Today is world Mental Health Day 2017. I only found this out when I was on twitter and saw people using the hashtag #WorldMentalHealthDay2017 – funny that (not particularly)!
Anyway, my university has advertised some events to help celebrate this, raise money and knowledge share but I still think this is a problem within the PhD community everywhere which is under-addressed and quite often ignored.
You may recall that quite a long while ago I attended a workshop on stress control and for me, in my as a first year PhD student, this provided to be absolutely valuable. Many students don’t realise that stress can be the root cause of mental health concerns, and that when stress or triggers of stress are not address, mental health will probably suffer. Students quite often start by feeling in control and then it’s when the work builds up, you get feedback and start to feel a little down that this cycle can start. When it hit me, I found that I was often just sitting in my office with far too much to do in one day and often I was just think ‘what the hell am I doing here?’. I decided to buy myself a ‘to-do’ list book so that I could note down the larger and smaller task I have/had to do. For me, this helped me to prioritise and see what I was actually needing to do. Quite often, my list would be large and then be small within an hour. The minor things looked like big tasks until I compared them to everything else I needed to do and I learned a little trick in the long run. When you have your daily / weekly to-do list, select only two or three things to complete that day. Make time for tasks manageable (i.e. don’t say you’ll write a whole methods chapter in a day!) and make sure the time you give yourself to complete tasks is appropriate too. That way, you can see your progress daily and not feel too overwhelmed with everything you need to do, or everything you have not done. I often found that Monday mornings were the worst, coming back to the office after a weekend off and then looking at a list the length of my arm. Making a cup of tea and sitting down to prioritise first of all made sure that I did not jump straight into work and also having my to-do list handy when looking through my emails meant I could keep track of important things to do and things that could be put on hold for now. Things have changed more recently as I now teach first thing on a Monday morning so my morning is not full of worry and stress – its full of nice students to teach!
I also wrote a blog nearly two years ago now (jeeeez!) about mental health in the PhD and things that can help. I wrote this blog after suffering a massive round of homesickness when I first moved to Edinburgh as it was my first time moving away from home. I then got poorly and that spiralled into me thinking I could not do the PhD and that I was not good enough to be there, and I had to ask for help. Quite often students do feel a little out of sorts and they may need help from time to time. It might be that cycle of negative thinking starts and the students can’t see how to get out of it. For me, I kept looking back on things that had happened pre-PhD and could not see my road or route ahead. I had literally just started the PhD so was in the literature review phases and I had not yet realised how important that initial phase was. I did not know that this part of the PhD helps to set the foundations to knowledge and helps with skills in searching too. Doing this ‘year of literature review’ type thing then helps to set the grounds for the methods you use and the techniques you will use but at that point in time I could not see this. I could see all of the literature I still had to search and I could see all of the analysis not yet done. I could also see all of the other students around me collecting data, going to conferences and doing other things ‘better than me’. I quite often put the other students on a pedestal and compared myself against them massively. At that time I did not realise (I knew, but did not process this information) that they were months ahead of me and that their progression was for their part of the PhD and I had not even reached that time stage yet. To help me out a little in this instance, I tried not to compare myself to others. The worst thing you can do is compare yourself to others. This was not easy when applying for funding that I did not get (and somebody else did), and when I was trying to plan my route for the next two and a half years, but I tried. I started to ask for help and advice from other students and found they were more than happy to help. I was then able to tell them what was worrying me and making me struggle and most of the other students had also had the same concerns too. I then started to get into the phases of PhD research that other students were in… the annual review, secondary data analysis and planning out my empirical work. I think some good advice I was given was when I was told that PhD students should embrace the phase they are in but also ask for help when they get stuck. Whether it is enjoyable, easy, fun or not, keep going at what you are doing and seek advice from as many people as you can. The more advice you get form others the more likely you are to succeed (whatever success means to you).
One day, when I was having a moment, I got talking to a staff member. This staff member kind of highlighted a point that PhD students often forget. The process of applying for a PhD is quite rigorous in itself and universities only choose the best. Therefore by the time you have got to the PhD stage itself, you have already been vetted, referenced and chosen for your skills, abilities and experiences, so you have already achieved something amazing to get where you are in the first place.
I also found that my supervisor was a good point of contact when I felt that I had not achieved a thing. She is really good at being blunt and telling me all of the good stuff I have done and I would hope that (by now) she knows I don’t often accept positive with a smile! I often don’t see that I am doing well or even what good things I have done and my supervisor is good at telling me all of these things so that I process the information and see what I have done. Quite nicely, she tends to do this when I’m feeling a bit miserable, when I’m bogged down with work or when I’m feeling frustrated at things not going right and this makes me take a step back, take a breath and have a bit of a reality check that things are not as bad as I think. I also know what my supervisor talks about her students a lot, to everyone (the good stud, achievements I mean!). This makes me smile knowing this as people done talk about good things unless they are proud of them – I think my supervisor is proud of us all. She’s one of the only ones in our department who tells the world and blogs when her students do well and when her students achieve something fab and I think this makes a huge difference overall.
Supervisors also know that sometimes s*** happens and this can interfere with your PhD. For example, earlier this year my Grandma passed away and although this was not unexpected, I needed time off to travel home for her funeral. This time happened to awkwardly coincide with a trip some of the PhD students had planned, yet the decision to take this time off my PhD was not questioned at all. It was supported by supervisors, directors of research and the staff member in charge of PhD students in our school. Supervisors and staff know there are sometimes priorities over the PhD and that sometimes those priorities need to be dealt with first in order for the student and the PhD to flourish.
Sometimes the s*** that gets in the way of the PhD can be things that are completely uncontrollable. Other examples can be ill-health, family concerns and even just needing to take a break. Taking time off for these types of things is okay too. One thing I have noticed is that PhD students (in general – not making any assumptions here) don’t take time for themselves, and this is something I try to do. I try to take a holiday every now and then so that I can rest, relax and be away from the PhD. I know that if I start to feel really overworked my productivity will slump. This happens almost every time the week before I go on annual leave where I reach the point to which I need a break – this is okay to! I also know that if I am unwell and I don’t take a break, I make myself worse. This was exemplified (accidently!) by a hospitalisation early this year when I had had a virus which had not gone away. I had not rested when stating to feel very not myself and then was hospitalised due to the consequences of this getting painful very quick. That s*** is what makes every student journey different in every single way and it is that s*** that can cause students to crumble and need help more than they may realise.
But I am now in my third and final year of my PhD. I have already panicked about the lack of job prospects once I submit, what I will do come September 2018 and how on earth I am going to get everything completed in the next 355 days! This will inevitably lead to me freaking out from now until the end of my PhD and inevitably lead to me crying my eyes out one day saying I can’t do this and saying how much I don’t want to be here. This is fine. This is okay!
I know the journey for PhD students is different for everyone and the issues faced by students are their own – and I’m not saying dealing with a PhD is easy. But I also know that I have had my own fair share of pain in my journey so far and I sure there will be more to come. The main thing to remember is that…
This blogpost is dedicated to Elizabeth Jenkins (Grandma Betty) who sadly passed away earlier this year after suffering from a major stroke. I will always remember the time I walked into your care home and you could not remember who people were, yet you asked me how my time in Edinburgh was going, and whether I could still see the hills from my window!