by Caitriona Tyndall
According to the NHS 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience mental health problems each year. Mental health is stigmatised and misunderstood so if you’re afraid to speak how can you get the help you need? How can you help someone you don’t know is struggling?
by the end of the first year I had developed repetitive strain injury (RSI) in my pipetting hand
I have battled with depression for 8 years. My life was stressful enough before I decided to listen to the siren call of research and thought, “I’m going to do a PhD”. And not just any PhD. A PhD in a different country, on my own and in a university ranked 8th in the world. What could go wrong? I don’t believe in myself or my abilities (yay mental health) so I was never confident in my work but man did I put the work in. For the first year of my PhD I spent more hours in work that out of it and by the end of the first year I had developed repetitive strain injury (RSI) in my pipetting hand. This is a common thing I do to myself. I push myself to the point of breaking and past that. I think that the more I put in the more I will get out. That if I am doing more I should be rewarded.
The thing is that science is a fickle mistress. Nothing ever goes how you want it. Research knocks you down constantly and to paraphrase the 1990s band Chumbawamba, you have to get back up again. The constant battle with my self-belief coupled with almost complete isolation meant I found it harder and harder to bounce back. I would go to work, something would predictably fail and I’d go back to my tiny box of an apartment completely alone. I felt I couldn’t talk to anyone because why would they care?
You may not be able to tell but there could be someone sitting right next to you who is struggling mentally
It only got worse for me mentally during my final year while things were looking up in my research. And for the most part no one around me noticed because I wasn’t sad all the time. I wasn’t crying all the time (except that one time I cried at my desk for 40 minutes) or doing the usual things people associate with depression. I had good moments and I had bad moments like anyone. The only difference is I had no floor under me. I couldn’t bounce back well or not at all. Thankfully I have finished my PhD with the help of my supervisor (who reached out to me during my lowest point).
You may not be able to tell but there could be someone sitting right next to you who is struggling mentally. And even though they feel like a failure, they’re not. They’re fighters. They have managed to do intense research in high stress environments while their brain has been telling them how worthless they are. That takes a lot.
So don’t think that if the person next to you is smiling they must be fine. We are all struggling in our own ways and just reaching out for a coffee in the office kitchen might just make someone feel a little less worthless in the world.
Read more on this topic
Take a look at our article Feeling overwhelmed by academia? You are not alone. It summarises advice from several researchers on how to maintain good mental health in the hyper-competitive environment of science.
Or take a look at the Downloadable poster guide: Mental Health During Your PhD
About the Author
Caitriona Tyndall is a PhD with Imperial College London, UK. She is currently studying the epigenetic mechanisms by which the Type II Diabetes (T2DM) drug metformin reduces breast cancer risk. She has been an EACR member for 3 years.