“I don’t think there’s anything darker than doing a PhD”. I first came across the title of this Irish Times article on the day it was published back in December of last year while “taking a break from work” (procrastinating) to scroll through my Twitter feed. Having just started my 3rd year of my PhD that September, I was immediately curious and clicked the link. The piece starts by referring to a doctoral student by the name of Oliver Rosten who had been struggling for a long time to get a paper published into any academic journals – a familiar story for many of us! However upon further reading I discovered that the reason he wasn’t getting any success in publication was not due to the content of the paper, rather it was down to what he had written in the acknowledgements. He dedicated the section to his late friend who took his own life in 2011. In it he wrote “I am firmly of the conviction that the psychological brutality of the post-doctoral system played a strong underlying role in Francis’s death”. A powerful statement to make in a scientific paper, and one that clearly made numerous editors uncomfortable. The piece goes on to share more stories from former PhD students outlining the difficulties they suffered while undertaking their PhD research, and the challenges these difficulties posed to mental health. The piece highlighted the findings from a Belgian study which found that one third of PhD students are at risk of developing a mental health issue. It is suggested that 1 in 4 people will be affected by a mental health issue at some stage during their lifetime. PhD students may be increasingly vulnerable due to the fact that the majority tend to fall into the most high risk age group for the onset of mental health disorders (16-34 years old). Add to this the academic pressures, financial instability and career uncertainty, it is really no surprise that being a PhD student is challenging to an individuals’ mental health.
My own research is concerned with understanding the challenges to mental health within an elite sports context. The similarities between the challenges facing athletes and those facing PhD students are striking; high-risk age-group, numerous extrinsic and intrinsic pressures to achieve results and failure, just to name a few. At the end of the day, there is no one pursuit, one career, one type of person more vulnerable than another. Mental health issues can affect anyone. Depression doesn’t only favour those who have suffered loss or tragedy; anxiety doesn’t only affect those working in high-stress environments. Just like a physical illness, everyone is vulnerable. But just like a physical illness, there are steps you can take to make sure you protect yourself as best you can from the onset of symptoms.
But what are these steps? How do we increase psychological immunity to mental health disorders? Only last week I was asked to speak at a school in Longford during their “well-being week”. I asked the students how they look after their physical health, and of course they were able to shout “exercise”, “healthy diet”, “and sleep”. I then posed the question, “how do you look after your mental health?” Cue a long silence, blank faces and tumbleweed blowing across the room. They had no idea. I would hazard a guess to say the vast majority of people would struggle to come up with a list akin to that for our physical health. How many of us put the same amount of time and energy into actively nourishing our minds in the same way we do our bodies? Probably very few of us, myself included.
So how do we look after our mental well-being? Personally, it is walking my dog Lily, a rescue I took in back in May of 2016. Lily came into my life when my mental well-being was under serious strain; I was still holding onto hope of qualifying for Rio, I had just crashed my car days after competing in my first race for over 2 years, and was subsequently put in a boot with a foot injury. Lily was a tonic then, and continues to be. I am obliged to go out and walk her daily, and I quickly realised that these walks were the only exercise I had ever regularly engaged in without the pursuit of an end-goal!
If we look to the current evidence, there have been “5 Ways to Well-Being” developed to support our mental health:
This involves connecting with those around us. We are lucky as PhD students in PESS to be placed in offices with our peers, with whom we can seek help and guidance, share our doubts and even the odd drink or two!
- Be active
This is a given, as researchers within a PE and Sport Science department we are all well aware of the benefits of physical activity. Any level of activity will benefit our well-being – something is better than nothing!
- Take notice
In this current climate where we are constantly exposed to new information, it can be difficult to just live in the here and now and take notice of what is around us. Putting down the phone and setting aside our worries for the future, even briefly, can have a huge benefit.
- Keep learning
Although we spend our days learning and developing our academic skill set, taking the time to try something new (like rock-climbing or kayaking as a group!) can add a new opportunity for achievements, and achieving a goal can boost our confidence and self-esteem.
Finally, the act of giving is not only rewarding but can enhance our self-concept. This doesn’t necessarily mean giving money; it can also involve giving our precious time or skills to help someone else.
As PhD students, we challenge our mental well-being daily. Equipped with the right skills, we can ensure that we are capable of over-coming these challenges and eventually graduate as happy, healthy Drs!
Jessie Barr is a Postgraduate Researcher in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick. Jessie’s current research interests include mental health in elite athletes. You can contact Jessie via email at Jessie.Barr@ul.ie or view her research profile on Researchgate.