No “Culture of Acceptance” of Mental Health Problems in Academia

“A PhD is not a 9-to-5 job. It’ll take over your life. Become an obsession. You’ll eat, sleep, and drink it.”

These were just some of the words of encouragement given to me by various professors and postdoctoral students during the first month of my PhD.

Not long ago, there was a great article in the Guardian (link here) claiming that there is a “culture of acceptance” around mental illness in academia. However, the “culture of acceptance” is not of mental health problems itself but rather the lifestyle leading up to them.

Students and professors alike brag about working long hours and getting too little sleep. It’s almost like an academic one-upmanship to see who can work the hardest before we finally crack. But if you ask us how we are doing, we’ll just smile and say “Glorious, as always!” no matter how shitty things really are. (There’s actually a guy in my department who says that and part of me wants to turn to him and say, “no one is always glorious.”)

Excuse the cliché, but mental illness really is the elephant in the room. We all know it’s there but even if that elephant is sitting on us, crushing us under its weight, we’re afraid to speak up for fear of being judged.

What we need in academia is to develop a true “culture of acceptance” around mental illness. One in which it is OK to talk about mental health before it becomes a problem.  But how? This is an honest question, something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. If you have any ideas or experiences related to attitudes towards mental health/illness at university, comments are most welcome :)

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Writing About Mental Illness

I never planned on writing about mental illness. In fact, when I started keeping a blog I was determined to not write about mental illness- especially my own. That was done. Over. In the past.

However, I slowly realised that it would never be done or over or in the past. Although my illness does not define me, my illness (and perhaps more importantly my recovery) has made me who I am and shaped how I experience the world. It’s why I cry after a great night out with my coursemates and laugh when I get caught in the rain.

Yet its the one thing I cannot talk about with others. And even if I can, I often struggle to find the right words and become frustrated if (or when) they don’t understand. But how can I expect them to?

And so I write. Not because I think my experience is unique, but because it isn’t. Not because I think I have all the answers, but because I’m still grappling with my own questions. Not because I want to become an world-famous blogger, but because I just want to feel less alone.

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For many of us, the most dangerous point in our illness is when it becomes our identity. When we can’t imaging our lives or ourselves without it.

No matter how many times doctors and therapists try to separate us from our illness by telling us that it’s a ‘brain disorder,’ we still feel as if it is this dark but integral part of ourselves without which we’d be but a shell. Or was that just me?

I don’t know when or how that started to change for me, but I know why. I’ve been lucky enough to have a few people in my life who stubbornly refuse to accept my illness as my identity, no matter how fundamentally and irreversibly f***ed up I think I am. They’re the people that see me when I can’t stand to look at myself. I owe the world to those people because now, just every once in a while, I can see myself through their eyes.

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Through the Fog

I didn’t believe my supervisor when he said that the first month(s) of a PhD are like driving through fog. Or rather, I believed that might be true for some people but that if I planned everything just right, I could somehow navigate my way around it.

Now I feel as if I am lost in a dense cloud of uncertainty, insecurity, and anxiety. Every day I spend my days scouring journal articles, hoping to find some clue as to where I am and which direction I should go. But it’s not easy. Each article seems to provide multiple often conflicting directions.

However, I am ever so slightly comforted by the fact that this is entirely normal and that I am probably handling it better than many of my so-called “healthy” colleagues without a mental health condition. I do yoga every day, eat regular meals and snacks, talk with family and friends, and avoid using alcohol to placate my anxiety. So although I feel a little lost right now, I’m okay with that. Eventually I’ll make it through the fog.

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Recovery is a lonely road

He’s spent the last 2 years working with indigenous tribes in South America. She’s spent the last 7 years living in Nigeria doing some sort of humanitarian work. I’ve….umm…spent the last 5 years in and out of intensive therapy until I finally got my shit together?

I’ve almost never felt more out of place than I did today at my scholarship awards reception. It seemed as if everyone there had done something incredible except for me. Actually that’s not true. I have done something incredible. It’s just that I can’t tell anyone about it…

Recovery is a lonely road.

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Student Accommodation

The clock read 3:45am as I rolled out of bed, pulled on my robe, and made my way down 7 flights of stairs with the fire alarm blaring in my ears. No doubt someone had been smoking in the stairwell again.

Though it hardly needs saying, there is nothing glamorous about student living. The carpet is stained, the paint on the walls is chipped, and the hallway always seems to smells vaguely of pot. I suppose that’s what you get when you put hundreds of students, many from whom are away from home for the first time, in close corridors.

But I shouldn’t complain. The place where I live is actually quite nice. There is a large reception area/common room in which you can occasionally find some Krispy Kreme donuts, a decent gym (to counteract the donuts), and a friendly staff.

My studio, though far from being what one would consider ‘homey,’ is nice as well. It comes with a fully-equipped kitchen, desk and chair, couch, wardrobe,bathroom/shower, and double bed. Even though one of the walls is a hideous shade of pink and there is a metal rod sticking out of the bed that I still need to contact maintenance about, I really can’t complain. I’m incredibly lucky to be able to afford a studio of my own in a place like this. While it may not be perfect (because what is?), it’s home.

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The first meeting with my PhD supervisor

The first meeting with a PhD supervisor is always a little scary because you don’t yet know what they expect from you or what you should expect from them. And if you’re anything like me, you’ll spend the day before your meeting Googling “first meeting with PhD supervisor.” Unfortunately there is no comprehensive guide out there to tell you how to approach the first meeting with your supervisor. That’s in part because the format and structure of the meeting varies from supervisor to supervisor.

I was pretty fortunate in that my first meeting was very relaxed. It was more about establishing that vital student-supervisor relationship than laying out a twelve-point plan for the next 3+ years of my life. Although I came with an outline of matters to discuss related to my project (because I wanted to be proactive), my supervisor told me to save that until next week. During this first week, he encouraged me to first focus on learning the process of getting a PhD rather than the content of my specific project (here’s a link to a book he recommended). I left that meeting feeling unexpectedly positive. Now I know that, like any relationship, your relationship with your PhD supervisor has its ups and downs, but at least things are off to a good start.

(If you’re interested in reading others’ experiences of first meetings with their supervisors, here’s a forum that I found helpful:

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