Mental health during a PhD

There has been some discussion this week of mental health and PhD students online and I’ve found it particularly relevant as I’m in the writing up process. This Guardian article sums it up nicely, why do PhD students have higher levels of mental health problems? Is it an issue within the University system that means there isn’t support? Is the process of PhD study exploitative? Do those with pre-dispositions towards mental health problems tend to seek PhD candidacy? As with all important questions, the answer is messy and complex and will never be truly clear. However, that doesn’t take away from the fact that many PhD students suffer for their doctorate. I’ve heard tales of PhD students developing PTSD, panic attacks, generalised anxiety disorder, depression, self-harm. It’s also quite common that some students won’t be seen for months as they have fallen down the writing rabbit hole. I know from discussions with friends that many don’t feel O.K. taking a break. There are gnawing doubts when socialising and the worry that the thesis is not getting done, that a break isn’t deserved until the work is done. This means that some PhD students never rest. Even when help services are there, it seems that many are reluctant to use them. Perhaps because we place so much emphasis on a PhD being an individual effort, that you are the only person taking that specific view of a specific area of a specific topic, it feels like reaching out for help would be a failure. PhD study is hard, yes, the work is hard. But it shouldn’t encompass all aspects of life for 3+ years. So here are some things that might help if you are feeling up against it.


Permission. You have the permission to take a break. I’ve just given it to you. Rest is really important, our brains need time to organise new information, to tidy up the neural pathways so you can think more clearly. So make sure you are having some time away from the thesis. Go have a coffee with a friend, go to the pictures, whatever, even if it’s just for a short while you need a break and to not think about your work for a while. You’re allowed to, so do.


Check yourself! Learn what the early stages of anxiety or stress or sadness feel like to you. I know that often it can seem like it all came out of the blue, but there were warning signs, they can be easy to overlook is all. Keeping a mood journal might help with this, or paying more attention to your physicality. Once you know what the warning signs are, when you start to feel them, have a break. For me, when I become very hunched and all my muscles tense up whilst I’m typing, it’s a sign to go and make a cup of tea and stop for 5 minutes. Recognising these things when they are still small makes it much easier to deal with them and stop it from getting out of control.


Find some support. When you’re feeling stressed, tell someone. It could be a friend, partner, family member, counsellor, whoever, but let it out. If you don’t feel comfortable talking about it, if that’s too much, start a diary. Have somewhere you can let the thoughts out of your head. Or find an online community. I highly recommend the Friends Of Captain Awkward. Often just letting the fears out is a huge relief. Often you’ll find you’re not alone either.


Get some perspective. It’s only a thesis. It’s likely that less than ten people will read it and at least one of those is probably going to be badgered into it because they’re family. It’s not worth making yourself ill over. Yes it’s important, but if you’re not you any more because of it, that’s not a price worth paying.


I hope this is helpful. If anyone has other strategies or tips that they have found to be useful, or you know a great resource for help/support, please comment and share! If you want to vent and get some of the stress out, that’s cool too. This issue is really important to me, so whilst my advice feels a bit trite and simple, if it helps at all, I’m glad. Even if it’s just starting a conversation about mental health, that’s good enough. Here are some websites that have information about mental health and support. No one will ever say your need isn’t great enough, if you think you need help, all you have to do is let someone know.


About Jess Urwin

Lecturer in social work at De Montfort University, youth justice researcher, musician, crafter, constant reader.
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One Response to Mental health during a PhD

  1. Vinny says:

    Wow thank you for this! I really needed it@

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