What not to say to a PhD student who is experiencing mental health issues

coffee

Morning everyone! How are you all doing? I’m having a burst of productivity today because Netflix is having some sort of strop and I can’t feed my bad crime drama habit. I have been talking a lot recently to friends both online and in the flesh about the prospect of returning to my PhD. Through these conversations, I have heard a number of other people’s “return to work” or “disclosing mental health issues” stories and I have been struck by the capacity for harm that the words and reactions of others have and also the similarities among these stories. These similarities piqued my interest and I took to twitter to ask “as a student with mental health issues, what have been the most/least helpful things that people have said to you?”.

There seem to be a few common attitudes towards student mental health which are really unhelpful so I though I’d provide you with a handy guide of what not to say to a student who wants to talk about their mental health and some suggestions of things you can say instead. Please please understand that this is not a dig at anyone. Even the most empathetic and enlightened of us had said or thought these things at some point. I certainly have. If you are trying to help then we genuinely appreciate your attempts. What I am trying to do is make it easier for us to talk about our mental health without having to be afraid of other people’s reactions and to talk to others about their mental health. (Please note: These observations IN NO WAY refer to my own experiences or any individual person.)

WHAT NOT TO SAY:

  1. Everyone feels stressed. It’s just part of doing a PhD. There is a big difference between feeling a bit stressed and being so depressed that you cannot get out of bed in the morning. Yes some stress is an unavoidable part of a PhD but this kind of reaction normalizes mental health issues as an acceptable part of academia and trivializes the effect that they have and the real struggle which people face and this is not acceptable. This attitude frames mental health issues as a personal inability to cope with the normal stresses of a PhD, which is just not accurate. Mental health issues are not simply an inability to cope with stress.
  2. PhDs are really stressful. Are you sure you should be doing one with you condition/disorder/issues? Mental health issues do not render you unable to complete a PhD. I’m going to say that again because it’s so important. Mental health issues do not render you unable to complete a PhD. This is just plain wrong, and actually pretty offensive and discriminatory. Actually, people with mental health issues can be better at dealing with some forms of stress than people who have never experienced mental health issues as we have been forced to consider our stress reactions and have experience in identifying unhelpful patterns and behaviour. Mental health issues do not make you stupid. They do not make you incapable. Look! Here is a list of famous people who have struggled with depression. Charles Darwin, Winston Churchill, Buzz Aldrin, Foucault, Charles Dickens, Isaac Newton and Beyonce are listed among their number. Mental health issues will not stop us from doing anything we want to do. It might just take us a bit longer. That’s all.
  3. You’re not working hard enough/you’re really behind/I don’t think it’s possible for you to complete your PhD/ you won’t be able to complete within 3 years/maybe you should think about doing something else. Rest assured, we already think all of these things about ourselves. There is a time and a place for these discussions, and that is not when a vulnerable student chooses to open up to you about their mental health status. Save these thoughts for a later time when and if the student decides that they want to continue with their PhD and, you know, maybe think of a nicer way to say them.
  4. What triggered your depression? What are you doing all day? What have you got to be so sad about? How crazy are you? Pokey pokey questions about the basis of my mental illness, my triggers, my symptoms and how I deal with them are not your business. I have a husband and a mum and a counselor with whom I can talk about these things. These sort of disclosures can only be made in an atmosphere of trust and non-judgement. Sometimes there are no obvious triggers for an episode of mental illness, sometimes those triggers are pretty upsetting to talk about. If you keep asking, I will eventually choose the thing you have said most recently and say “yes that thing that you just said must be what triggered this depression”. It isn’t true, I just want you to stop asking.
  5. You don’t look depressed! Oh yes sorry I forgot that I’m supposed to go about with dirty hair wearing a baggy hoodie while wailing and gnashing my teeth. Us people with mental health issues have this amazing trick up our sleeve that I like to call “normal person face”. This is the ability to go about looking totally normal and not what ever your idea of a “mentally ill” person should look like. Yes I can shower and put on clothes and eyeliner and hold a conversation if I have to. I might cry all of the way home but I’m sure as hell not going to let you see that. Were you expecting more of a crazy show? I’m sorry, let me tell you all about my life philosophy that we’re all basically just ants and that life is ultimately meaningless. Is that what you wanted?

