This morning I have spent 3 hours holding a friend’s hand and listening with horrified fascination to how unable many people are to reconcile her sickness with her intelligence. How can you be smart and depressed at the same time? seems to be the general theme. If you’re not a vegetable, you can’t really be sick. There is still a pervasive attitude that mental illness and an accompanying inability to work are somehow a by-product of laziness, or ineptitude. But if that’s the case, then why are so many Type A personality, top-of-the-class postgraduates afflicted?
Last week I had a conversation with another friend about our university’s counselling service. Neither of us knew that the other one had made use of it, but both had fantastic experiences. We’re both smart. We’re articulate. We’re well-rounded people. And we both found ourselves in a situation where seeking some kind of help wasn’t an option anymore: it was a blinding necessity.
The friend and I both have previous mental health histories, so it may be unsurprising that in the notoriously stressful business of doing a PhD we found ourselves in need of a helping hand. But we’re not alone in having to reach out. There are four PhD students in my lab, and I know that three of us have had to seek counselling. Outside of my own lab I can easily name you half a dozen other PhD students in the departmnt who have had to do the same: and in my experience people are more inclined to talk about a yeast infection than their mental health, so goodness only knows how many of us there actually are seeing a counsellor.
What troubles me isn’t how prevalent the need for counselling is amongst the postgraduate population: around 10% of us are expected to have depression in any given year, never mind anxiety or other issues. What troubles me is that nobody signposted the way to counselling for me at the outset. It was assumed I might get sick and need to know about the student GP service. It was assumed I might have academic difficulties and would need to know who the postgraduate rep was. I was even warned from Day 1 about the “second year” slump: the time when I would hate my project and science in general and just want out.
But nobody told me about the inevitable effect that this slump would have on me on a personal level. (I particularly enjoy The Thesis Whisperer’s description of The Valley of Shit.) My PhD isn’t like my degree or my A-levels or anything else that came before. It’s not a test I’m studying for, or a single essay that I can put to one side when it gets too much. It’s my soul-sucking other half, and for good or for bad its worth is intrinsically tied up in my own. I’m not alone in that I know: virtually every postgrad I’ve spoken to has relayed the same feeling. The Thesis is a parasite, with its innards tied up in your own.
But regardless of how common an experience this is, nobody mentioned it at the outset of my PhD. I was never even told that the university had a counselling service. I only knew that help existed because I used to be a pastoral tutor for undergrads, and was trained to tell them about the service.
I don’t wish to be negative: try as I might, being honest and open about my difficulties as a postgraduate (even those that are probably unique to me) never did anything to put off the undergraduate interns we have each summer anyway. But I worry that for every person who has found help, there is still another one suffering alone.