A battle on two fronts – coping with a PhD in the midst of mental illness

By Caroline Wood, University of SheffieldCaroline Wood

It’s a bit ironic really that my PhD topic ended up being the parasitic plant Striga gesnerioides. This notorious weed cannot survive without a host, so as soon as it germinates it attaches itself to the roots of a susceptible victim. Once connected, it sucks out so much life and goodness that the host is left shrunken and shrivelled. A plant rather similar, then, to the mental illness I have been struggling with for over six years now.

Research PhDs are tough, whatever the area of study. They are earned through hard years of brutal discipline, self-motivation, working unsociable hours and enduring periods of intense frustration when nothing seems to work. Why would anyone want it to be any more difficult? But it seems I have an internal ‘self-destruct’ button, a combination of over-sensitivity and a tendency towards severe depression. And when an eating disorder got thrown into the mix during my undergraduate degree, this ‘self-destruct’ became permanently primed. It’s as though someone is always resting a finger on this button: it doesn’t take much to set it off.

Having a mental illness would make anyone’s life more difficult. But the results-driven culture of academia is a particularly challenging arena, especially when we feel compelled to imitate workaholic colleagues. In my experience, it’s not something that ever gets ‘solved’ or ‘cured’; instead I see it as an ongoing issue that I have to proactively manage each day. Over the years, I’ve established my key pillars for upholding a workable life in the lab:

You have to know your own limits

I learnt the hard way that scheduling myself too much to do in one day is a fast road to a nervous breakdown. Things always go wrong in labs – broken equipment, missing reagents and so on – and I would quickly panic if my plan got interrupted. I simply never left any spare time for contingencies. I’m much more careful now about leaving in gaps to accommodate for those unplanned stealers of time.

You can’t follow other people’s rules

I wish I could work as long and as late as some of my colleagues do, and I can’t help feel a pang of guilt if I’m one of the first to leave the office. But I also know that if I don’t get enough sleep, my ability to cope with things goes rapidly downhill. Similarly, I hate to take time out of my schedule to attend doctor’s appointments and health review meetings. I have to forcibly remind myself that other people are different so they follow different rules. After all, if someone had a physical injury, who would deny them the time to have physiotherapy appointments? If you know these things are essential to keep you going over the long term, then they simply need to be done.

You have to decide how open you want to be

People are always coming and going in labs, and it can be exhausting trying to keep track of who knows what or who you have confided in. I decided to be open about my condition and wrote a blog when my health deteriorated so much that I was forced to take leave of absence. Not everyone would want to be so ‘public’ and may prefer to keep things strictly within their lab group.  In that case, it can be good to have a conversation with your supervisor so they can ask the rest of the group to respect your privacy.

You can’t look to your work for an identity

Mental illness, and particularly eating disorders, can provoke an obsession with work and results. This is particularly true for me, possibly due to the compulsive nature of anorexia and my determination to make an identity for myself separate from the disease. Somehow I must have believed that if I reached the rank of Professor, this would make up for all my internal struggles or at least cover over it with a veneer of academic distinction. But this is a dangerous path: in research, there is nowhere you can draw the line. There will always be more papers to read, more experiments to run, another statistical analysis you could do. The more I tried desperately to get results, the unhappier and more unstable I became. Lesson learned, I now look to the things that really interest me to find fulfilment – such as science writing, public engagement and walking in the Peak District.

You aren’t alone – so get a support network

We are only just beginning to realise how widespread mental health conditions are and you would probably be surprised at how many people you know are affected. Meeting up with researchers who have similar issues is a powerful therapy and a way to share effective strategies. I can never let my guard down against my eating disorder; it would do anything to make me fail. I’m fortunate to have a group of friends who have travelled a similar journey and care enough about me to tell me honestly when I’m slipping back into bad habits.

Mental health issues aren’t insurmountable, especially if we do what researchers do best: try experiments, see what works and learn from the results. Going through an eating disorder has taught me a lot about myself. I may not be exactly the person I want to be, but, day by day, I can refine my habits and behaviour so I can at least get done what I want to do. And I will keep going all the way down the road, to my thesis and beyond.

About me

I am a PhD student at the University of Sheffield. You can keep up with my research progress by following my blog Science as a Destiny and my posts on Twitter. I also write blogs on the challenges of balancing the PhD life for DigitalScience.

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing mental health issues, support services can be found from a number of government and charity sources including the NHS, MIND and ReThink.


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