We need to talk… about PhD student mental health

Just in time for Time to Talk Day on Thursday 4 February, Samantha Sandilands, a PGR from the School of Management, talks about some of her early warning signs and the value of support networks in matters of mental health.  A fuller version of this post can be found on LinkedIn.

The PhD process has been amazing in so many ways. What nobody can prepare you for however, is how much it challenges your mental health.

Concrete shaped and painted to look like a pumpkin
Samantha’s concrete pumpkin

Eight months in, I attended a session for PhD students at a conference, delivered by the amazing Beth Patmore, about mental health during your doctorate. I could relate to so much of what she was saying, but I never really associated it with poor mental health. Procrastination, strange sleeping patterns, putting on weight, overeating, feeling guilty for having a day off… in my group we all agreed that we could relate. As Beth read out some of the signs, ripples of agreement travelled through the room, some uncomfortable laughter, nodding, awkward silences. Even at that stage, the signs were there but I brushed it off… “I’ll be fine”.

Twelve months in is when it really hit me the first time. I felt completely isolated despite having a really supportive family, friends, and partner. I spent an entire day, with looming deadlines, sat on the living room floor crying and making pumpkins out of concrete (literally!). The following morning my partner and I had a huge argument about something tiny and irrelevant. And then everything hit me like a ton of bricks. I felt guilty, lonely, exhausted, and completely pointless. I cried hysterically for 5 hours straight. And I finally accepted that I needed help. It’s the first, and hopefully the last, time I had ever felt like that.

Published in November 2019, a survey of 50,000 UK PhD students carried out by Advance HE found a staggering 86% of students reported higher levels of anxiety than usual. PhD students are disproportionately more likely to develop mental health disorders. Why? I’m personally putting it down to two main reasons. The first reason is that doing a PhD can be a lonely experience. The second is imposter syndrome. Put those together and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Over lunch recently, a friend gently broached the topic of her mental health. I told her about my own struggles, and just by me being open and honest, she divulged her own experiences to me. What I took from this is that people need a space to talk about things like this in a place they feel comfortable, and where they will not be judged. Nobody wants to be the person that admits ‘actually I’m not doing so great’, but when you do, it’s amazing what kind of support you can get back in return. It’s also amazing how many people will then admit to you they feel the same. I know I’m lucky to have such supportive people in my life.

If I could go back, knowing what I know now, I would still be excited, still eager for the challenge ahead. I’ve never felt so fulfilled in my whole life, and I wouldn’t have chosen anything different. But I’d try to see the early signs much sooner, and I’d reach out to the people that love me for their support. What else can we do after all?

If you are struggling, contact your local Wellbeing Officer or find out more about the University’s Health, welfare & wellbeing support.

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