Sabrina Islam is a PhD candidate at the Faculty of Medicine, Dentistry and Health Sciences, University of Melbourne. Sabrina is a rookie coder who is trying to answer what committing to the response by serotonin means at cellular and evolutionary contexts by looking at biological data.
Content warning: This article contains descriptions of mental health conditions such as symptoms of anxiety and depression, and some of the inner thoughts of such conditions. If this article causes you any distress, please call Lifeline Australia (13 11 14) or refer to the resources below.
It was in June 2020, three months into the lockdown in Victoria, and the longest winter I have ever seen. I realised my days consisted of either crying for hours, or just staring vacantly. I am struggling to get anything done and the only thing that I feel like doing is cleaning the entire house.
I have struggled with depressive and anxious thoughts most of my adult life. The pandemic-induced isolation took a massive toll on me. This is not only because of the relative isolation but also through the dawning realisation that, being an international PhD student, I would be physically distant from everyone I love. We cannot support each other the way we would like to through one of the toughest phases in our lives, and it will stay this way for a long time.
When it comes to my depression, there have been challenges I’ve overcome, and others I haven’t. Even with the aid of therapy, medication, a support network of beautiful people, and numerous coping tools, managing my condition remains difficult to this date. All of it, however, has taught me a thing or two.
In this post, I’m sharing some of my strategies when the context is academia and the backdrop is a global pandemic. Many of us are going through a mental health crisis, and we can benefit from conversations on this topic within and beyond academia, and within and beyond the pandemic.
As I wrote this post, I was thinking of three potential audiences. The first is academics who have been impacted by the current climate, which I believe applies to all of us. The second is academics who are finding maintaining perspective challenging right now. The third is academics who are in an extremely difficult headspace, maybe with a formal diagnosis.
Here are some of the strategies I’ve drawn on that I’ve found helpful:
I try to cushion myself against any “life whacks”
Moodgym, an online cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) tool, describes “life whacks” as “distressing events that happen to most people at some time”. When I feel like I am not coping well, I access the tools and go through the “life whack” quiz, or I run my current year by the Holmes-Rahe Stress Inventory. Either way, if I see myself scoring high in the present, I try to cushion myself against the distress I am experiencing.
Right now, most of us would tick off some work-related life whacks; and many of us may tick off financial, health and relationship whacks as well. Invisible patterns, habits, and structures that our society functioned on had become irrelevant overnight. As my GP pointed out, and later the Harvard Business Review also echoed, we are all grieving. If you are an expat, as I am, the sense of isolation is only compounded.
Striving to be “normal” and “optimal” is counter-productive at best and toxic at worst. Given the perpetual state of “life whack” we are all reckoning with, we probably all need cushioning! To gauge how I’m doing, I usually take a closer look at my fundamental habits: Am I sleeping well? Am I eating healthily? Do I still have space for the activities I enjoy? I make an effort to share my grief with my friends, and acknowledge my worries, and try to make a deliberate attempt to practise self-care and self-compassion.
I register my thinking pattern
I struggle with a lot of self-critical thoughts, especially when I find it challenging to stay motivated and productive with my research. I often end up doubting my qualifications or questioning my ability to do good work. This specific lockdown, I was in a phase where I lost perspective and landed myself in the valley of shit.
I have taught myself to assess my mood through this online depression and anxiety diagnosis tool (at BeyondBlue) and a visit with my GP. Since I do have a diagnosis, I engage with trained professionals with adequate resources in every step; namely, medication and counselling. At the beginning of my psychological work, I struggled a lot with the urge to over-analyse and over-intellectualise. I learned to establish mental boundaries of sorts to separate my “Independent Researcher” self from my “Needs Support” self. I confess this remains a struggle.
I try to remind myself that if my institution, my peers, and my supervisors with their years of experience and credentials see enough potential in me to foster a relationship then I do have value. I matter, and the work I do matters, but I matter despite my work. I have difficulty believing most of this, so that’s why I need external reminders.
