I am a PhD student. Why can’t I talk about mental health?

In this guest post, Elizabeth invites readers to join her in starting a much-needed discussion about the stigma associated with discussing mental health concerns in graduate school. This post was originally published on Pubs & Publications, a blog designed to capture the wide range of experiences encountered while doing a PhD, as well as to create a community for sharing ideas, problems and recommendations.  By addressing the good, the bad and the ugly, Pubs & Publications hopes to provide useful advice, thought-provoking debates, and funny anecdotes. After you read Elizabeth’s post, be sure to check out and bookmark their website!

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If you type “mental health issues and academia” into a search engine you will be presented with an array of articles and blogs on the subject, where PhD students and academics discuss their experiences of the subject. Yet on the ground, at our university, in our study rooms, our teaching rooms, and our social areas mental health is not discussed – in fact, it cannot be discussed.

Doing a PhD demands you to be in top form all the time. You must silently work in isolation for hours, producing work of publishable quality. You must enthusiastically engage with undergraduate students in tutorials to ensure that they have an excellent learning experience. You must undertake shockingly time-consuming administrative duties for that all important third part of the academic CV – And you must do all of this effortlessly. It seems that if you admit that you are struggling – and even worse that your struggling is creating mental health problems – you are admitting to be an inadequate academic.

not-hear-2230770_1920
A small figurine of the Three Wise Monkeys sits on a bench on the grass amongst small chamomile flowers. Then first is covers its ears, representing “hear no evil”, the second covers its mouth representing “speak no evil”, the third covers its eyes representing “see no evil”.

It is striking that our professors, senior lecturers, and lecturers are comfortable openly discussing the problems arising from inequalities in gender, race, and sexuality. Yet they are not comfortable openly discussing problems arising from mental health issues. They are highly respected and hugely successful. However, it appears that they would rather quietly bypass matters relating to mental health than tackle the stigma head on – even though one can assume that they perhaps have the same concerns as PhD students. This is where a big part of the problem lies: the utter silence from those in a position of authority accentuates the stigma, and makes it even more challenging for PhD students to talk about it.

This is where a big part of the problem lies: the utter silence from those in a position of authority

It seems most unsettling that we live in a society where people are encouraged to voice their thoughts and opinions, yet we study and work in a university were individuals are apprehensive to admit that they are thoroughly stressed out because they have got an unsurmountable amount of data to deal with and far too little time to do it; that they are acutely anxious about giving a paper in light of previous audience criticism; that that they feel somewhat depressed because they are severely sleep deprived and have an erratic eating pattern – all for the fear of being judged and being deemed incapable of being a successful academic.

However, what I find perhaps more unsettling, on a personal note, is that for those who struggle with stress, anxiety or depression – or of course all three, have just had to accept that hiding their mental health issues and pushing through is what must be done. Granted, many of these individuals will succeed academically, but why must they suffer in silence to achieve this, when something as simple as an informed and supportive conversation could make a world of difference?

I would like to say after writing this blog that I am willing to start a discussion in my school and begin to break down the stigma that is associated with mental health issues in academia. Honestly however, in light of what I have discussed above I am frightened by the reception I might receive and the outcome that might follow from discussing this in a sphere where I am not quite so anonymous. So, I am sorry to say that for the foreseeable future I will probably continue to discuss the adaptation of sources in the 1st century CE world, rather than discussing the struggles of being an academic and coping with mental health issues.

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Elizabeth Corsar is a third year PhD student in the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, working on the Gospels of Mark and John. 

 A note from the Collective:

Here at AHMC, we agree with Elizabeth that the lack of open discussion from supervisors and senior academics accentuates the stigma associated with mental health concerns in graduate school. There are also many individuals in positions of authority who are simply unsure of how to handle these issues. That’s why we’ve started our Supervisor Perspectives series (check out the first post here). Are you or do you know a supportive supervisor or other senior academic who might be willing to contribute to this series? We’ve designed a straight-forward template which makes it easy to take part, and contributions can be anonymous if desired.  If you can help, please get in touch with us via our website, our Facebook page, or Twitter.

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