Mental Health in Research

I struggle to think of many things as inherently self-destructive as someone with mental illness being involved in politics: the unending pressure and scrutiny; the constant public interaction; the sheer unforgiving nature and high stakes; having to go outside all the time. The unpredictability, instability, and general awfulness of modern politics also isn’t conducive to calm and peace of mind for those paying attention. I long since stopped actively being a political activist because it became simply too draining on my health and well-being, instead, somewhat serendipitously, remaining in academia as long as my ability has merited (or at least as long as I could bluff my way through it). I figured I could hide in my comfy wee niche, studying away and making a living off of something I was good at. I was both right and wrong.

Academia is forgiving of eccentric personalities (although social media has perhaps illustrated that politicians are even stranger than the rest of us) and rather tolerant of unorthodox working patterns. So long as you hit your deadlines and keep your supervisors and funders happy, in a lot of cases it isn’t really an issue if you turn up at midday and work until midnight in the same clothes you had on yesterday- which is great if your sleeping pattern is wrecked and you’re too ill to do your laundry or shower.It’s taken as read that you’re going to be a bit socially awkward or verbose – we’re full of ideas and like talking about what we do, it’s why we’re here. You’re surrounded by bright, like-minded people and challenged every day. You get to do what you love (usually) for a living. This is of course a massive double-edged bastard sword.

It can be easy to fall into bad habits and self-destructive behaviour – getting up at a regular time and having a routine is a source of structure and can help with anxiety and depression, but if nobody’s forcing you to get turn up 9-5 every day it can take a level of discipline and willpower simply not available to you to maintain that structure. Working 9-5 also means you’re more likely to be working at the same time as your peers and superiors so you’re not alone and they can keep an eye on you, ensuring you stay on track and don’t fall behind. Conversely, being able to slip into erratic patterns is unhelpful and can exacerbate other problems such as poor diet and social isolation.

While constantly having deadlines to pursue can add structure and purpose to the days, weeks, and months, it’s also easy to become jaded or stressed. It’s hard enough to stay motivated and concentrate on a dissertation for several months, never mind researching on a project for 3 years. We’re driven and passionate but not the best at knowing when to call it a day or give ourselves a break.

This all cruelly combines with imposter syndrome to make research even more draining for a PhD student. The never-ending feeling of inadequacy that, at some point, pursues every researcher, undergrad, or postgrad. It’s the feeling that you’re lying, that you’re not good enough, that your research is useless and derivative. Unfortunately, for those with anxiety or depression, that’s literally every day anyway, so not only do you feel inadequate at home, and in life, you feel inadequate in your work when in most cases you’re among the most talented and passionate people in your field.

In many ways, then, I’ve found a lot of parallels between politics and academia. Both often seem like thankless, daunting, exhausting tasks and both require a potentially self-destructive drive and dedication to something larger than oneself. Madness affects both, just differently.

Madness is like a tumour. It permeates every part of you and eventually it can become impossible to tell where it ends and you begin. Like a tumour it can metastasize beyond your mind and into your body and can easily kill you if untreated. This may be why it can still be so difficult for academics to get help, despite being highly self-aware, bright people – intellectual capability and personality are what allow academics (and to a different extent politicians) to make a living.

As a quick arm is to a quarterback or a left peg is to a striker, our minds are our greatest assets but are conversely also our worst enemies. Unlike treatment for, say, a thigh strain, though, there isn’t the fear that physiotherapy will fundamentally alter who you are in order to cure you.

Perversely, anxiety can be a powerful motivator. The hyper-focus on arbitrary details can help one think through problems and can drive one to obsessively work on something to achieve perfection or find a solution- that is of course when depression hasn’t left you bed-bound obsessing over that stupid thing you accidentally said to someone in the office four days ago or wondering why someone hasn’t responded to a text.

There is an enormous fear that medication or treatment will alter you in some way that affects not just your personality but the very things that make you a good researcher; your dedication, your passion, your focus. Starving yourself or working yourself into the grave isn’t conducive to productive research, either, though.

Whether you’re an activist or a researcher, learn to know your limits, and learn to recognise when you need to get help. Having robust support networks and a good self-care regimen are essential not only to your sanity and your well-being, but also to the quality of your work. The world can wait a day; you still need to eat and sleep to save it.


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