The Things We Don’t Talk About (But Should)

Ostensibly, this blog is all about the things we don’t talk about, or ask about. But there are some things that, in the academic community, people really don’t want to talk about, for many reasons.

The main thing that I found people don’t want to talk about is anything to do with mental illness. It’s rife in the academic community. I don’t think there’s an academic department out there isn’t affected. If you think there is, it’s probably because no one talks about it. Having been a member of four university departments, let me tell you, mental illness is everywhere.

I used to think that talking about it meant admitting failure. That if you told someone you were having issues, they would judge you. They would think you unworthy of being in academia. That if you couldn’t handle the stress, well, best to get out. But that’s not the case. Oh, I’m sure some people still think that, but my point is that admitting there is a problem is not a failure. It does not mean you don’t deserve to be there. It does not mean you can’t be there. Or can’t teach. Or can’t finish your PhD.

Having a mental illness, whatever it is, however mild it is, does affect you. Admit that to yourself first. It’s not in any way a failure. You have not failed to accomplish something. In fact, research suggests it might be more normal than you’d think. Certainly, you are not alone. You may feel like you are, but you aren’t. Please believe that. You just have to find the right people to talk to.

Sometimes that’s other students. Wherever possible, I’d recommend this. They are not going to judge you, and are just as likely to admit they suffer from problems as well. I found a lot of commiseration with other PhD students, in many departments, and that helped me more than anything.

The person you are absolutely not going to want to tell is your supervisor. Because you are scared of what will happen. I can’t tell you whether you should tell your advisors or not. I told mine. I’m glad I did. They were supportive and helpful and worked with me. But not all supervisors are like that. If you feel you will get support, then talk about it with your supervisor. If you feel you will not, or you’ll just be brushed off, it’s probably better not to.

Most universities, I think, have some sort of counselling services. It’s entirely a personal choice if you make use of them. I won’t tell someone they should anymore than I’d tell someone they shouldn’t. You have to want to. And sometimes it may not be helpful to you. Sometimes it may. Think about it carefully, though, and keep as open a mind as you can.

But above all, talk to yourself. Tell yourself it’s alright. You have not failed. Mental illness is hard and painful and life-altering, in many ways, but it is in no way a reflection that you are not able to do your job, or your research. It in no way says you don’t deserve to be here.

I managed to complete a PhD while suffering from anxiety and OCD. There were days I didn’t think I would, but there were days I was determined not to let the anxiety win. And in the end, those days won out. And that’s all that matters to me.

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