Mental Health Struggles Are Normal and OK

From an outside perspective, it probably looks like my PhD has gone extremely well. I’m on track to submit in under three years, have had my first peer-reviewed journal article accepted for publication, and, amongst other opportunities, have been invited to share my research with Governments. I often use Twitter to share such achievements, and for most people, that’s all they see: short snapshots and updates on my success. I have never shared any of the struggles. So what most people don’t know is that last year I had days where I could barely leave my bed, as I had no energy or motivation, when going into a crowd or even getting the train would leave me in tears, and when my mental health was in such bad condition that I had to take myself to the hospital.

I want to share my story to let people know that you can get out of a dark place and turn things around. I have been open about my experience with colleagues and was surprised to find out just how many of us have struggled with our mental health during the PhD. If hearing my story will help even one person, then this post will be worthwhile.

I knew going into the PhD that I needed to look after my mental health. I had read blogs and other peoples’ stories, but I naively thought that they didn’t apply to me. I had never struggled with my mental health, had always enjoyed independence, and was confident that I would be fine. However, my struggles began in the second year of my PhD when, due to a complication in my funding, I had to undertake an unpaid part-time placement. The result involved me splitting half my time between London and Cardiff, worrying about money, and constantly living out of a suitcase. In the end, I broke down as I could not cope. I went to the doctors and was diagnosed with stress. I was instructed to take a few weeks off, and I did take some time off, but it’s hard with the time pressure of a PhD. It’s not like most jobs where someone will cover your work while you are away. It’s hard to switch off from a PhD.

I had pretty much recovered from the stress, and my mental health was getting a lot better when my grandmother, who I was extremely close to, passed away. At that time, I was living 4 hours away from my boyfriend and family in a city where I didn’t have many friends, and I lived quite far from campus with two flatmates who would regularly exclude me. One day, it all hit me; I was so sad and lonely and had no one to turn to, as everyone I trusted lived too far away. I had never experienced depressive thoughts before, so I didn’t know what was happening. My thoughts scared me to the point that I went to the hospital. At the hospital, I was diagnosed with reactionary depression, a form of non-chronic depression that occurs as a result of a trigger incident. I was assured that things would get better, and they did. It took time, some days even getting out of bed was hard, but things got better. I had counselling from the university, spent time with my family, and moved back to a city where I had a strong social network .

I’m now at the point where I am genuinely really happy and enjoying my PhD work. I have a far greater understanding of my mental health, I have got through what was possibly the hardest time of my life, and I am prepared for future challenges. The PhD still tests my mental health, with the pressures of writing the thesis alongside publications, conferences and the job market, however I now know how to look after myself. While I was suffering from depression, working on my PhD was extremely challenging, and I was worried that I would fall far behind. However, taking time off re-motivated me, and I have come back to it a lot stronger.

There are a three key things I’ve learned from this experience that I want to share with others:

Mental Health struggles are normal, and it’s ok.

When I was first diagnosed with depression, I felt ashamed and embarrassed. It felt like a weakness. However, I soon realized that it is an illness just like other illnesses that have physical symptoms. Speaking to others about my journey made me realize just how normal it is to struggle with your mental health and how beneficial it is to talk about it. Getting counseling at my university was crucial to my recovery and learning about myself and my mental health.

Put yourself first.

The thing that surprised me most from my counseling sessions was the realization that I never put myself first. I had always put others before myself to the extent that I was not looking out for my own wellbeing. I have learned the importance of learning to say no and to prioritise what I need. I have also learned the importance of treating myself.

The importance of a support network of friends and family.

When I was suffering from depression, I had no close friends nearby. Getting a train to see friends in a nearby city often felt far too difficult. It took the difficult times to make me realize just how isolated and lonely I was. Moving back to a nearby city where I have a large group of friends, events, and sports clubs to go to has made such a difference to my happiness.