At the age of 20 I failed all of my second year university exams in the midst of a period of severe depression. This signified the end of a somewhat disastrous first attempt to obtain a degree at the university of my dreams.
The interactions I had with some (not all) academics at the university were so discouraging that I'd never been able to ask for help. I'd received various levels of verbal abuse from those who were supposed to offer pastoral care, ranging from my personal tutor to my head of course. For example: 'Your exam results are really, really bad (58%). Anyone walking past this university could get these results'. Or on the fact that I knew, after year one, that my seventeen-year-old self had chosen the wrong course: 'If you don't finish this course, you'll never finish anything'.
“I wasn’t even sure if I believed in mental health; and if I did, I didn’t want to attribute my failure to it.”
That experience destroyed my self-belief. I left broken. In an interview held to determine whether or not I should be allowed to retake the year, they asked if I thought I had any extenuating circumstances. I said no. I wasn’t even sure if I believed in mental health; and if I did, I didn’t want to attribute my failure to it. To this day, I don’t believe that that was the main problem with my experience.
If the first university was darkness, then the university I fled to was light. I had a personal tutor who wanted to help, and felt able to ask lecturers when I didn't understand a concept. I made some amazing friends and I loved my degree. But still I was struggling. I wasn’t on top of my mental health at all, and I grappled with episodes of depression and of mania, both of which unsurprisingly had a negative impact on my life. I leaned on my partner, now living away from me, sometimes so hard that they thought it would break them. They coped admirably, and I owe them so much. Without that support, I'm certain I wouldn't have a degree. There were many times I thought I wouldn't get as far as graduation, and I think I'm fortunate that I did.
“When things started to slip and I was becoming ill, I was scared to tell my supervisor. I wanted to believe that I was ‘over it’. ”
After my degree, I wanted to do a PhD. The first year of my PhD was one of the most stable of my adult life. I was living with my partner, enjoying the PhD, and was happy and well. When things started to slip and I was becoming ill, I was scared to tell my supervisor. I wanted to believe that I was 'over it'. I avoided talking about this with my GP, and I left it so long that I needed a lot more help and time off than I might have done.
My GP wanted me to consider seriously whether the PhD I wanted so badly was worth the sacrifices to my mental health. Could I take a break and come back to it? But research doesn't always wait. And damn it, I didn't want to lose the things I'd worked for. I changed medication, and things slowly improved. I returned to the PhD. But, even for the most confident, a PhD is often a struggle. All PhD students experience isolation and 'imposter syndrome' to a greater or lesser extent.
My PhD was going through a rough patch for reasons I couldn't control, and although I tried to make up for equipment setbacks and failures by working harder, longer, and at weekends, I was becoming more and more unwell. After a disastrous week on a supposed business trip (I didn't get much out of it) in a different city and on a different planet, which was unfortunately bookended by stays in a psychiatric ward[s], I took a second leave of absence, this time with a phased return.
I've learned a lot about management of mental health over the last year or two and I've been fortunate in having a supervisor who doesn't question my judgement when I say that I need a few days off. It sometimes frustrates, and surprises me, how long recovery takes. Although things are stable, I'm not as resilient as I was before the last episode, and I suppose I hope that resilience grows with time.
“Looking around me, my output is no less than it should be at this stage of my PhD, even with time off here and there. My supervisor knows how I work, knows that the work gets done, and doesn’t question the sometimes dramatic differences in pace of work. In this way, a PhD works very well.”
I'm enjoying my PhD. I'm well, things are stable. I'm passionate about what I'm doing and, for the most part, motivated. I don't believe I have any less chance of success than anyone else. But I'd be lying if I say I never worry. What if I can't cope when I start work (be it in academia or industry)? Our culture places a huge amount of importance on 'putting in the time', but many of us work better when we work with our motivation, health, and different times of day.
Looking around me, my output is no less than it should be at this stage of my PhD, even with time off here and there. My supervisor knows how I work, knows that the work gets done, and doesn't question the sometimes dramatic differences in pace of work. In this way, a PhD works very well. But what about the less forgiving world of work? Will I be unable to succeed? I hope not. I know I will at least be able to see the world the way my supervisor does.