Dealing with personal tragedy during my PhD – Hannah McCormack

Just over a year into my PhD, I experienced a personal tragedy that will inevitably happen to all of us at some stage in our lives. I lost someone very close to me when my dad passed away at the end of Jan 2015.

The aim of my blogpost is not to go into the details of how my father died, we were fortunate that my dad passed away at the ripe old age of 88. He wasn’t sick and he didn’t suffer. There is no right or wrong way to die, and no matter what the circumstances, when you lose someone you love, it hits you harder than you will ever imagine. It is one of the inevitabilities of life, I am not the first student to lose a parent in the duration of their studies and undoubtedly, I won’t be the last. What I would like to highlight in this blog post is how I managed, eventually, to deal with this and what help I sought in the time after my personal tragedy occurred.

Despite my research being based in psychology (I am investigating the work-based mental health of applied sport psychologists), the solution to dealing with my initial grief was not obvious. I came back to UL at the start of February and attempted to immerse myself straight back into my work. My friends supported me, but the death of a parent or loved one is something that few people understand until they have experienced it themselves. I was fortunate (or not) to have a few people in my life who had gone through this or something similar, but even then, the ability to open up and talk about it was much easier said than done. Life was moving on, everyone was going about their daily business, yet I was barely keeping my head above the water. One of the issues was, while I was aware of the psychological concept of grief, I was also aware of the concept of resilience. I thought that my inability to manage my own grief was a sign of weakness. I also didn’t want to continually “burden” my friends with the issues I was facing, their lives were moving forward while I felt I was stuck in quicksand.

The irony was that the working title of my thesis is “Practice What you Preach”, in it I touch on the fact that sport psychologists don’t appear to approach psychological health in the same way that they encourage their athletes to, unlike other psychologists they are not required to undergo personal therapy. There is also a stigma associated with seeking psychological support, a topic my friend and fellow PhD student Jessie Barr is researching. I suppose I felt that stigma, I should know how to do this, I am educated, I am interested in psychology, I encourage people to talk about their “problems”, I suggest counselling or therapy to others. Yet I was not prepared to practice what I preach, the concept of seeking my own professional support did not occur to me straight away and even brought with it an element of shame.

Eventually, I was able to recognise and accept that I wasn’t coping and it was affecting other areas of my life, both personally and in regard to my PhD. By this stage, I had considered counselling but it wasn’t until a friend, who had lost their father at a young age, strongly suggested I look into going to the counselling service here in UL. The university, through Eíst, offers free counselling to all registered students, they also provide weekly drop-in sessions, workshops and other services (for staff, the university offers a free confidential counselling service through their Employee Assistance Programme).  The one-on-one counselling I received, was for me personally, a saving grace, I finally allowed myself to be vulnerable and give into the grief and mourn the passing of my father. Before this, I was in the position where I was aware of what I needed but unable to provide that for myself.

The message I want to share, is that it is OK not to be OK. There is a perception that because we are educated, because we engage in physical activity or sport that we should not have any issues. Other people, who on the surface are managing just fine with their workload and other commitments, surround us. In my case, my personal and professional interest in psychology actually made me believe that the fact that I was struggling was a sign of weakness. I should after all, have known better, I should have been able to manage this. There is great courage in being able to show that you are weak. There is great strength in looking for help.

Research has recently come out to say that over half of PhD students will experience psychological distress, and a third are at risk for developing a psychiatric disorder – such as depression. In fact, PhD students are 2.4 times more at risk at having or developing mental health problems than highly educated members of the general population. There is a call for the universities to manage this. As previously mentioned, UL provides an excellent service for both students and staff, therefore it may be down to our supervisors, lecturers, friends and colleagues to recognise that there will be those among us who will struggle, but it might be hard for them to ask for help. This is OK. Encourage them to speak, sometimes a friend is enough, sometimes we require professional help.

Not everyone will have the same personal experience I did; my struggle came from losing a loved one. Others’ reasons to feel overwhelmed may come from multiple reasons, none less significant than the other. What is important is, that they know that they don’t have to be alone in managing it.

Hannah McCormack is a postgraduate student in the Physical Education and Sport Sciences Department. Contact Hannah at View Hannah’s profile here.  LinkedIn; Twitter: @HmbvMc


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