TW: Suicide ideation
I was first diagnosed with clinical depression during my PhD program. I was experiencing near-daily suicidal ideation at the time and had realised that I needed help. For as long as I can remember I had compared myself with others and minimised my own experience, by looking at the struggles of those around me and thinking “What do I really have to complain about?”. I had steady income, a supportive husband, friends and family that would be there in an instant, if I were to simply ask. That’s the thing with depression: it can make us feel incredibly guilty for not feeling happy, despite clear positive things in our lives. Our internal self-deprecating voice can make us spiral further and further down into guilt. The disgust and anger I felt towards myself for not “appreciating” those that love us and “how good we have it” made me feel even worse, until I turned that hatred inwards. The thing is, we are not in control in these moments. We can’t simply ask our brains to be kinder to us through willpower, just like we cannot fix a broken leg through thought alone. It takes support, resources, and time to get better.
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Mental illness has been a part of my life for a long time. My very first article on anxiety, written for one of Guyana’s (my home country’s) newspapers, Stabroek News, spoke about my first run-in with mental illness, or rather, potentially, the outcome of untreated mental illness(s) – the loss of my close friend to suicide. Obviously, this sets up the seriousness of where it all came from for me. Personally, this is my one reason for carrying on: so that no one around me would have to ever feel that way. It was also me sharing with quite a bit of vulnerability, trying to get people to pay attention to a problem: Guyana, my home country, had the highest suicide rate in the world in 2014, and I felt first-hand a lot of the reasons why that might be the case. That very same year, I came down with the worst bout of what I thought was only anxiety but was also a full depressive episode, fuelled by my untreated attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder – combined presentation (ADHD-C). In the course of having to navigate getting help for the very first time, I felt the stigma and the difficulty in accessing care – and I was determined to have no one else feel the same way.
In this blog, I want to discuss the importance of having good mentors in academia and how they can make a difference in a student’s life. I also share my personal experience with mental illness and how I have become an advocate for change. I also wish to stress the importance of recognizing that one cannot help others when one needs help oneself, and that stepping away from important things can be as helpful for yourself as it can be for others.
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CW: Suicide, self-harm
I’m Alexandra, a philosophy PhD candidate at the University of Toronto. I am the co-founder and former co-chair of the department’s Mental Health & Disability Caucus (MH&D), an initiative that promotes mental health and disability visibility in academia. Currently, I co-organize the Mental Health & Disability Network, an expansion of MH&D that connects philosophy graduate students internationally. And last year – nearly 4 years into my PhD, at nearly 30 years old – I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder. In this blog, I will talk about my experiences and how it has shaped me as a PhD student to date.
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It’s February 2022: the world has been in a pandemic for almost two years and my life – like that of many others – has been characterized by strict lockdowns, absolute travel restrictions and general anxiety about the coronavirus. On top of this, halfway through my PhD my life couldn’t have looked more different from just before: I had switched from being a physician to being a full-time student, spending most of my days working behind a computer in the lab instead of running around a busy mental health hospital. I no longer lived in the country where I was born and raised (The Netherlands) but somewhere (Israel) where I didn’t even speak the language.
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Although I am highly passionate about the topic of my PhD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) and love doing my research projects, being a PhD student – especially in a foreign country – comes with many challenges. Some expected, some less so. Some are overwhelming, others somewhat minor. It’s a process of introspection and accepting strengths and weaknesses; of showing vulnerability and accepting help, while also being self-reliant and independent. It’s a journey, and although beautiful it’s for sure far from easy.