In September 2016 I submitted my thesis. It was a huge moment, representing ferocious graft. Then, for the first time in years, I stopped. The period after handing in your thesis, before you undertake your viva, is an odd time. There is the excitement and relief of having completed the thing, the exhaustion of the final push, and then: limbo. Adjusting to such an abrupt change of gear can prompt all sorts of practical and psychological challenges as you seek to rest, recover, and turn your attention to what might come next. The removal an overarching purpose, and of the intense pressures that come with writing-up, can take a while to get used to. For me, this period has been one in which I have found myself re-evaluating many aspects of my life which, until now, I hadn’t found the time or mental space to address.
Undertaking doctoral study has afforded me incredible opportunities for intellectual development and personal growth. I have had a wonderfully supportive supervisor and mentor. I have travelled for my research, met extraordinary people, and been embedded in a lively intellectual community of scholars and friends who share my own interest in thinking and learning, and the value of the humanities. It has been a hugely rewarding experience in myriad ways. But I have also found it enormously difficult.
This blog post combines my own personal experience of doing a doctorate with critical perspectives I’ve developed on the institutional nature of the PhD over the past four years. Aspects of it are based on conversations I’ve had with friends and acquaintances also pursuing a PhD. I offer my subjective perspectives here as a contribution to the growing open conversation surrounding academia and mental health.
I have struggled with depression and anxiety throughout my adult life. Over the past ten years, I have tried to manage the mental and physical symptoms of both through medication, counselling, CBT, exercise, healthy eating and mindfulness, with mixed success. Experiencing high-functioning anxiety throughout the course of my PhD studies, I often felt a compulsive need to push myself beyond reasonable or healthy limits. Academic study felt like the predominant measure of my self-worth. I felt unable to admit the seriousness of my health difficulties because I was worried that this disclosure would mark me as a person who is fragile; as someone who would be judged and defined by ill-mental health. This meant that even when my symptoms were acute, I did not take a period of leave. Instead, I accepted them as par for the course. I forced myself through regular cycles of intense productivity, followed by periods of complete burnout, in which I was unable to get out of bed, or shower, or eat.
The PhD was not the cause of my mental health problems, but my worst periods of mental illness were facilitated and exacerbated by its singular pressures. There’s an irony in the fact that my intellectual growth over the duration of my studies has facilitated my critical understanding of the role that systemic factors play in generating and worsening experiences of mental illness. A crippling emphasis on individual responsibility shifts “blame” for mental illness onto the sufferer. The nature of depression and anxiety, compounded by the rhetoric of “self-care”, mean that we heap opprobrium on ourselves for “not coping” with the demands of our work, and conclude that we may not be “cut out” for an academic career. Yet, on blogs such as “The New Academic” and “Academics Anonymous”, and within online postgraduate forums and real-life student communities, public evidence of academia’s mental health crisis – and the external pressures that are driving it – is mounting.
There are multiple aspects of the PhD as an institutional practice that contribute to the awful experiences many of us are having. Undertaking a doctorate comes with pressures enough in itself: isolation, long hours, financial worries, the lack of clarity and confusion surrounding your ideas, living with the unfinished-ness of the thing across an extended period of time. The majority of us anticipate these factors, to some degree, when we sign up. However, in addition to this, the current institutional culture of academia is failing PhD students in multiple ways. It offers a funding model that pulls the rug from beneath your feet in your writing-up year (if, that is, you have funding at all). It is amplifying expectations to publish, to teach, to network and to undertake other professional activities whilst also ensuring that you are on track to submit in a timely fashion. It offers insufficient training and payment for postgraduate teaching. It does not provide tailored support and careers advice for the difficult transition period after completion, as you emerge into a shrunken academic jobs market.
These conditions of work fostered my high-functioning anxiety. They normalised unhealthy and unsustainable patterns of behaviour that made me physically and mentally ill. Depression and anxiety – experienced within the institutional culture of academia – overshadowed and compromised the things that should matter most: my physical health, my psychological wellbeing, time spent with my friends and my family. It is only now that I have completed my PhD that I feel able to say: this is not ok.
Over the years, one of the main factors in my reluctance to seek support when I have needed it has been something I call “the hierarchy of suffering”. It’s the perception that your own difficulties are not legitimate in objective terms when placed alongside the problems that other people face. These comparisons might be general: the sense that you have “first-world problems”, or, that as someone highly educated, your difficulties represent “cries of the privileged”. They can also be local: based on your knowledge of the trauma and hardships faced by friends and family. When these comparisons dominate, it feels as though expressing your own distress would mean two things: overshadowing the (seemingly more justified) distress of others, and in doing so, admitting your relative weakness. Time and again, the hierarchy of suffering has led me to conceal and suppress my own struggle from those around me, including friends, family and medical professionals. People and services, I have often decided, are already burdened with problems worse than my own. Gradually I’m learning that this hierarchy does not reflect an objective reality. It is another symptom of my mental illness. There is no such thing as “justifiable” depression. Whatever its causes, the adverse effects it has on your life are worthy of recognition and help.
Post-PhD, my mental health is, as ever, a work-in-progress: I am taking a new medication and attending another course of psychological therapy. I am lucky enough to be supported by my incredible partner and wonderful friends and family. Last week, I passed my viva with minor corrections. On good days, I know that I am not weak, but remarkably robust.
Help and Support
Most of us are aware that mental health services are underfunded and oversubscribed. Despite this, options are available. If you are managing depression and/or an anxiety disorder, you can access the NHS Improving Access to Psychological Therapy programme (IAPT). I had a twelve-week wait between my initial referral and first appointment, but I had anticipated that the waiting list would be much longer.
Speak to a trusted friend. You may be surprised by how responsive and supportive they will be. It is very unlikely that they will judge you according to the same hierarchy of suffering that you may use to judge yourself.
You can also get help from a range of professional and supportive organisations, many of which are listed on the resources pages of this website. In addition, The Mighty (www.themighty.com) features contributions from people living with a range of mental illnesses.
Scientific research has shown that people with anxiety perceive the world in a fundamentally different way to other people. High-functioning anxiety is not yet included in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), but discussion about it is growing.
For further perspectives on academia’s mental health crisis, see Rosalind Gill’s article on the psychological costs of the accelerated, metrics-driven academy, titled “Breaking The Silence: The Hidden Injuries of Neo-Liberal Academia”.
If aspects of this post resonate with your own experiences, please know that you’re not alone, that it’s not your fault, that you have options.