“It is all too common to see PhD students work themselves to the point of physical and mental illness in order to complete their studies. It is less common to see PhD students who feel that they are under such pressure that the only option is suicide. But it does happen. There is a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia – and this needs to change.
Following the completion of my PhD and a short stint as a postdoc, I have recently taken up a new job as a researcher development officer at a research-intensive university. Teams like ours are fairly common in universities, thanks to funding provided following the publication of theRoberts Report in 2002.
The team I work on provides personal and professional development opportunities to the researchers at the university; including the PhD students, postdocs, and lecturers. Like most researcher development teams, the majority of our training focuses on the postgraduate students. We run an annual programme of training sessions and workshops designed to help students transition to the life of a researcher, make it through the official (and unofficial) milestones of their PhD, and emerge as well-rounded, employable people with a range of career options.
When the situation calls for it, we are shoulders to cry on.
Yes, I now get paid to relive the worst experience of my life, and hope that I can use that experience to help others. On a daily basis, I meet PhD students who feel underequipped in one way or another.
Best case scenario: they are doing well in their PhD, and have come to the researcher development programme for advice about the next steps in their lives and careers. They come to us for some advice about volunteering, becoming a mentor, obtaining work experience, making use of their existing networks, what it’s like to have a career outside academia and so on.
More often than we’d like, they arrive for a session about “building and maintaining an effective relationship with your supervisor” with puffy red eyes, lack the confidence to participate in the session, and leave at the end without having uttered a single word.
Worst case scenario: we never meet them at all. Or one day, they quietly leave the university without their qualification.
Last weekend, there was a funeral. Two of the parishioners from my family’s local church community suffered the loss of their son, we’ll call him J.
J had suffered with mental health issues throughout his life, and had finally taken his own life. He was studying for a PhD at the time. From what I understand, J was a bright student who did exceptionally well at undergraduate level. Hence, being accepted to do a PhD.
Once at the new university, J struggled to stay on track with his postgraduate studies. He took a couple of breaks from research to try to recover his mental health. Sadly, he committed suicide before he completed his PhD.
I cannot say that it was the pressure of his studies that drove J to that decision; after all, I didn’t know him. But I do know what doing a PhD is like.
I have experienced the effects on my mental health, and I have witnessed the culture of acceptance surrounding this issue.
Among the people I do know who have done PhDs, I have seen depression, sleep issues, eating disorders, alcoholism, self-harming, and suicide attempts. I have seen how issues with mental health can go on to affect physical health. During my PhD I noticed changes to my skin, and changes in my menstrual cycle which persist to this day.
Let us not forget that in the majority of cases, all this comes at a time when you are likely to be suffering from financial instability, or are forced to make uncomfortable changes to your personal circumstances to accommodate your studies….” – ‘Anonymous academic’