Mental Health and PhD Studies: Broad Strokes

During May, the SGSAH blog will focus on mental health in recognition of Mental Health Awareness Month which runs from 1st to 31st May. In this first post, blogging intern Garry McLaughlin introduces the concept of mental health and how to look after yours while you study.

Mental health is the overall state of a person’s mental wellbeing, their ability to maintain relationships, to find satisfaction or purpose in work/career, to effectively balance out the various drives that instinctually move us as humans. Mental health is neither positive or negative – it refers to the overall state, whether good or bad.

What is mental health?

When mental health comes up, though, we’re usually discussing mental health issues or problems. Since we all have mental health, for any given person that state will fluctuate over time. Most people experience depression, anxiety and/or stress, and feelings of loss of control or despair at events happening around us. We often move in and out of these periods swiftly, even if it can be troubling to experience them.

Chronic mental health problems, though, is where those feelings persist over time, often disconnected from situational factors. I’m going to talk about mental health in broad strokes, with occasional reference to my own experiences with chronic mental health issues. Whether you are mentally resilient or have ongoing issues, it’s important for all of us to be aware of the overall health of our mind, especially when undertaking a long period of study like a PhD.

4 years of study is a long time, and it’s likely you’ll experience all kinds of ups and downs. PhD study is almost entirely self-directed and requires you to not only learn a whole bunch of new topics, methods, practical applications and writing techniques, but also has the capacity to initiate quite significant changes in the researcher – and these can sometimes be scary.

Copyright Garry Mac 2021

When it goes wrong

Mental health issues arrive via emotions, feelings and thoughts. If it’s hard to switch off because of repeating thoughts going around your head in loops, then you’re experiencing rumination. We all experience this from time to time, usually in periods of stress, but if it’s prolonged (that is, you’re still suffering from repeating thoughts and it’s difficult to concentrate, sleep etc.) then you have an issue that you should try to deal with.

So too if you’re experiencing a lack of motivation. Sometimes it’s our body/mind telling us we need a break. Sometimes they’re telling us that we’re on the wrong path, and should try and re-align our work so that it’s more enjoyable or purposeful. However, if your motivation for most things goes and this is unusual, or if it’s lasting longer than before, then this is a mental health issue that requires some action.

In more extreme cases, that lack of motivation can metastasise into a bout of ennui or feelings of despair, hopelessness and suicidal ideation. It goes without saying that suicidal ideation is a problem that usually requires help, but it’s important to realise that, while few people ever say it, many, many of us have experienced passive ideation during particularly tough periods.

We’re talking about a spectrum here. It would be impossible to list all of the many possible ways in which mental health problems manifest, but if you find you’re somewhere between the various feelings I’ve just described, it’s likely that you’re going through a period of poor mental health.

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Dealing with Mental Health

Getting help with your mental health is similar to dealing with your body. There is help available on the NHS and other providers; you just need to work out the best approach*. In my experience, we have a strange kind of deference for GPs in the UK which means we see them as the authority and should meekly let them guide us. I had this same approach when I was younger, but I overcame it.

Be assertive. When you attend an appointment, know what you want to say. Telling my GP how long I had suffered with depression and anxiety, explaining the symptoms and letting them know I’d done research, opened up a conversation on it. They asked what I wanted to do and I said I was giving thought to antidepressants. They were reluctant to do so without combination talking therapies, and I told them that I agreed.

Medication isn’t right for everyone. Nor is it a silver bullet that will cure you. However, this approach will potentially open up the conversation to allow you both to discuss your options. If it’s a short term but acute issue, CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) can be really useful. If it’s a more chronic condition, though, you should probably seek out a person-centred integrative therapist, the latter of which has a variety of tools and methodologies they can select from when approaching your treatment.

Also, tell your supervisor. Now. Like, right now. Even if it’s not affecting your work at present, that’s not to say it won’t. During my Masters, my mental health became really bad, and I spoke to my supervisors who advised I could take a break for a year. That break meant I was ready and able for the dissertation when the time came. I could never have completed it while I was in the middle of that depression.

Finally, if this is an ongoing, chronic issue, tell everyone! Don’t wear it like a badge of pride or give into the more self-pitying chatter that can come with identifying with mental health issues. Rather than making you special, opening up tends to reveal that many people around you are dealing with the same, just waiting for someone else to throw open the door and say “I’m struggling!”

The collective empathy that comes from that can be really healing – some years ago I decided to finally “come out” about my MH issues, telling my family and friends and, eventually, doing a webcomic on my experiences, and while it’s still a journey I’m undertaking, being open allowed me to finally start to redraw boundaries, tell people what I needed, and start to disconnect from places and people that were detrimental.

Below is a list of some resources that might help, and in the next few weeks we’ll be sharing a variety of articles on mental health, so stay tuned! And feel free to reach out in the comments or Twitter if you want to talk.

Breathing Space: https://breathingspace.scot/

Samaritans: https://www.samaritans.org/?nation=scotland

NHS Mental Health Services: https://www.nhs.uk/nhs-services/mental-health-services/

Time to Change: https://www.time-to-change.org.uk/mental-health-and-stigma/help-and-support

MIND: https://www.mind.org.uk/

Mental Health UK (a list of downloadable resources): https://mentalhealth-uk.org/help-and-information/downloadable-resources/

*Some people have a really tough time with GPs and the NHS regarding mental health. It’s still often misunderstood and sometimes you have to overcome deep biases in doctors. The above isn’t suggesting that this method will work every time, nor am I suggesting that you are at fault if your GP lacks compassion or understanding. What I am saying is that if you are more proactive and assertive about your own health, it can be easier to deal with those issues when they arise. Also, I’ve found that just changing GPs can help. If you experience trouble with this, don’t make it formal – just ask for an appointment with a different GP in the practice whose name you know. I’ve swapped GPs several times over the years if I moved to a new practice and got a seriously un-empathetic GP. Nothing works every time, and it can be the luck of the draw. But it’s your health, and you have a right to get the help you need!

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