PhD: Please help, Depressed.

Image Credit: Geral Gabernig via


Many of us have felt nervous or unsure of ourselves while preparing for, or sitting, an important exam. For those pursuing higher education, perhaps we’ve had a sneaky cry in the library bathrooms or slammed a laptop shut in frustration when things become stressful. Maybe you are enrolled on a postgraduate course, where frequent stress, low mood, and lack of sleep are seen as part of the journey. The acceptance of prolonged struggle in higher education is alarming – “It’s not a PhD unless you’ve cried in your supervisor’s office” proclaimed a Facebook post I read while procrastinating  (I never said I was a perfect student!). One in three PhD students are at risk of mental health difficulties and one in two PhD students experience a mental health problem, such as anxiety, depression or panic disorders 1. But, unsurprisingly, many still feel isolated and unable to seek help. Since my diagnosis of depression in October 2015, I have become involved in learning how best to support others with a mental illness; you are not alone.

In the autumn of 2015, I completed the first year of my EngD Medical Devices course. I had begun the course full of enthusiasm, but a year later, I was close to leaving. A creeping unhappiness had settled in, turning what should be one of the most exciting and challenging times in life into something I dreaded, coupled with a constant lack of motivation and unease. We had just submitted our summer mini-projects; the precursor to our three-year research topics ultimately resulting in us being awarded our EngDs. Sitting in my supervisor’s office, visibly exhausted and inwardly distressed, I was advised to take the three weeks of leave I had remaining to regroup and rest. I took this advice but by week two nothing had changed. My mood had worsened, it was hard to leave my bed, I drank a lot and I often skipped showers. I dreaded going back. The worst part of this was I thought I was fine. Believing this was part of the postgraduate experience meant it took a lot of prompting for me to see my GP. After all, we all joked about crying, sleeplessness, and anxiety.  Wasn’t an EngD supposed to be hard work? That’s how I tried to justify it during my doctor’s appointment. I kept trying to downplay it as ‘one-of-those-things’ but ten minutes later, I left with a prescription and a diagnosis of depression. I could be alright by eating these little pills and get my EngD done, right? Wrong.

At my annual review meeting a year later in December 2016, it was suggested that I leave. I’d been missing days, was completely off track on my project, had had many breakdowns in my supervisor’s office (which meant it was a “proper” PhD, right?!) and was now prescribed double the dosage of medication to treat my mental illness. A year later, I had not spoken to anyone regarding my struggles; I pretended I was fine because I was convinced nobody would take me seriously. This felt justified since whenever I explained my situation I felt overly questioned about it. Surely, the only reason people were inquisitive was because they thought I was lying; as if I had to score points on a ‘how depressed are you?’ chart for them to accept I was struggling.  My place on the course I had worked so hard to get onto now hung in the balance. I had no clue how to ask for help; I was embarrassed and frustrated that I couldn’t ‘get a grip’ or ‘man up’. Ultimately, I felt alone.

That was until I confided in my supervisors. In doing so, I was thrown a lifeline in the form of a link to a ‘Stress Busters’ course provided by the University of Strathclyde Postgraduate Development Programme. This course, sceptical as I was, opened up a way for me to take stock of my situation, regain control, and begin my recovery. Searching for similar courses, I was introduced to the ‘Write to Recovery’ course. This used creative writing as an outlet and a safe space to talk through the different emotions I experienced when I struggled in my personal life, and counsellors were on hand if I required additional support. From there, I accessed counselling services and found resources I could use on a daily basis (some of which I have shared at the bottom of the article). Now, I take part in mental health events as an outlet for me and to support others who may have questions. I participate in a mentoring programme within my department, co-facilitating a student-led ‘Write to Recovery’ group and speaking at mental health support events, the most recent being the ‘Real Talk’ event as part of the Scottish Mental Health Art and Film Festival on May 23rd of this year.

These were taken in 2016 during the time I was hiding my diagnosis. Outwardly, I seemed fine. The image on the right was how I actually spent most days. 1 in 2 PhD students has a mental illness. You can’t tell just by looking – we must be open about struggles, support, and recovery, so that those who need help can access it. Credit: Audrey Gillies

Currently, in 2018, I am still being treated for depression. I regularly take medication, I continue to attend counselling, and I have found that creative outlets help me make sense of my mental health. I have discovered that recovery isn’t linear – I’ve had a few setbacks but I keep pushing forward because every day is progress. I want to help others avoid the situation I experienced. If you are struggling, you are not alone. It is important you recognise when your mental health has been negatively affected. Low moods or lack of motivation for prolonged periods of time could indicate that you may benefit from speaking to someone. Sometimes, it helps if you have a particular friend to confide in but if not, each higher education establishment will have counsellors you can speak to about the support you need. This will be confidential so you can be reassured that anything you disclose will not be revealed to your colleagues, your department, family or friends. It may also benefit you to speak to your GP, who can direct you to other sources for counselling. Voluntary suspension of your degree program is available should you need it. Most importantly, do what is you feel is best for YOU. There is no ‘right’ way to recover.

If you notice a friend behaving in ways outwith their usual selves, checking in with them may be enough for people to open up about difficulties they have. It can be hard to know how to help someone in that position but listening to what they have to say and giving reassurance that they can speak to you shows you care and that in itself is a positive first step in supporting them. Support for you as a friend, and support for the person who requires it is available. Each of us is different. Now, more than ever, we are seeing discussions open up around how to improve our mental health, how to preserve it like we would our physical health and how to treat it when it isn’t in tip-top condition. We all have our mental health and it’s important we look after it.

If you are concerned for your mental health or require support, this link provides a good starting point 2. You can also receive support by visiting or calling Breathing Space 3 and Samaritans 4 (tel. 116 123), whose helplines are open 24/7.

This article was specialist edited by Kirsten Russell and copy-edited by Dzachary Zainudden.




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