Living with depression (while doing a PhD)

Blue Room - figure sits hunched in the distance of a doorway in a blue-tinged tiled room in a state of disrepair.After a string of conversations on twitter, I wanted to write about the hard work that goes in to being a PhD student as someone who suffers from depression.

As with many other illnesses, there are some factors we can control and some we can’t. Those factors we can change or influence are where all the hard work comes in. Things like medication, therapy, self-care, routine, diet, sleep, general support and monitoring, and so on. It might often be possible to work through milder episodes, given a bit of flexibility.

Things are going okay at the moment. It feels empowering to be able to have a positive influence over my own health. It is great to be well right now and I hope it continues for a long time.

There is, however, one gigantic caveat. I would hate the way that I am managing OK right now to be used in any way as a stick to beat other sufferers with.

Depression isn’t cured by simply “trying hard enough”. Many others have said it before me but it seems to need constant repeating – depression is a illness just like any other.

Severe depression is a serious illness. It can be deadly. Sometimes, it can impair a person so much they need time off work to recuperate. Sometimes, people need to go into hospital for a time to get the treatment they need.

Like other serious illnesses, sufferers will probably need some support and a degree of flexibility when it comes to getting back to work or study.

Some of us unfortunately get depression recurrently. For me personally it is something I view as a chronic illness: something to manage and live with. I have found coming to terms with a chronic condition is a journey and a learning process. Everyone is on their own journey through life and we encounter academia at different points in our journeys.

Students will be at different points on that journey. I wonder if some students and supervisors mix up the depression and the PhD. That if you work hard enough at the PhD, you’ll get through it, so can you not just work through the depression too? If you’re good enough to be doing the PhD, why can’t you reason and think your way out of this mood hole? If you could just think yourself well…work hard and at the end of it you’ll be a Doctor and somehow all sparkly new and magically fixed too?

The thing is it just doesn’t work like that. My own experience is that it takes time for medications to kick in, and only with the right medication can I start to do any kind of working through the issues causing the depression. My last severe episode was mostly spent sitting around waiting for things to get slightly better.

That sounds a hell of a lot more fun than it was. I don’t know if people who haven’t been there can know how it feels. It really is a fight to get through one day at a time. Depression impairs your thinking. It is harder to reason like usual, or be creative, or whatever it is you’re normally good at. My memory goes completely to pot. I get times and dates muddled up, miss appointments and stand up friends, which is mortifying. So if you start trying to create a new model of some important theory or other when you’re under par, its going to be even tougher than normal.

Is there a problem with people (supervisors and students) seeing that as a sign they’re not actually capable of doing the PhD work when in fact its just a sign your health isn’t great just now? Can it magnify the anxiety if you think if you can’t think yourself well then you’re also not capable of doing the PhD?

I wonder if blogs like this one have an important role in getting this crucial, fundamental message across to supervisors, departments and funding bodies.

I’ve tried to get involved with causes like this before. I found I didn’t have the resources to keep up. I’ve seen friends take on enormous responsibility for campaigns and causes at the cost of their health.

I had serious doubts about writing anything about this. I can only claim to speak from my own experience. I worry enormously about anyone reading this and feeling misrepresented, but at the same time it feels right to say something.

In the end my constant mantra is to put my health first because everything else depends on that.

I can only be politically active within the limits of my health.

I can only be a researcher within the limits of my health, and not even the PhD comes before it.

This article was submitted anonymously by a 3rd year PhD student in a Scottish university.

Would you like to share your story, perspectives or arguments about disability, chronic illness and the PhD? Email us at team@phdisabled.org.

Image by boskizzi used under Creative Commons license. 

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13 responses to “Living with depression (while doing a PhD)

  1. THANK YOU. This was perfect. I’m starting to post a series soon on mental health in grad school, and this actually is a great perspective, and I really enjoyed your writing. I’m going to link to it in my own post, if you don’t mind.

  2. Thank you for this I am in exactly the same situation- about 3rd year PHD, part-time while working at a full-time job. I seem to be heading into a downward cycle right now- it helps to know I am not alone as there are a lot of people around me that just don’t understand and it makes me think that I am not good enough.

  3. Hmmm, I think it’s hard to get such a message across, both in separating the person from the illness (and the PhD) and in not underestimating it by thinking a depression is like ‘having a bad day’ (how often to people say “Oh, I’m sooo depressed.”?).

