Doing your PhD and looking after your Mental Health

Mental Health

I’ve written elsewhere about the rise of individualism and the social and political shifts that have occurred from this. As our social norms and institutions dissolve and disintegrate, we’re all left fending for ourselves – competing with one another in the race for the biggest slice of cheese on offer. We’re all writing our own biographies, aware that no-one is going to give us advantages – we have to make things happen for ourselves or forever be damned to a life on the margins.

This is not entirely the case of course – but sometimes it feels like our politics demands it of us. And oftentimes doing a PhD can feel like that. We’re burrowing away on our own, meeting deadlines, writing in a room by ourselves and expected to keep up with the reading in order to put together that lit review. It’s little surprise perhaps that we’re seeing ever increasing reports of students suffering mental illness. The pressure that PhD students are under (and put themselves under) is creating ever-increasing instances of emotional and mental strain as well as anxiety and depression. Not only is there immense pressure on students undertaking PhDs (both internal and external), there is typically the added financial burden that comes with it.

Stress

For sure there is collegiality – but students can be adept at masking the pressure that they put themselves under. If you witness other PhDs burning the candle at both ends then the pressure to do likewise can be immense. If you’re not sleeping under your desk, missing meals, doing 7am – 10pm, or binge drinking, you’re not doing it right. The competitive culture (and continued stigma around mental health issues) can also mean that if students are starting to struggle (or perceive themselves to be doing so) they may see it as a sign of weakness and stop themselves from seeking out assistance.

An article in the Guardian this year even went so far as to say that there is a ‘culture of acceptance’ around mental illness in academia. As budgets get tightened and more students pursue fewer avenues into employment the race to do better than your contemporaries quickens. There is said to be a belief that if ‘you can’t stand the heat then get out of the academic kitchen’. This doesn’t just affect students but affects staff too with research suggesting growing stress levels among university employees. But the issues appear similar – heavy workloads, a long hours culture and conflicting management demands. The study discussed suggests that academics suffer higher stress than the wider population. The long hours culture is something I have witnessed at my own university. It’s said that because PhD students have become used to their own success, they keep striving to achieve ‘perfection’ and are willing to sacrifice themselves to that altar. An additional issue which makes this situation more dangerous in terms of Mental Health is that because our work is often self-directed, the boundary between ‘work-time’ and ‘me-time’ is blurred. A poor work-life balance is a sure-fire route to putting your mental health on the line. It is absolutely fundamental that we take proper time-out from our studies in order to relax, unwind and give ourselves a break.

Balance

I know this from personal experience having suffered a period of darkness post-undergrad having put myself through the ringer in the pursuit of good grades. It took months to fully recover and has forced me to regulate my working life. But I am fortunate enough to have a wonderfully supportive (and understanding!) partner, good friends and family who ensure that I am looking after myself. I am also studying alongside some fantastic and supportive PhD students who are aware of these issues. But we need to be vigilant and look after one another. Not everyone has these supports, particularly students from overseas who may be more isolated. There are some good tips here and here on how we can look after ourselves and each other. The best advice appears to be; if you start to feel in trouble speak to someone you can trust or a specialist at the university. The support will be there.

Whatever our achievements, grades and future goals it isn’t worth sacrificing our health over. At Christmas we typically remember to be a bit kinder to each other. It’s also important to remember to be kinder to ourselves.

If you are affected by any of the issues mentioned in this piece, and want to talk to someone, please contact the Samaritans here

Image from (jonkenna.wordpress.com)



Categories: PhD Studies

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5 replies

  1. Great post! It’s helpful to discuss the issue of mental fatigue during PhD… Perhaps it is also important to look at underlying reasons why there is so much pressure to ‘study till you drop’…or what do you think?

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    • Indeed, I agree. I think there are many reasons why there is so much pressure – culture, fewer positions, more people applying for these positions and as I touched upon a drive for perfection. It will take a radical sea change to alter this I think. At the moment I think the best thing we can do ourselves is to be mindful of our own health and ensure we look after ourselves – don’t get dragged into the impossible drive for ‘perfection’.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great read. As World Mental Health awareness day has just passed, this topic has been talked about so much between myself, fellow Postgrads and staff. There is so much on twitter and blogs about isolation and the imposter theory during Postgrad study. It’s time something changed, we stopped putting ourselves under so much pressure and realise we are all doing well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Phillipa, apologies, not sure why your reply wasn’t flagged up to me. Difficult to know how to change it, the powers at work seem so difficult to combat. And imposter syndrome is something I know all too well. Could be a blog post on that! Be good to get someone to do that for me.

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