I try to be honest, even if it means being vulnerable
When I realised my mental health is preventing me from keeping up the expected level of productivity, I communicated that to my supervisor or lab-head. I confess it wasn’t an easy conversation for me to have. It entailed being vulnerable and exposing my “weaknesses”. This is not something I had been conditioned to do, like so many of us who have been socialised to be “strong” and “to show up” no matter what. I feel like this approach can have benefits, but it’s not helpful in a challenging mental health situation. Keeping my former supervisor, lab-head and committee-members in the dark was a mistake that I very much regret now. Not only did my behaviour perplex them and test their patience, but it also prevented them from supporting me and my research.
I found it very useful to elaborate exactly which facet of research (Concentration? Motivation? Writing? Public Speaking? Coding? Lab-work?) that I was struggling with the most. What also helped me was accessing their experiences and strategies around times they found difficult. It served as a useful reminder that my colleagues, peers, committee-members, and supervisors are all stakeholders in my research. I believe that my honesty did not only empower me, but it also enabled my supervisors to strategise what would be most helpful for me.
A word for lab-heads and supervisors
Speaking from my experiences and hearing anecdotes from other graduate students, it’s clear that the supervisors’ approach can make all the difference to any researchers’ career as well as mental health. To all supervisors and lab-heads who have been managing researchers with mental health conditions, please try your best to be supportive. Please refrain from judgements such as “you are unfit to do research” or “you should consider returning to your country”. Remarks like these can continue to reverberate through a person’s career and leave permanent bruises on their self-esteem. Equally problematic can be the “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” approach (as the Thesis Whisperer discussed here).
Rather, I feel it would be better to have a transparent discussion with your researchers, laying out all the possible options and resources involving research progress. Fostering a relationship that’s based not only on output, but also trust and kindness can dramatically speed up the recovery process. Allow your researchers the time and resources they require, and assist them in accessing any support that might be available through the institution, such as taking leave or applying for extensions. If you can collaboratively come up with ways the researcher can still contribute to the project while taking a break from their normal routine (be it writing, reading, organising, discussions, non-academic engagement, courses, and workshops), I’d suggest this would be very helpful.
I seek support inside academia
In the past few years, I have been trying to be more open about conversations on mental health with fellow researchers. I found that feelings of imposterism, not being able to meet expectations, and isolation are very common. So many peers could relate to these struggles.
I learned to ask for help from my colleagues, even if that means acknowledging the limits of my abilities. I appreciate that my fellow researchers from different areas or even a completely different discipline have many insights to offer. Drawing on advice from someone with better expertise or experience doesn’t make me any less capable; it just demonstrates that we all are on our own journeys, and we are all learning.
I have broadened my pool of human interaction in two ways. First, I have started peer-mentoring. What contrasts peer-mentoring from other mentorships is that the relationship is bidirectional with the role of the mentor and mentee flexible and interchangeable. It can also open windows of reflection. Second, I started engaging with activities that connect students and researchers to work on something meaningful. I have participated in “Shut Up and Write” sessions and a club focusing on public speaking. There are many options to choose from at most universities, like a journal club, coding circle, writing club, etc.
I seek professional support when needed
My first line of treatment comes from my GP. I have further accessed the University’s counselling services. I am very fortunate to have a relationship of trust with my care-providers. I have faith in their expertise, and I can be honest and transparent with them. As academics, we can often overthink and hyper-criticise. Personally, I have found this rather damaging in excess. I have been trying to simply accept my struggles, and use coping tools whenever I need them, without judgement.
As I go through this inner work, I sometimes let my research take the backseat for a while. I remind myself that I am developing strategies that will affect my growth as a researcher, so I need to allow myself the time and the resources I require.
Research is itself filled with uncertainty and the unknown. The pandemic did not only disrupt our usual trajectory, it amplified that uncertainty. With all this going on, I think it’s okay to feel overwhelmed. It’s okay to feel indecisive, even lost, and it’s okay if I don’t reach the finish line with an unswerving sprint but with a shaky limp. I would count that as an excellent outcome.
Resources you may find helpful:
- Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14
- Head to health (Australian government mental health site)
- Beyond Blue offers short, over-the-phone counselling and a number of other resources
- Anxiety and depression checklist by Beyond Blue
- A network of scholars affected by conditions or disabilities at Chronically Academic (their webpage is still undergoing some changes, this is the link to the blog)
- Coping during COVID tip sheet by Dr Shari Walsh
- FACE COVID by Dr Russ Harris
- Self-compassion meditations by Dr Kristen Neff