Cloudy sky in Scotland

Starting a PhD with existing mental health problems

I recently read a comment about the stress of a PhD, which personally hit me to the core:

“If you’re emotionally unstable or vulnerable, it’s not a good idea.”

This was me, 3 years ago. Or in fact, 5, 8, or 10 years ago. I’ve lived with depression, anxiety, and OCD for a decade of my life, have been ‘unstable’ every day for ten years, and vulnerable for many periods throughout this time.

However, I strongly feel that people like me, who are ‘emotionally unstable or vulnerable’ should not be told that they shouldn’t undertake PhD study. Yes, it’s stressful, and perhaps yes, my mental health would have been better if I hadn’t done it. But it might also have been worse – I think I would have really struggled with a 9-5 job. Mental health problems make everything difficult. And despite everything, despite every tear, anxious moment, panic, every instance of brain-exploding stress, I’m here. I’m surviving. And a lot of the time, I’m thriving.

Beach in Scotland

This is what I was supposed to do – I have no doubt in my mind about that. And if someone had told me 3 years ago that my plan to embark on PhD study was ‘not a good idea’, and I had listened? Where would that have got me? Would I have been doing a job I wasn’t happy with? Probably. Would I have been living at home with my parents, too afraid to move away, all of my friends having moved on to bigger and better things? I imagine so. I recently finished a chapter of my PhD, and found that taking a break afterwards, not being mentally stimulated, felt really wrong. After 3 days of rest, I’ve dived right back in to research. Mental health wise, I’m actually doing far better now than I ever was during my undergraduate or master’s degrees. There are ups and downs, of course, but far fewer downs than previously.

No one should be told that they’re not capable. That sends entirely the wrong message. In fact, I feel just as capable as the next person. And more than that, living with mental health problems for over 5 years before I started my PhD taught me valuable skills for getting through my doctoral studies – I’ve been through a lot and I know, from a wealth of experience, how to pick myself back up and just keep on going. I know how to deal with disappointment, with anxiety, with the days that I just don’t want to get out of bed. I know that I’m a fighter, that I’m resilient. It’s precisely what I’ve learnt, the person I’ve become because of what I’ve overcome, that makes me fully capable of doing a PhD, and doing well at it. Doing the PhD itself has reinforced this – it’s helped me grow as a person: to learn to overcome adversity, setbacks, and disappointments; to be independent and confident in my own abilities; to recognise and celebrate my own achievements.

The prevalence of mental health problems developing while doing a PhD are well-documented, and it’s worrying reading. Thinking about it, it’s insane that something so seemingly simple, a long-term research project, can cause so many problems for so many people. But rather than putting people off from doctoral study, citing the mental health problems that develop or, God forbid, telling people with mental health problems that starting a PhD ‘isn’t a good idea’, the fundamental problems underlying doctoral study which cause mental health problems need to be addressed. It’s the PhD process, not the people, who need to be changed.

Sunrise in Scotland

Universities need to provide support for every doctoral student, so that each one of us knows that there is a net beneath us, to catch us if we feel like we’re going to fall. Supervisors need to be more than just academic mentors, they need to be people their mentees turn to when they feel overwhelmed. PhD students need to be encouraged to build meaningful relationships outside the academy, create a support network that they can access whenever they’re struggling – it doesn’t need to be an isolating process, even if you’re the only person who understands your research. And, as I’ve said previously, PhD students shouldn’t have to start the process with the overwhelming expectation that they need to work 40 hours a week or more.

Most of all, PhD students, or those thinking of applying for PhDs, need to stop being bombarded with the self-fulfilling prophecy that doctoral study is a deep dark hole where mental health goes to die. Yes, it’s tough going and stressful at times – we have to be realistic. But it doesn’t have to be 3 years of isolation, anxiety, and depression. What good is it going to do, and what effect will it have on students’ mental health, if we start with pessimism, tell them that these things are an inevitability that they will have to face? What we need to tell them is that, with the right support in place, every PhD student – including those like me, with existing mental health problems – can thrive in academia. No one has to fall by the wayside, and no one should ever be told that ‘it’s not a good idea’.

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5 thoughts on “Starting a PhD with existing mental health problems

  1. Tess says:

    This is so helpful. I have just been offered a PhD position and I was starting to doubt whether I should accept my offer as I have existing mental health problems and, as the article says, much of the literature out there just repeats that PhDs are bad for your mental health/ you shouldn’t do one if you are mentally unstable.


  2. kotersey says:

    This wordpress site has really valuable posts on it. As a postgraduate student (just started a one year masters), getting an insight into what starting and doing a PhD is like is of extreme value, because I want to do a PhD one day. I think I’ll take a break though between my current degree and a PhD, and do something different. Nonetheless, it’s really great to have posts like this on hand to help me make decisions with regards to my “future” plans.

    Liked by 1 person

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