“Sometimes I feel I’m gonna break down and cry”

It sounds like you, right? You are no longer enjoying going to work, eventually throwing up on the street. You maybe experienced some panic attack while sampling, or wanted to smash your laboratory. You even thought that if you stayed at home for a couple of months, nobody would have noticed and/or given a shit. Your mentor doesn’t answer your emails while your colleagues/friends/lovers go drinking beer with their supervisors. You are probably thinking about quitting.

In Belgium, one out of two PhD students experienced psychological distress. One out of three is at risk to experience psychiatric disorders [1]. So, there is a chance that one student that is literally going crazy is YOU. And if you look around, you could find someone else who is living something similar.

There could be more than one good reason related to your depression and anxiety: bad mentorship, unfriendly work environment, no work-life balance, no job perspectives [2, 3]. You did not expect this outcome from your research and you are probably not prepared to handle this situation.
The first thing to do is facing that you could be alone in this battle and you have to find your way out. Your family and friends can try to comfort you, to cheer you up. But they will never completely understand your struggle. Nor spend all their time listening to your complaints. Even your colleagues who are living something similar will have to focus on themselves. Just like on a plane: put your own oxygen mask first. This job is all yours.

Now some practical tips:
Document your experience – Any update, proposal, should be written. Ask your supervisor to send you an email with the future work you should be doing. This shouldn’t only be your mentor’s duty, you should also be writing to them. It should be a mutual correspondence. If your tasks are constantly changing or you are overloaded with work and you get no feedback, you will like to have an email to show it and potentially raise complaints.

Document your experience by asking your supervisor for written emails about future plans

Reduce your responsibilities – If you are burning out, you can’t take any more responsibility. Evaluate the possibility to reduce your tasks, to postpone some, to make some changes in your project, to have a counsellor in charge of your mental health, or anything else that you think could reduce your burden.

Make reasonable plans and have realistic expectations

Redefine your schedule – If PhD problems are the main topic of your conversations, you should find some new hobby. Painting, yoga, CrossFit, anything that can unplug you for a couple of hours.

Learn how to take breaks

Take control – Better: stop trying to control what you can not control. Some things are out of your power. Example: you need some reagent to carry on going with your analysis, but it takes a month to get it. Do something else: reading papers, making progress with your writing, being involved in science communication, demonstrating, doing the open days etc. etc. You could even go to the Maldives on holiday. It will take a month anyway, better waiting on a beach.

Make the most of your spare time at work

Read blogs – They will not solve your problems and you could find a lot of
redundant information, but maybe some ideas that you could find helpful. Recently a new community was born, check out ph_d_epression on Instagram or Twitter, where we share stories of PhD students fighting with mental health. But also read psychology books. They will help you in understanding the way your mind works. What you have read so far is just a start. There is a lot more to do and now is up to you.

 Other people might be struggling with similar issues. Find your online community

Got to be some good times ahead.

For more reading about PhDepression check out my previous articles about mental health and PhD and PhD and anxiety

This article was kindly written by Andrea Cantore Badurina who earned his PhD in Agricultural Science from the University of Sassari.

[1] Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heydan, J., Gisle L. (2017). Work
organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy.; 46(4):868–879
[2] Evans, T.M., Bira, L., Gastelum, J.B., Weiss, L.T., Vanderford, N.L. (2018). Evidence for a
mental health crisis in graduate education. Nature Biotechnology, 36(3): 282-284
[3] Nature (2018). Time to talk about why so many postgrads have poor mental health.
Nature 556:5


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