We interrupt your normal broadcast for an important message: In my 20s I was anorexic. Recovering from that I experienced major depression in my 30s. I now have anxiety (though it’s likely I have always been anxious). Geez, that makes my life sound very sad! And I guess it has been a struggle at times. But I feel the need to assure you that while life has been difficult at times I have also been proud at what I’ve achieved, not to mention the fun and laughter I’ve had along the way.
But I still find it hard to know when and where to disclose my anxiety. I do disclose about the anorexia occasionally if it seems relevant, probably because quite a bit of time has passed – and perhaps because it is in the past it almost seems like it happened to someone else or a different version of myself.
There are many reasons I don’t disclose. Embarrassment, shame, fear of being judged or treated differently because of it. I also fear that talking about being anxious will just make me more anxious!
But now that I am a year into my PhD and feel like I have a grip on uni life (after an extended break) and my place in it, I wonder: Where are the other PhD students who are struggling with mental illness? (research suggests mental illness is highly prevalent in university students) They seem to be very silent (and of course I have been one of those silent ones!). The exceptions I have found are an Anxious PhD twitter account, and @JessicaRdctd, who blogs here (and who in fact decided to withdraw from her PhD). Am I just not looking in the right place? (that said, I also wonder this when at work too – having now worked at a number of different mental health organisations it’s kinda amazing just how little acknowledgement there is that 1 in 4 staff will be experiencing a mental illness)…
My feeling is that supervisors are very aware and understanding of how personal issues may impact on the mental health of their students (which is really positive!). Universities also allow phd students to take a leave of absence for a range of issues and of course there are accessible counselling services available on campus. However, there seems little acknowledgement of more longer-term mental illness issues and practical ways to minimise symptoms and issues that arise because of it. Certainly no mention in PhD orientation, nor is the PhD handbook that I could see. Is it that there is simply a culture of acceptance or perhaps a preference to remain ignorant (and thus unaccountable)? Or is it just too hard?
I can’t help but feel that the current situation is unacceptable.