Eighteen months ago, at the end of the first year of my PhD, I was diagnosed with depression (see this brilliant simple explanation of depression). I’ve often tried to work out what relation my depression and my PhD have. I don’t think it’s causational, but there is still definitely a relationship.
With all the recent media interest in mental health in academia, my pondering and musing on the issue has led me on a massive rollercoaster of thoughts. There was a spate of articles written by journalists and academics a few weeks ago (mainly through the Guardian, see below). These ignited in me a sense of purpose and I sat down and wrote a blog post about my story of depression in academia. However, I didn’t post it. It didn’t feel quite right. There have been two other drafts since. All virtually completely different from each other, and I’ve posted none of them. While I thought I had done my soul searching and reached my conclusions about how my PhD and depression fit together, it appears I haven’t done quite enough. Writing the drafts have all helped my thinking but I’m not there yet.
The first enthusiastically written post claimed that while the PhD and working in an academic environment were not the root cause of the depression they were still culpable. I argued that working in an academic environment takes away ones ability to deal with life problems. With the constant pressure, long deadlines, independent and sometimes lonely working, and inherent competitiveness it easily becomes all consuming, merging life and work in a confused mix of priorities and needs, leaving no time, space or energy for dealing with more internal issues that brew and grow, unmoderated, until they crack. Depression affects those personal characteristics most needed for a researcher – concentration, self-motivation, and lucid thoughts – and so the impacts are felt immediately and hard. I still think my argument here is true, but at the end of writing this draft I thought, so what? What is so different about these characteristics to those of my friends’ jobs in other sectors? Can I really thus narrow it to academia? I have experience of working in other sectors and there is something different about working in an academic environment. I just couldn’t put my finger on it in this context.
So then I thought in my second attempt that perhaps the issue with academia is that there is a lack of official awareness of mental health problems, the causes and considerations, the signs to look out for and methods or processes for dealing with it. People in management are not there for pastoral care the way I know some management structures are designed to be, nor is there the HR fallback. Yet, with academia’s lack of everyday structure, little accountability, and work that counts mainly for yourself, it is the easiest environment to slip into bad mental/depressive habits and under the radar. In my personal experience, the fact that I could hide away at home, no questions asked, no deadlines due, no team to answer to (as is normal for a PhD student), made it easier to dwell and delve into depression, and much harder to get out of. The people who grew to be aware of these signs started to prevent this from happening, dragging me for a cuppa or a drink. I needed outside recognition and intervention to help break the cycle, give life some structure and perspective, and help me inch along the healing path (thank you always to those people)! But then I thought actually, university staff and students have access to mental health practitioners unavailable to the ‘outside world’. The counselling I received free through the university counselling service was great and was a giant push to my recovery. I dread to think how expensive each of those sessions would have been elsewhere or how long I would have had to wait on the NHS (for another non-university team, I had to wait over 6 months).
And then I started thinking about all the people I know or have since met who also have, or have had, mental health issues. Most of the people I know nowadays are in academia in the UK but of those outside it, there is also a frighteningly large proportion struggling with similar issues to me. So, I came full circle, in a way.
The complaints or issues in academia that I first wrote about, that make academia a prime context for ignoring our problems and having a very unhealthy work-life balance are not endemic to academia, but are everywhere. So, I found myself asking, is it just us? As a society. Are we just living in an environment where mental health issues are becoming the norm? There is no longer a line between work and play, office and home, colleagues and friends. 9-5? Weekends? Evenings? They don’t really exist anymore as distinct from the working week. We are doing more but losing ourselves in the process and losing our satisfaction in life; either because it’s a drudge, because it is inseparable, or because there is no longer any time left for the all important ‘me’. As part of my process of breaking this cycle of depression, and it has taken some massive life changes as well, I have been making sure that I get some frequent quality ‘me time’. The hardest thing when swamped is to make time for yourself. But I’m trying and it’s working. People always used to tell me to have some time off and slow down. But I can’t. I’m more relaxed when I’m working because then I know I’m ticking off the always growing never ending to do list or reading list or inbox. But it’s a catch 22. I then get too tired, sick, unmotivated. And I end up taking that time off anyway, but under duress. So again, no relaxing and switching off. Those of us who can’t switch off always feel it there on our shoulders, niggling at us. I’ve been trying to change this. I do get pulled back into ‘I dont have time’, ‘I just need to get this finished’, ‘I’m in the zone’, but I’m beginning to recognise when these are true and when they are pressure, and if the later I try and snap out of it. Work in whatever form will always be there, health is not as certain.
I do think academia has a lot of work to do to recognise its vulnerability to mental health problems, but I also think we as individuals need to recognise how much vulnerability we each have in the fast paced, constant, and interconnected working environment in which we increasing live. As I was writing this I saw a tweet from @PhJob1 to the @PhDForum which for me at least rings very true:
“PhDs need to find the right balance When I was writing, all my breaks were ruined by guilt, such a waste”.
I have waffled enough. I’m pressing post. Otherwise I’ll obsess over this forever!
Update: 1st May
I’d love to hear what everyone else thinks. Plus, I am of course writing this from my perspective of living and working in the UK. I would love to know the level of mental health issues in non-UK (and perhaps non-US considering the norm of counselling there) countries, whether academic or not.
Other links to stories that provoked this post: