Working Through Depression During My PhD

This week’s guest post was originally published on Mind Your Head, whose mission is to promote understanding of mental health, to ensure that students have access to information about finding support, and to combat the stigma that surrounds mental health difficulties.

Content note:  Mention of self-harm, suicide.

 Author Note: I don’t wish to speak on behalf of everyone that has suffered, or is suffering, from depression – that would be disingenuous and, more to the point, impossible. I only wish to outline my own experiences. I should also be clear in outlining my unease with the notion of formally labelling a mental health issue. For the purposes of this piece, however, I will make use of some medical terminology, with the understanding that it is to be used advisedly. More information on contemporary mental health practices can be found here.

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Pressure is something we all get used to. At home and at work, we try and muddle our way through our lives with a sense that, from time-to-time, things will become stressful, and we will have to deal with the various impacts. Pressure – or anxiety – that has no sense of ending is something that 1 in 4 of us will have to deal with at some point in our lives. When that pressure becomes so intense and lasting, it breaks us, both emotionally and physically. This is what I’ve been struggling with since I started my undergraduate studies in 2006.

The feeling of being depressed is entirely subjective, and between people, there are various ways in which one might find themselves on the receiving end of feelings that trigger low mood, anxiety, and so on. For me, the catalyst for these feelings was triggered by a sense of low self-worth, and, a crippling social anxiety, which at numerous points in the past decade has accelerated and decelerated – culminating many times in self-harm, and, once, in a suicide attempt (by drug overdose). The pursuit of a doctoral degree, and its attendant stresses, has taken its toll. The extent to which mental health has become such an issue in academia has been receiving increasing attention in the press (e.g., see here and here).

Doctoral research students, in particular, are suffering under the weight of expectations. The reasons for such an increase in this epidemic are nebulous. However, I think there are three key points that cannot be overstated.

1. The pressure to complete a doctoral degree in as little as three years, whilst teaching and publishing in order to improve one’s CV, has clearly had an impact on mental health.

2. Looking forward, doctoral research students are entering a competitive job market where the guarantee of secure and well-remunerated employment is a distant memory. This undeniably leads to a sense of anxiety over future prospects.

3. You may think this is a trivial point, but it is, in fact, the most important: neoliberalism (inside and outside of the university) is bad for our health. For example, in this article, Nadine Muller discusses how the marketization of higher education impacts student mental health.

Red sand runs through an hourglass in the foreground. The background shows printed pages which are out of focus.

Having reached the latter part of my doctoral studies, I look back and think of all the experiences I’ve had and enjoyed in academia. The one thing that scars this memory is the knowledge of my history with depression, and, how it has impacted on my relationships – not only with partners, but with my friends, my parents and, of course, my supervisors. Completing a doctoral degree with a heightened sense of fear, tension and self-loathing (beyond what might usually be expected) should be considered an immense achievement, and to those that are similarly suffering, I offer my solidarity. It’s only with the benefit of years of a combination of therapeutic and medical methods that I can say, with confidence, that though the challenges may be immense, there is a wealth of support available.

In terms of support, the first thing that anyone should do is approach their friends and/or family. Solidarity is incredibly important; we thrive, as social beings, in our communities. I’m lucky enough to have an excellent support network of people around me, though I realise this often isn’t the case for everyone. Talking about your experiences can be an incredibly difficult and distressing process. It is, however, the first step in acknowledging and addressing an issue – whatever the issue might be.

It’s then important to speak to your supervisors (if you feel comfortable doing so), or, someone in your department that you’re close to. At York, the Open Door Team are an example of the wide-ranging support available for students and staff that are experiencing psychological or mental health difficulties.

[Editors’ note: check out our recent Twitter discussion on the availability of supports at various institutions.]

From my experience, taking time out (a leave of absence) helped in terms of distancing myself from work and acknowledging a period of rest was necessary in order to continue and complete my studies. It shouldn’t be seen as a failure to consider this option. Taking time out from studying can really help you to get some space and then refocus on your work.

A red telephone receiver is shown against a white background.

Support should also be sought from your GP, if necessary. Medication may help in some cases, but it isn’t answer for a lot of people. A combination approach (i.e. with therapy and/or counselling) can provide a solution, but, again, it is entirely dependent on the experiences of the individual. However you feel, it is important to let someone know. Though for many it is difficult to work through the feelings of low mood, there are many practical things that one can do to break a cycle of repetitive (and self-destructive) thoughts:

  • Calling a friend
  • Making a cup of tea
  • Going for a walk and/or exercising
  • Listening to music and/or reading a book

These all may seem very obvious, but going through depression can make even the simplest task seem impossible. Breaking things down in to easier and manageable tasks can provide a route out of cyclical thinking.

I hope I have helped in some way by writing this piece, sharing my experiences and offering some advice. Pursuing a doctoral degree can be a lonely experience, but it is worth knowing that there are avenues for support, and people that care. Accessing support can be difficult, but it is an important step, and one that every doctoral student should be conscious of whenever they find themselves feeling low or anxious.

Gregory is a research associate at the University of Kent (UK). He completed his PhD in social policy in March 2017.

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If you struggle with thoughts about suicide and and/or are thinking about harming yourself, you are not alone and there is hope. Please contact a support group in your country. You can often access support by telephone and speak to a trained counsellor within just a few minutes (e.g., here are links for the USA, Canada, Australia, the UK, and a list of crisis centres world-wide).


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