TRY THIS INSTEAD:

  1. Are you okay? I’ve noticed that you’ve been a bit down/haven’t been about the office much/are crying into your samples. Let’s go for a coffee, my treat. The knowledge that someone is looking out for you and is ready to lend a listening ear can be really helpful.
  2. Listening. Do not underestimate the skill required in being a good, active, understanding, non-judgmental listener. Sometimes a rant can really help. Sometimes we just want to go out and have a totally normal conversation about office gossip and what’s on the telly. It takes a patient and skillful listener to work out which.
  3. Oh you’re crying. I’m going to look away discreetly and pretend that nothing is happening. Yes, I’m crying. Yes, it’s awkward for everyone involved. I can’t help it. Please feel free to prattle inconsequentially while I mop myself up. Don’t be nice to me. That just makes it worse.
  4. Take all the time you need. Don’t worry about work until you are ready to. Nothing is more important that your health. If you remember one thing from this post, please let it be this one. THIS is the thing to say. Nothing is more important than someone’s health. Not that conference. Not that paper. Not that interview. Not that PCR. Not finishing within 3 years. Nothing. These things can wait.
  5. Did you know about student counselling/disability services/suspension of studies/support group… Find out what your university can offer students who are experiencing issues with their mental health and have that information up your sleeve. Post it on your internal website. Talk about it at induction days. Shout it from the rooftops. Let people know that there is support available to them and that taking advantage of it is cool and strong and awesome. There’s no shame here.
  6. The students are going for drinks/having a party/going for a hill walk. Do you want to come? It’s weird being off from your PhD. You might feel like a failure. You might feel isolated or awkward. Staying in touch with student friends helps to keep you in the loop.
  7. Tell me what I can do to help. Your mentally ill student/friend may not know at first what they need help with. Don’t give up. Keep renewing your offer of help and, if that help is asked for, give it generously. I am beyond thankful for the offers of coffees, dinners, scones, chats and dog walks which have helped me to keep going and hopefully one day I’ll be able to pay them back.

Well gang, I hope that this has been helpful and that you feel equipped to go out and have conversations about mental health. Tomorrow (Feb 6th) is Time to Talk day, a day of talking about mental health to end stigma so please please grab a cup of tea, grab a friend that you’re worried about, or speak up about your own mental health. Love all y’all!

2013-11-16 10.22.01

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7 responses to “What not to say to a PhD student who is experiencing mental health issues

  1. Thank you. Thank you. I had a postdoc say number 3 to me a few days ago and it really set me off. I wish more people would realize these things!

  2. This is just excellent. I’ve only just started my PhD and have already found people completely unwilling to discuss the mental and emotional sides of the PhD experience. If I bring it up, there are awkward silences and glances. I also agree with your statement that ‘people with mental health issues can be better at dealing with some forms of stress than people who have never experienced mental health issues as we have been forced to consider our stress reactions and have experience in identifying unhelpful patterns and behaviour’. I’ve had therapy for depression and it’s undoubtedly helped me for years afterwards.

  3. Pingback: Depression: the long and winding road | An academic follower of fashion·

  4. Excellent advice. I’m not going for an advanced degree, but I think this transcends that and applies to depression in other situations as well. Hang in there.

  5. Brilliant. Confronted with post-traumatic stress during my PhD in the 2nd year (however submitted recently) I recognise all you have mentioned, both the negative as well as the positive comments of others, and how these make you feel,
    Keep going strong, and pursue your PhD, since I learned being part of the academic work-force in your own pace, and according to your ‘current’ abilities, helps (let all of those making negative comments in relation to this, just talk to your hand)!

  6. Pingback: What not to say to a (PhD) student who is experiencing mental health issues | Mercedes' Just City·

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