This week (9th May – 15th May 2022) is Loneliness Awareness Week set by UK Mental Health Foundation . Loneliness is one of the key factors in many people’s experience of mental health issues. During the pandemic, people spent most of their time staying at home and suffered more loneliness than before. However, emotional loneliness is probably the most common mental health issue among PhD researchers at any time. In this blog, SGSAH EDI Intern Yi Li talks about mental health issues in PhD studies and shares some tips to reduce emotional loneliness.
PhD study is like fighting the monster in a single player game – you must set a plan, upgrade yourself, locate and fight monsters, all using only limited background information. It is an exciting journey which you can discover and enjoy alone, but if you don’t have anyone to talk to, discuss and cooperate with, you may also feel isolated. Throughout the long, intensive PhD programme, students must learn about a specific research topic and undertake independent research for at least 3 years. But when you are focusing on a niche topic and without many people to talk to who share your journey, it is common for early-stage researchers to feel lonely, stressed and have negative feelings.
In fact, startling news about PhD students’ drop out and suicide rates have been reported increasingly over the last few years, and mental health for PhD researchers has been studied more in academia. The U-DOC project in the UK by Dr Cassie M Hazell and Dr Clio Berry showed PhD students are more likely to suffer mental health problems compared to their peers, with isolation being the main factor (‘Is Doing a PhD Bad for Your Mental Health?’, 2022). Statistically, one in two PhD students experienced psychological stress in Belgium, and they are the most vulnerable among the broad range of groups in the education sector, more so than UG students and lecturers (Levecque et al., 2017). Mackie and Bates (2018) surveyed various factors in the doctoral education environment like overwhelming workload, role conflict and financial insecurity, each of which can directly cause PhD students’ mental health problems. Moreover, compared to STEM subjects, which often require more teamwork and is generally lab based, students in humanities usually focus more on building their own ideas and work in isolation (Long & Fox, 1995). They may thus experience more emotional loneliness during their study.
Emotional loneliness is a key indicator for mental health breakdowns (Rowland, 2022). On the one hand, mental health problems can often make you feel lonely and isolated; on the other hand, emotional loneliness can itself damage your mental health. PhD students do feel loneliness sometimes because of their work type, but it is important to find a useful method to get rid of the lonely feelings and be aware if you continuously suffer from it.
In the coming Loneliness Awareness Week, there are a lot of things you can do. For example, you can get in touch with your family, friends or cohorts and spend some time going out and enjoy the Spring! In the longer term, here are some tips for reducing loneliness while you study.
Join the Research Community
It is useful to catch up with other PhD researchers doing similar topics or at the same stage of their PhD as you are. Feelings of loneliness may come from a sense of isolation from wider society and a lack of information about your PhD peers – generally, it is useful throughout your PhD to feel connected to a larger group of researchers and to see yourself as part of that wider tapestry.
SGSAH provides regular workshops, trainings and summer schools to all PhD students who study Art and Humanities in Scotland, and acts as a great channel for PhD students to communicate, collaborate and make new connections. With SGSAH you can log into Social and keep up to date with other researchers there. If you use social media, it’s also an idea to follow as many researchers, postdocs and academics as you can, especially if they are aligned with your own research.
Talk to Your Supervisor
Your supervisor is one of perhaps only a few people who is fully invested in your project and knows what you are doing during the whole doctoral study. Besides, the relationship with supervisor does influence your stress level (Mackie & Bates, 2018). Try to talk and share your ideas, progress and difficulties with your supervisor so that you feel more involved and connected. And if you are struggling with feeling disconnected from your peers or a sense of isolation, talk to your supervisor about it – they might be able to offer useful suggestions for how you might be able to link up with other researchers or take part in research communities.
Do regular exercise
Regular exercise can give you a release from your hard work, helping to reduce stress. Abundant research shows physical activities can benefit your mood and emotions. If your physical health enables you to, take part in some fitness classes – physical group activities can also help you meet new people and reduce loneliness. Find out if your university has a gym on campus, or see if local gyms offer reduced rates for students.
If you are in the middle of a period of feeling lonely, you might not want to go into a crowded gym. In that case, try some at-home exercise – there are countless online fitness groups where you can challenge and support each other, and there is a wealth of content on YouTube if even a virtual gym feels too much. Integrating regular exercise can improve your mental health which can make you feel more resilient. Resilience can reduce feelings of isolation and give you the motivation to work on your own, and it can also make it easier to start getting involved with groups.
Turn to Mental Health Support in Universities
Universities do provide mental health support for students. Many young researchers are reluctant to ask for help because of worry about the biases on mental health problems and its impact on future career (OECD, 2015), but this is something you should never be ashamed of. If you feel continuous loneliness in your daily life and are enduring associated stress with your research, it is time to talk to someone professional. Speak to Student Support at your HEI and ask for information on counselling services. Universities often have on-site counsellors and can also signpost you to other services where required. Above all, it’s important to remember that there is help out there, and that you can take control of your feelings of isolation.
Doctoral study can be tough and lonely at times, so it is very important to be conscious of your mental wellbeing along the way. Support is out there for you if you need it – reach out and talk to someone today. Please remember, you are never alone in your PhD adventure!
Is doing a PhD bad for your mental health? (2022, January 12). Impact of Social Sciences. https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/impactofsocialsciences/2022/01/12/is-doing-a-phd-bad-for-your-mental-health/
Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy, 46(4), 868–879. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.respol.2017.02.008
Long, J. S., & Fox, M. F. (1995). Scientific Careers: Universalism and Particularism. Annual Review of Sociology, 21, 45–71.
Mackie, S. A., & Bates, G. W. (2018). Contribution of the doctoral education environment to PhD candidates’ mental health problems: A scoping review. Higher Education Research & Development. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/07294360.2018.1556620
OECD, O. (2015). Mental health and work: The case for a stronger policy response. https://read.oecd-ilibrary.org/employment/fit-mind-fit-job/mental-health-and-work-the-case-for-a-stronger-policy-response_9789264228283-5-en
Rowland. (2022, April 14). Why Loneliness is the theme for Mental Health Awareness Week 2022. Mental Health Foundation. https://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/blog/why-loneliness-theme-mental-health-awareness-week-2022
Yi Li is a second year PhD researcher in School of Literatures, Languages and Cultures at University of Edinburgh. Her research topic is Diversity and Inclusion of Bestselling Picture Books in China and the UK. She is also an intern in SGSAH, mainly promoting EDI in Scottish doctoral studies. Contact on Instagram@muzirenyi.