Challenges of Navigating a PhD while Recovering from Mental Health Conditions by Daeun Jung

I was first diagnosed with depression and generalised anxiety disorder ten years ago. My first reaction to getting the diagnosis was relief. I was relieved that my problems were medically recognised. I was not just “weak” or “lazy” or “attention-seeking”; I felt validated. Then I felt angry. Why did I have to seek validation through a medical diagnosis? Since then, I have been on three different antidepressants, been hospitalised a few times, and gained some scars along the way. At the same time, I have finished my bachelor’s and master’s degrees and worked in four different jobs, which led to last year when I started my PhD programme and joined the world of academia. In this blog post, I will share my experiences of navigating the first year of PhD while managing mental health conditions.

Although it is still difficult for me to believe, I am now “recovering” from depression. More precisely, after years of slow recovery and multiple relapses, I am currently in the best state I have ever been since the diagnosis. And fortunately for me, the PhD has largely been a positive part of my journey. Almost as soon as I started the programme, I felt like I finally found a place where I belong. It was incredible to be doing something I love and making a career out of it. I was also lucky to have joined a community of PhD students who are supportive of one another. Of course, not everything has been so “peachy”. What I had not realised before was that mental health recovery also entails some unexpected challenges and that these challenges often get triggered by certain aspects of a PhD life. 

Compensating for Times “Lost”?

I have been an overachiever and a perfectionist for as long as I can remember. I never thought this was a problem when I was delivering good results and achieving the goals I had set in life. Then, depression came, and all the ambitions I had went out the window as I struggled to stay alive each day. My studies and work suffered because there were days when I could not even get out of bed. As a result, I was trapped in a vicious cycle of guilt and self-hatred for a long time. Although I am now doing much better, self-criticism is still engraved in me, telling myself that “I am too lazy” or “I am not doing enough”. As I was going into my PhD, part of me wanted to prove to myself, and perhaps to those who doubted me, that I was capable – that I was good enough. This was especially because my suboptimal grades from my last degrees (presumably) cost me a PhD scholarship. For the first few months, my inner critic manifested itself in a more “positive” way of fuelling my enthusiasm. I was excited to design my own research project, and I worked hard to reach all the necessary milestones. However, this initial “high” did not last long. I soon started to feel guilty whenever I was not working or being less productive. I constantly felt like I was not doing enough and refused to allow myself to take breaks, as I have not “earned” them. Even when I did take some time off, I got anxious about falling behind. This led to a massive burnout, where I felt extremely tired, could not eat properly, and had panic attacks for the first time in a long time. It was my body’s way of telling me that I was doing something wrong. 

It took a few more experiences of burnout for me to realise that I was trying to compensate for periods of severe depression when I could not deliver my best performance. I saw the years of my mental health struggles as times I had lost or wasted. But were they really? In my experience, people often do not realise how exhausting it is to live with depression. From the outside, it may seem like we are just being “lazy” – as I have been told many times – but, in fact, it sometimes takes all the energy one has to just survive every day. So, this is a statement to myself, and to those who may be in a similar situation as me, to give ourselves credit for surviving our darkest days. We do not need to compensate for anything when we have been strong enough to face our fears and decided to get better. I am still struggling to fully believe this myself, but I know that one day, I will. 

Isolation as a Coping Mechanism

One of the things I was told as I started the programme was that a PhD could be an isolating journey considering each of us would essentially be working on our own projects for the next few years. I did not think much of this at first, as I knew from my previous jobs that I enjoy working alone. The problem for me, however, was that the nature of the PhD work meant I could isolate myself if I wanted to. Isolation has been a tricky matter throughout my mental health journey. At the height of my struggles, I used to live a life of complete isolation for several years. This was because I was too anxious for social interactions and, more importantly, because my depressed self could not find joy in being part of the outside world. Through trial and error, I have been learning to build relationships and enjoy social situations at my own pace. However, when I get stressed or overwhelmed, I still tend to seek refuge in isolation. This has been the case during the last year when I was experiencing intense burnout and would not leave the house for weeks. I was frustrated with myself because I knew I would feel better if I went outside and socialised. I also felt guilty for relying on an unhealthy habit that I had spent years trying to break. Then, I found comfort in what my therapist told me – it is natural to reach for our go-to coping mechanisms, which we have consolidated over a long time, especially in times of distress. 

I do not think that spending time away from social situations is always problematic. It can be a good way of recharging ourselves, especially for introverts like myself. However, in my experience, complete isolation can worsen the symptoms of depression and anxiety. At the same time, we should not feel the pressure to put ourselves out there beyond our capacity. Therefore, it is important to pursue a difficult yet necessary goal of balance and to take small steps toward healthier coping. Of course, everyone’s experience is different. In my case, I do not have a reliable family, but I am lucky to have a loving partner and supportive colleagues who remind me that I am not alone in this journey in times of inevitable loneliness. Teaching has also been a good reason for me to go to campus and interact with my students. Coming out of isolation also does not have to mean physically going outside the house. This is where I think a platform like Voices of Academia can be helpful. Sometimes all we can do is find our connection with the world in stories of those dealing with similar issues. And that is okay. 

The Fear of Relapsing 

Since I started recovering from severe depression and anxiety, relapsing into my darkest days has been my greatest fear. As much as I enjoyed my new and more positive outlook on life, it felt precarious at times. Ironically, the fact that I have finally found my path added to this anxiety; I was scared I would relapse and fail at something I actually love. I also knew that relapsing was a genuine possibility, as I had experienced it several times before. The last time it happened, I was pulled down to rock bottom. During the last year, there were several moments when I thought I was potentially relapsing. These were times when I noticed myself feeling low for no apparent reason, reaching for my old unhealthy coping mechanisms, or struggling to motivate myself. I interpreted these as warning signs that I was reverting to my old patterns. This fear was exacerbated when I could not make much progress on my PhD work. Having experienced how poor mental health could hurt my performance, I was scared that my PhD would be another thing I lose to depression. 

I still experience these little cues or remnants of depression that scare me. But the good thing is that I am getting better at defeating them. These relapses do not last as long, and I use healthier coping skills to pick myself back up. Being a perfectionist, I tend to dismiss the progress I make and fixate on “imperfections”. However, as my therapist always reminds me, it is about progress, not perfection. Mental health recovery is a journey and potentially a rocky one. There may be some relapses along the way, but that is okay. It is important to remind ourselves that we are making enough progress and that there are ways to seek help if needed. 

It took a lot of courage for me to write this blog, as I have never openly spoken about my mental health journey before. However, I am now excited for it to be published because I believe it matters that we share our experiences. This goes back to the anger I felt ten years ago when I had to seek validation through my diagnosis. Many of the painful symptoms of depression and anxiety that affect our everyday lives often get dismissed because they are not always “visible”. At the same time, we often face stigma or disadvantage for not being able to be our best selves. As a result, a lot of people – including myself for a long time – suffer in silence, blaming and isolating themselves. So, I am sharing my story in the hope that it can contribute to creating a supportive community for all of us. While being new to academia, I have experienced and witnessed some of its quirks that are not always kind to people with mental health conditions. However, I do believe that we can be kinder to ourselves and to each other. 

Daeun Jung

Daeun Jung is a PhD candidate in Politics & International Studies at the University of Warwick, UK. She received an MSc in Comparative Politics and a BSc in Government from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE). Her current doctoral project studies the legitimation and global-regional partnership in the United Nations peacekeeping, with an empirical focus on peace operations in Sudan and South Sudan. You can find Daeun on Twitter: @daeunljung.