I have taken around 9 months off now due to mental ill health, officially suspending my studies in March. During 2019 I have been struggling with severe depression and anxiety. I was struggling to look after myself and I was at a point earlier this year where I wanted to end my life. I was feeling sad, helpless and unworthy. I now know I am not the only PhD student who has suffered from depression, anxiety and suicidal ideation, but at the time I thought I was alone and I was failing at life. This blog post is the truth about my experience and the beginning of my journey back to my PhD.
One thing I have realised is that we all seriously need to talk about our mental health. I really hope that this post can help just one person to see that it is ok to talk about their mental health. I am here for anyone that is struggling with their mental health and urge you to talk to someone, anyone!
My mental health decline started around Christmas 2018 around my second year PRP. I worked so hard and pushed myself so much that last year when I had minor corrections for my PRP I thought I had failed myself. I was working so hard all the time, barely taking any time off or giving myself any time to relax.
After my annual review/PRP I took some time off for Christmas and spent some time with my family. I wanted to spend the time relaxing and enjoying life and when I went back in the New Year I would feel refreshed. It didn’t quite work out how I planned… I didn’t feel relaxed at all over Christmas and I was just very sad a lot of the time. When I went back to my PhD in January 2019 I didn’t feel refreshed at all. I was still in so much pain from my jaw, I had no motivation, I felt stressed just thinking about the PhD and my deadlines. I didn’t know where to start with working on my PhD at all.
Time to take some time OFF
Eventually I plucked up the courage and went to see my supervisor. In floods of tears, I asked for some time off sick. She was extremely understanding and supportive. I thought I had failed myself by asking for time off. PhD students don’t have time off surely? Well they do and I realise now how important it is to really take time off. To take time off and really switch off, even if just a couple of hours, a weekend, or a week! However, at the time I was wondering what exactly taking time off was going to achieve apart from put me behind on my schedule for completion (spoiler alert: turns out it was the best decision I could have made for myself).
I spent days not knowing what to do with myself, punishing myself for not being able to work or concentrate on work. I spent days in bed just sleeping and crying. I felt like all the good parts of myself had been stripped away and I no longer had anything. My good friends would get me out occasionally for a walk, but as I felt like they were successfully continuing with their PhDs, I just felt more and more like a failure.
I wanted help, I needed help. My mind was broken. Essentially, I was having a breakdown. I was burnt out. I was just ill and I wanted to get better.
In January I was seeing a counsellor at the University. However, I just wasn’t connecting with them. Instead, with hope that someone could just fix me and fix everything that was going wrong I contacted a counselling service through my Husbands life insurance. I answered all the counsellors questions on the phone honestly and immediately advised to go and see my GP. I went. In the whole 5 minutes I was there I was prescribed some antidepressants and given a leaflet for Improving Access to Psychological Therapies (IAPT). I went home not wanting to take any medication for depression. I was aware the research was mixed on how much it can help and I didn’t want to become dependent on something. After a lot of thought and feeling so lost and hopeless I decided it was worth a try. I also contacted IAPT but the wait for an assessment and an appointment to start Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) was a good few weeks and by the time I did get my appointment I was unable to have therapy with them.
One Friday morning in February, after hearing some terrible news, I decided that was it. My brain was completely broken now. I was thinking that everyone would be better off without me. Luckily a dear friend noticed the signs and came over to my house and literally saved my life. I was taken to Accident and Emergency and from then on had regular visits from the Crisis Resolution and Home Treatment Team, who were amazing. They would come out to see me, at first daily, and eventually weekly, to check on how I was doing. I also had a visit from the psychologist who taught me about the Threat/Drive/Sooth system and that I needed to be more compassionate to myself.
My visits at the time gave me something to look forward to, to prepare for, to work on. I was honest with my thoughts and feelings. I really wanted to get better ASAP. I did everything that was being asked of me or recommended of me to do to get better. But no matter how hard I was trying, I didn’t feel like I wasn’t actually getting better. All I wanted to do was to be well enough to get back to my PhD. I was frustrated and felt stuck. Thing is, looking back, it’s a journey and it takes time. Each day was an achievement, just getting out of bed was an achievement! I just needed to be more compassionate to myself and let my mind heal. I was doing so well I just wasn’t recognising it.
Who am I?
Pausing my PhD and losing that focus on life took away a huge part of my identity at the time. I didn’t know who I was any more or what I was doing. It has taken me some time but with the help of the psychologist and my wonderful counsellor at the Light House, I have realised how driven I was and how heightened my threat system was. I was so driven and focused on what I wanted to do (PhD) and where I wanted to go (academia) that I never gave myself time to just be ME.
Over the past few months I have been learning and understanding myself and I have come a really long way. Even though I have had 9 months off relaxing and doing wonderful things like volunteering, reading, arts and crafts I am no where near completely better. I have an amazing support network around me, one that I am now honest with and actually show how I am really doing, not the ‘perfect’ version of myself but the ‘real’ version of myself. I have good days and bad days but I am honest about all the days. What has really helped is talking, talking to my friends and family about my thoughts and feelings and talking to a counsellor. Life is a journey and at times a real struggle. I am not perfect, I never was and never will be but I am much happier.
A journey to recovery
As I continue on my mental health recovery journey it is getting closer to the time for me to head back to my PhD. So far, I have been unable to pick up a paper or a pen to do any work. I have however, organised some paperwork that I had in my office. This may not seem like a big deal to most people, but it’s a huge deal to me and one I am very proud of. I plan on easing myself back into my PhD slowly. Starting with doing something, anything, when I feel like it (EDIT: Read about my switch to part-time on Thriving Part Time) .
I would like to take the opportunity here to give a special thanks to the Crisis Resolution and Home Treatment Team, Light House Counselling, Arty Folks, and my family and friends for supporting me through my journey.
If you have been affected by this blog post please get in touch, comment below or see a professional. I am also happy to answer any questions you may have about my experiences, please get in touch.