I would manage OK. I couldn’t have been more wrong, and very early on I encountered many obstacles which sent me reeling into a very bad space. Pretty much all the other new PhD students had funding, however I had been turned for down funding twice because I don’t have an undergraduate degree (when I was 18 I was too busy having a nervous breakdown to get my A levels and go to uni). The near to finishing PhD student who enthusiastically gave us a students perspective as part of our induction, just made me feel incredibly inadequate with her tales of internships in far off countries, how it is so much jolly fun presenting at conferences and writing extra papers etc, etc. Then came the realisation that I had to do a number of research units, which the other funded students didn’t have to do – another kick in my self esteem’s teeth. One of the things I struggle with the most is being able to concentrate enough to read, process and understand text, then to formulate thoughts and to write about it (the irony of this is not lost on me) and the thought of producing assignments to deadlines again was soul destroying!
The unfortunate response to all of this (and other extraneous life things) was that my brain decided to rebel. All of the time I was at university I was unable to hear what anyone was saying because everything sounded like being underwater, my brain slowed down to almost zero so I couldn’t process questions such as ‘what’s your name?’ and I experienced my world as if I was watching it on TV. The voices that I have been hearing since I was about 8 years old came on full force, convincing me that I was being followed around by the exorcist and giving me almost hallucinogenic experiences. When I attended supervision, I explained the difficulties that I had been having (although I was too ashamed to talk about the voices and hallucinations) and had a bit of a cry. My supervisor tried their best to be sympathetic and we talked about accessing Disability Services support. This was definitely a help, but then out of what I am sure is the best intentions and kindness, they suggested that I could suspend my studies and start again when I felt ready.
Having only just started my PhD, I was really shocked and disappointed for someone to recommend I have a break so soon! Having struggled with my mental health for 30 years, if I were to take a break every time things got difficult I would never achieve anything! This suggestion also stirred a bit of defiance within me and a bit of rage at the implication that I needed to go away and get better. I steeled myself enough to explain that it is unlikely that I would get better by taking a break and that I needed to continue working through it. Luckily they conceded, and accepted my explanation and that is what I am now doing. I totally trust that the suggestion that I take a break was done so out of concern for me, and a genuine belief that it would help, however for me it was definitely not the right thing to do. I believe that my experience highlights the problems with the ‘go away and get better’ attitude to mental health difficulties, which I’ve experienced in all aspects of my life. For a start, it implies that any difficulties you have are transient, and for some they might be, but 30 years of difficulties and 18 years of treatment later I am still struggling. A couple of weeks, or months break isn’t going to solve that. It also absolves the need for reasonable adjustments, sure taking a break might be a reasonable adjustment for some, but for me, it simply won’t work. For me, a reasonable adjustment is working with my mental health difficulties, not against them. It means acknowledging that they exist, accepting that they aren’t just going to go away and working out how to create a supportive and enabling environment. It also means letting me work out when a break is needed and trusting that it rarely is. For many people, who are isolated because of their mental health, being isolated further by being sent away will only exacerbate their condition. On a personal note, ‘going away and getting better’ is another rejection, another admission of not being good enough. I could also go on and argue that ‘go away and get better’ is eugenicist as well, but I’ll leave that discussion for another day!
Many many thanks to our first ever guest poster! There are so many important issues raised here around the culture of academia and I really feel that it is so important that all of our stories and experiences find a voice. If you think you would like to contribute a guest post, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.