    Personally, the best descriptions I’ve read so far were in Kay Redfield Jamison’s “Night Falls Fast – understanding suicide” (definitely no light reading!) and Matthew Johnstone’s “Living with a black dog” (takes a more … subtle humor side).

    But in any case, thank you for the posting.

  4. Hey, thanks for this post – I enjoyed it immensely and it resonated very well with me. In fact, I find reading honest posts like yours therapeutic. I had a bad morning, felt like crap, and really needed to commiserate with someone who knew how I felt, or might feel. Stumbling upon this blog helped a lot.

    It is indeed very hard to talk about depression because of the societal stigma and the clinical reality that depression is poorly understood. People don’t want to talk about it – or simply don’t know how to – for so many reasons. This makes the loneliness depressives feel even worse. In fact, it often creates a downward spiral that brings us to bad places. This is worse in academia, where people are in the business of arguing and challenging opinions, sometimes in rather unpleasant ways. It’s not the most conducive place to build yourself up.

    I wonder if it would be profitable to start an online community like a message board where we could have a higher degree of interaction, and therefore better support. Or is there one already?

  5. Pingback: Stayin’ Alive, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Stress (post 1) | M-N-M·

  6. Thank you for this post! I had to leave academia because of depression, and I’m worried that if I get the phd funding I’m applying for it’ll just end up coming back. It’s heartening to hear of people managing it!

    • I had similar reservation when I was applying for postgraduate study. I did, however, manage to get through relatively unscathed by identifying the factors which triggered bouts of depression. I’ve written about ways I managed myself and my work to avoid the triggers here: http://www.nadinemuller.org.uk/featured-posts/the-mentally-healthy-phd-by-jo-clements/
      (note that I’ve used “triggers” here rather than “causes” – the causes are something deeper and I don’t want anyone to think I’m saying that my suggestions are the “cure”, that would be to totally misunderstand the nature of the beast!)
      Good luck!

      • Thanks so much for this. While it’s great that such a personalised approach worked for you, it’s worth noting that this often isn’t possible for all students with depression. Self-management will only get any one student so far, and sometimes triggers – in the form of substantial life pressures, events and crises – are unavoidable.

  7. “Is there a problem with people (supervisors and students) seeing that as a sign they’re not actually capable of doing the PhD work when in fact its just a sign your health isn’t great just now? Can it magnify the anxiety if you think if you can’t think yourself well then you’re also not capable of doing the PhD?”

    My thyroid problem was addressed right before the month when I had to submit the PhD upgrade report, while adjusting levothyroxine, i had meltdown due to repeated stress from supervisor and his postdoc on my financial situation. Had a borderline report and sort of passed the viva but they didn’t let me pass because my supervisor submitted a severe concerns about me doing a PhD. Now that my thyroid problem has stabilised, seemed like depression kicked in because I found out the supervisor and his postdoc had kept track of my daily record for the two months before report submission and had thrown that at my face as evidence why I am not good enough for a PhD. Was threatened by postdoc that I could exit gracefully with an MPhil, or if they let me stay, I’d be shown the door if I make a slight mistake. Micromanaging me didn’t help me at all. Now that I broke free, I finally could think more about the project but I live in constant fear they’d show me the door and trying to find evidence against me.

    Trying to stay sane, above the level of the constant gloom while battling against all odds – challenging. I’m glad to have stumbled into this blog. Hang in there, people!

  8. Hi,thanks for writing this article. I have just returned to my PhD after sick leave due to depression. I found that academia, rates the strength of your character , on your ability to do your research,no matter how you feel, mentally, emotionally or physically. We are meant to be superhuman. Mental health is viewed as a weakness in your character and therefore,many feel you don’t deserve a PhD,as you clearly can’t handle the pressure. I don’t know if this is elitism or arrogance. Emotional Intelligence is very different from the intelligence,required to get the grades,to qualify as a PhD student.
    Thanks again for publishing your experience,now I know I am not alone. Hopefully people don’t feel stupid or weak,like I did. My advice is to get help as early as you can and don’t let your PhD define you. Good luck everyone.

  9. Anxiety-related IBS dominated the last two years of my PhD especially. It was pretty difficult, especially during the time I was keeping the scale of my problem from my supervisor. I finally emailed her an anonymous article I’d written about it which cleared the air somewhat – despite the fact we never mentioned the issue directly. I was fortunate to have an excellent supervisor who saw that I was doing my best and pushing myself despite the personal cost. I’ll forever be grateful for that but I know others aren’t so lucky.

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