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.
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Image by boskizzi used under Creative Commons license.