Brain & Health
Mental health & PhD – a personal experience
Written by Jana Schepers
Our mental health matters!
This week we publish a contribution written by Jana Schepers about her experience with mental health issues during the PhD. The topic, which is being brought to the attention by several studies and surveys (e.g. Nature's latest survey on mental health and PhD satisfaction: Nature 575, 403-406 (2019)), sheds light on a struggle common to many young academics, and yet widely unspoken. At the end of the article you will find links for assistance in Germany and in Mainz and surroundings.
Having recently lost one of my closest friends to depression and suicide, I have become aware of how little mental health issues are being discussed in the lab environment but also in the general public. Witnessing the mental health of my friend spiralling ever further into a dark place without being able to do anything about it and without always noticing it, made me think about how little we actually take care of ourselves when it comes to our mental health. Especially in highly stressful situations such as, for example, during our PhDs.
A recent study revealed that the proportion of PhD students that struggle with mental health issues is more than six times higher than in the general population (Evans et al., Nat Biotechnol 2018). Having recently finished a PhD myself and having experienced the kind of pressures that one has to deal with throughout a PhD, I am honestly not surprised. The constant feeling of failure and the long working hours, together with the pressure some PIs put on PhD students or PhD students put on themselves, can eventually affect one’s mental health.
I remember too well the times, just as I was finishing my PhD and writing up, when none of the things I had actually achieved looked like they were useful in any way. Having been criticised for years about the quality of my data, the efficiency of my working day, or the mistakes I have made by others but mostly, and most unpleasantly, by myself made me doubt that I would ever be a good scientist. Everyone deals with these kinds of feelings differently. I used to go to the bathroom for a short cry almost daily at the end of my PhD. I got upset for a bit, calmed down, and carried on with my work. I know others struggled more trying to deal with it. I have seen several people who had to take time off due to mental health issues in my own lab or in the group of people who were funded by my same funding scheme. Some of them returned in the lab and some decided to quit. I am aware that other factors, outside the PhD, play a role in such circumstances, but these other factors become increasingly harder to deal with as you feel the pressure of your PhD kicking in.
At some point in my PhD I started asking people in my lab about how they felt. I quickly realised that these kind of feelings and thoughts were not unique to myself. Everyone feels in a similar way at some point of their doctoral studies. Nobody is alone with their struggles. I have also been very lucky to have had a PI that was understanding of the challenges PhD students face. All he did was to listen, to understand, and to give advice about how I could manage better the feeling of being overwhelmed with my project. I know, however, that a lot of PIs are not as empathic about their students’ feelings. I do not entirely blame them, as most of them have never learnt how.
In order to change that, the above-mentioned study calls for action to establish or expand mental health support at Universities as well as to provide training that promotes a change in academic culture. We, as early career researchers, are in the position to change how mental health is being discussed in the lab environment, without any stigma or judgement, and we need to remind ourselves that PhD students are not data-generating machines. We should take the opportunity to change how we think about mental health and educate ourselves on the matter. We can only benefit from it; may it be in a lab-environment or in our private life. Almost all of us will have to deal with this topic at some point, either because it affects us personally or because it affects someone we are close to. That is why we should take this matter seriously.
If you feel like you struggle with your mental health please know that there is no shame in seeking help or talking about it. You can talk to your colleagues or friends or family about it. If you feel uncomfortable with that, you can also contact the mental health service for students of the JGU which is free of charge and provided in German as well as in English. There are also a few helplines available that you can contact if you need to talk (details below). Please know that you and your mental health matters and that you are not alone!
Written by Jana Schepers. Featured Image: NGC/Design.