In the first semester of my PhD, I often found myself locked up in a bathroom stall, between classes, having a breakdown. I was overwhelmed, to say the least. I was shocked by the nonchalant way in which information and tasks were dumped on us, without the slightest regard for whether we would cope. I already knew I had anxiety and a small tendency to experience episodes of depression, but add the stress I was feeling from the PhD and you got the perfect concoction for a severe blow to my mental health. Suffice to say, I had to pick myself up and deal with it alone. By the next semester, I had adapted, developed slightly thicker skin, and could better handle the immense pressure and blatant disregard for mental health.
To put it simply, a PhD program is a very unique thing. Some people break along the journey and choose to leave it all behind. Others suffer in silence. Accordingly, I have come to believe that staying silent and sweeping mental health under the rug is the worst thing that professors, advisors, and program directors/coordinators can do.
The fact that no one seemed to care or even notice that people struggle during a PhD or can develop anxiety, depression, or other mental health conditions, was outrageous to me.
I was completely alone and that made it much harder. Not only did that alienate me from my peers and other people around me but it also made me feel like I was weak, maladjusted, and that I simply couldn’t handle it.
Starting my research project and being responsible for generating data that would culminate in a publication brought a whole new world of pressure that I hadn’t experienced before. Desperate to succeed, I practically lived in the lab for months. Of course, my mental health suffered, but my productivity was through the roof and I was proud of myself. In academia, we are often told to ‘suck it up’ because science and research are inherently challenging. Accordingly, in order to succeed and excel as researchers, we must be willing to place everything else, including our wellbeing, in last place. That all ended when I had my first panic attack in a while (in a bathroom stall again) and decided I wanted to quit. Some of the thoughts I remember going through my mind in those moments: “I can’t do this. I’m not strong enough. I don’t want to lose myself to get this done. I wasn’t meant for this. It was a mistake to even try. I regret everything. I’m such an idiot. A failure.” I didn’t care anymore though; I just knew I had to get out. I felt like I couldn’t breathe anymore.
If you think about it logically, it’s glaringly obvious that there would be a high price to pay for ignoring almost every single human need.
I was consistently having lunch at 6 p.m., not taking a single break, and getting dehydrated; all of that just to squeeze in as many experiments as possible in my day to maximize efficiency and avoid wasting a single minute. I forgot what weekends meant, forgot that I had a family and friends, forgot what it felt like to turn my mind off, to leave my work at work, to be a person outside of this realm. I kept suffering and wanting to quit until I started to make better choices, with my mental health in mind.
Unfortunately (and ironically), I found a good rhythm and balance when I was almost done with my PhD. Accordingly, to try to prevent others from making similar mistakes and suffering mentally, I have made it a point to talk about mental health in academia as much as I can. After the experiences that I had, I would really like to emphasize a few important points that anyone completing a PhD and struggling with mental health should keep in mind.
- You are not alone. Sometimes it might seem like everyone around you has everything under control but don’t judge a book by its cover and avoid comparing yourself to others. A lot of people are still uncomfortable with the idea of showing vulnerability and talking about mental health struggles. That being said, there are also a lot of people in academia who are mental health advocates. Connect with them on Twitter and start conversations with other PhD candidates – you will soon understand that you are not the odd one out.
- You are strong and capable. Even if you are the only one struggling with mental health issues, it doesn’t mean you are any less deserving of completing your PhD and achieving all your goals. Mental health concerns do not define you.
- Don’t lose sight of who you are and try to maintain a normal life. If you were a baker before you started your PhD, try to still bake once in a while. If you were a runner, try to run at least once a week. It’s easy to say, “I don’t have time,” but we all have 30 minutes to spare every couple of days and it’s completely worth it. The worst thing you can do is lose pieces of yourself to your PhD. Similarly, try to keep a decent social life because a support system is crucial. Again, try to avoid the time excuse, because in the grand scheme of things, a night out with your friends or an outing with your family won’t change much, but it will definitely make you feel like a normal person.
- Do not buy into the glorification of overworking. This is one of the things I hate most about academia: you will hear a lot of people say things like, “Sometimes, I didn’t eat or sleep for days during my PhD.” I made the huge mistake of believing that this was a requirement. I still see people making this mistake every day. This is simply wrong. There is no career in this world that requires or deserves this type of self-negligence that is framed as “devotion” or “hard work.” You can take care of yourself, eat 3 meals, sleep 8 hours a night, and still be an efficient, excellent, accomplished person. It should also be noted that just because someone spends 100 hours a week working doesn’t actually mean their work is better or that they are more dedicated than others who have more normal working hours. Quality over quantity is important.
- Have a list of self-care tools you can use whenever you feel like your mental health is starting to fall apart. The list of things that are good for mental health is getting incredibly long, and it’s amazing. However, make sure to actually test them for yourself. Jigsaw puzzles and coloring might work for me but it might do absolutely nothing for you. Try as many different things as you can to check whether they work for you. Also, don’t wait until you’re in the middle of a panic attack to try a self-care tool! This is especially true for deep breathing, for instance, which you will need to practice a few times in order to get the hang of it. Try them out when you are feeling okay so that when you will actually feel like you need them, you’ll know how to do them and that they actually work for you. Whenever you have a bad week and feel like you need a mental health boost, make sure to incorporate a few of your ‘tried and tested’ tools into your days.
- Recognize and respect your limits. The key to #5 is to recognize that you’re starting to fall apart instead of waiting until you actually do. Learn your patterns, observe your thoughts, and be aware of how you are feeling physically. Once you know your own limits, you’ll be able to recognize when you’re starting to feel unstable. An equally important point is that you should respect those limits rather than try to push them. If you push too hard you may be at risk for completely falling apart, so please listen to your mind when it tells you it’s not okay!
The bottom line is, I believe that silence is not the answer. Sweeping mental health under the rug, particularly in academia (which is already known to come with its own risks such as anxiety and depression) is no longer a viable option for me.
Some individuals perceive that academics often ‘complain’ about academia and research, but identifying problems in an effort to enhance our experiences and make the long and challenging path slightly better for future generations of academics is constructive, to say the least. Speaking about our experiences, good or bad, could improve the lives of many who may be struggling.
Some of us may still choose to withhold our experiences as there is still considerable stigma around mental illness, and it can be difficult choosing the best time and platform to share our stories. But for those of us who can, it is our responsibility to speak out and change academia for the better.
Joy is a Lebanese neurobiologist who received her Master’s degree from Boston University and went on to complete her PhD at the American University of Beirut. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher at KU Leuven in Belgium. Her research interests include epigenetic regulation and brain development in Drosophila melanogaster. Beyond academia, she loves to write, exercise, read, and talk about Beirut.
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