*Trigger warning: mental health, depression, anxiety
**Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, psychiatrist, or therapist. If you are feeling depressed, anxious, or you are generally struggling to cope, please seek professional help. If you are in a crisis right now, or are considering hurting yourself, please call Samaritans (116 123).
I am not sure when things started to go south. Not really. But I was about halfway through my second year when I realised that I was not okay.
It started with feeling anxious over a report that I had to submit to my university. I ended up spending evenings and weekends writing so I could still perform experiments during the week. This, unsurprisingly, lead to a reduced social life. Less time doing my hobbies. Feeling tired and irritable all of the time. Crying every day. Eventually, I lost all motivation for my PhD and could not even drag myself out of bed before midday.
My first cry for help came in May last year. I met with two of my supervisors and candidly told them that I was struggling. I signed up for a course of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) that started soon after. Around the time I was attending CBT, my world properly opened up for the first time since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic. I attended two conferences in one month, a wedding, several musicals, and managed to go on a proper holiday for the first time in nearly three years. It was an exciting summer, a summer that managed to fool me into the false sense of security that I was getting better. In fact, the opposite was true, and when I crashed back down to reality at the beginning of my third year I realised that I had landed straight back into the environment that had made me so depressed in the first place. For various reasons, I buried my emotions and tried to push through. Inevitably, that ended in an explosive mental breakdown and a 10-week break from my PhD.
I am not here to address the many pressures that we are likely to face in academia, or tell you to exercise and eat a healthy diet. There are plenty or great articles out there already that will tell you about that. Instead, I am here to impart a little bit of wisdom and practical advice that I have learned from my year-long struggle with depression to those of you who are currently trying to navigate your own mental health battle.
Lesson #1: Respect the you that is depressed
As a bright kid growing up in a society that is notorious for putting a lot of pressure on the importance of a good education, I quickly absorbed the mentality that anything less than my best equalled failure. Like many of us, I have found myself overwhelmed by mountains of school work, high academic expectation and an unnecessarily competitive environment that often persists between students. It may not come as a surprise to you that these pressures fostered a level of performance anxiety within me. Fast forward a decade and I am now a third year PhD student who pushed herself to complete burnout because I thought that I was not achieving enough. When we feel anxious and upset, it is very easy to fall into the trap of negative thinking: “I should be making more progress”, or “All of my experiments are failing, I must be a terrible scientist”. While we may feel compelled to further punish ourselves for our depression, guilt is not productive. Rumination (literally thinking about how terrible you are feeling) only leads to heightened anxiety and depression, which in turn leads to more negative thinking. Before we know it, we find ourselves wrapped up in a negative feedback loop that is incredibly hard to break free from. One shift in perception that has revolutionised my outlook on my depression was to look at it as a no-fault disability.
Essentially, if you are suffering from anxiety and/or depression, you are, at least temporarily, disabled. In fact, the definition of a disability as outlined by the Equality Act of 2010 encompasses mental health. Viewing my depression from a disability perspective has helped me distance myself from the guilt-driven feedback loop that was only driving me further into the pit of despair that I so desperately wanted to avoid. We do not look at people with a physical disability and think that they suck, so why do we so often do the same to ourselves when our mental health takes a nose dive? By respecting our depressed selves, we start to treat ourselves with a bit more care and kindness, which can help with the next lesson.
We all experience burnout and poor mental health at times. What's important is knowing when to recognise that, so you can start taking steps towards looking after yourself.
Lesson #2: Experiment with seeking help
Anyone who has googled anxiety or depression has probably read that they should seek professional help by the end of the first page. And, at some point in our lives, we will all need or seek professional mental health help to deal with something. You should absolutely do this, however…
Do not feel defeated if the first place you go to for help is not the right place, or type of help, for you. There are many options when it comes to mental health help, from support groups, psychiatrists and psychologists, therapists and medication. There is no quick fix for poor mental health, and sometimes half the battle is just figuring out what kind of help it is that you really need. My first experience of professional help was an online course of CBT. While I agreed with a lot of what I learned in those sessions, many of the techniques I was being taught were tailored more towards dealing with episodes of anxiety rather than depression, and I realised that I was already employing many of them when I was feeling panicked. My CBT also came at a time when a series of exciting events were happening in my life, and I confused the momentary joy I felt at these events with thinking that I was “on the mend”. Turns out, once I returned to my daily grind, that I slipped very quickly back into the pit of depression that I found myself in a few months prior. Eventually, following a very emotional meeting with my supervisors, I decided that I needed to step away from my PhD to recharge my batteries and focus on figuring out exactly what help I needed to get myself out of my depressive episode.
Experimenting with treatment can be frustrating, especially when we just want to get on the road to feeling like ourselves again. But the good news is, there is something out there that will work for you. No time seeking help is ever truly wasted. Whether you have managed to find something that works for you (if you have, great!), or if you are still searching, you are armed with valuable information on what works, or what does not, to help you if you face another battle in the future.
Lesson #3: Communicate with the right people
I admit, this is easier said than done. I have had 10 weeks away from my PhD to really take stock of my mental health and what I could have done differently to minimise, or even cut short, the depression that I have experienced over the past year. Honestly, a lot of what I have experienced stems from my inability to communicate effectively with people who are in a position to support me. I am very lucky to be surrounded by a brilliant support network of PhD friends who understand the academic journey, and while I know that they will always provide me with a safe space to air my grievances, none are in a position to help me change the circumstances that were making me depressed. The one person that I really needed to be honest with was my primary supervisor. I will put it bluntly – I was scared of telling him that I was struggling with depression. I told him of my depression when I was first diagnosed in May 2022, but when I realised a few months later that I was not getting any better, I was afraid to tell him that I was still struggling. Looking back now, I was afraid of being a disappointment, of throwing away nearly two years’ worth of money and work put into a series of long term experiments that were not really paying off, of what would happen if I said I wanted to work on something else entirely. So I did not say anything. And, in the process of hiding how I was feeling from him, I was also withdrawing from everyone else around me. My parents, friends, even my partner. A PhD is an isolating experience in many ways, and cutting ourselves off from those people that care about us the most will not make that journey any easier. Talking candidly to the right people may be uncomfortable or even frightening at first, but trust me when I say that a problem shared really is a problem halved.
There are people out there who can, and want, to help you. Sometimes, we just need to find the right person. Whether that is a parent, friend, your boss, or a therapist, please don't suffer in silence.
Lesson #4: Achieve something every day
And no, I do not mean achieving something in your PhD every day. Because, be honest with yourself, that is not going to happen every day. I am talking about small achievements. It might be cleaning the kitchen, cooking a healthy meal, or drinking enough water. It might be tidying your bedroom, or your study. Going for a walk. Doing the washing. Watering the plants. Anything small that is easier to complete and that will make you feel like you have succeeded at being an adult today. The little wins can really add up!
Lesson #5: Take breaks. Seriously
I have had plenty of time to think about where my descent into depression really began. When I started my PhD in October 2020, the world was very much in the iron grip of the Covid-19 pandemic. At that time, my daily routine consisted of being at home, going to the labs, and going straight home again. At that time, none of us could really do anything else. I talked myself into this destructive mindset that because I could not do anything outside of doing experiments in the lab and being stuck in my bedroom, taking holiday was not really worth it if I could not spend said holiday travelling or seeing friends and family. And so, I barely took any holiday. Not really. I recently worked out that in the first year of my PhD, I took 13 days holiday. No wonder I burnt myself out.
As PhD students in the UK, we are entitled to 8 weeks holiday per year. Even if you take a week off and spend it sitting at home binge-watching your favourite television series, that is better than pushing through when, deep down, you are screaming for a break. So take a break, please. Your future self will thank you for it.