Just another typical PhD day for me. Highlighting another research paper, trying desperately to retain the salient bits. Mixing it up with different coloured highlighters. Grabbing a cup of coffee, hoping that the information might go in if I let the caffeine sink in. And yet it never quite does. I beat myself up, telling myself I am too stupid to do a PhD. Walking away from a meeting, I feel ashamed, as I know I read the paper that was being discussed, I just can’t quite recall the details. Rinse and repeat. This, combined with many other small things, which in isolation were hardly something to fret about, left my mental health in tatters.
It’s not just a bad day, or a bad week. It’s all the time. I am struggling to engage in reading papers. As soon as I pick them up, I glaze over or I get distracted. My reading list grows forever longer – the weight of it playing on the back of my mind. My inner voice constantly telling me I am not doing enough to succeed.
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When I saw the call from Voices of Academia on Twitter actively seeking contributors to share their stories on mental health and well-being in academia, I thought: Wouldn’t a blog be a great way to share your own experiences with depression and ADHD in academia? Wouldn’t it also be an excellent opportunity to raise awareness about mental illness and neurodiversity in general? Why shouldn’t you give it a try? As usual, I was very tired that day. I had a sleepless and restless night, an unexpected panic attack in the morning, and a stronger depressive phase overall – perhaps because I already had a few days of holiday. I find such days off always give you the ‘opportunity’ to think intensively and continuously about yourself, your body, and your mind – whether you like it or not.
Perhaps my mental state was also the reason why my initial enthusiasm was immediately overtaken by self-doubt and pessimism, asking myself: Why would anyone care what you, of all people, have to say about the challenges and difficulties of managing mental health and well-being in academia? Who exactly would care about your personal story? And above all: Why would it make any difference and to whom? In fact, I cannot say whether anyone will read my personal story, care about it, or whether it will make any difference at all. But maybe these are the wrong questions and expectations to begin with. What I can say with absolute certainty, however, is that every voice matters with regard to mental health and well-being – in academia and beyond – and that every voice helps to shed light on a still taboo and mostly invisible topic. And in this respect, I am confident that my voice matters as well.
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Asking for reasonable adjustments can be hard, especially for hidden disabilities like autism. It took me over three decades to learn how to do it and I’ve finally made it to graduate school. Writing about it is also hard but I’m sharing part of my story here in the hope that this will encourage anyone who is struggling with asking for academic help to speak up. And give a glimpse into why seemingly minor adjustments can be so important. Oh, and I’ll explain about the tortoise…
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‘You did really good on that test, didn’t you?’. A voice of surprise, shock, perhaps even disbelief coming from a university lecturer who is aware that I have a learning disability. I’d like to say that it was an isolated incident in my life, but it’s something I’ve become accustomed to, especially since I was diagnosed with dyslexia, ADHD, and autistic-like traits in my late teenage years, the latter of which has currently come under review once again by my mental health team. I’ve been told by many people that I should be grateful that I was never ‘officially’ diagnosed with autism – an ableist point of view I wish people would retire.
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