Could mental health awareness be the key to a successful PhD application?
To answer this question, a good starting point could be sharing a little bit about myself. My name is Koraima, I am from Quito (Ecuador), and I am a first year PhD student in Clinical Psychology. My interests involve mental health, especially digital mental health, in children, young people and their parents; and I have experienced recurrent depressive episodes which included anxiety symptoms and suicidal thoughts in the last few years. Reaching the point where I can openly recognise this diagnosis as a part of my daily living was a lengthy process. This mental health awareness was an important milestone for my PhD applications; and I am sure it will be crucial for the upcoming 3 years-journey. However, talking transparently about mental health issues is scary, particularly when you realise that you are committing, in a metaphoric way, to a long journey across the sea with a broken boat.
Each year, the World Health Organisation recognises the 10th of October as the World Mental Health Day. This was a month ago, but one day is never enough to emphasise the parity of esteem for mental health. According to Guthrie et al. (2018), a large percentage of postgraduate students in the UK report symptoms of low mood, stress, and emotion-related problems. The authors point out that academics have elevated levels of common mental health disorders, where more than 30 percent of this community might experience mental health issues. This raises concerns about the mental health and wellbeing in this occupational group, which many of us are part of. Despite the many efforts and resources available, there is still a gap between the accessibility and usage of mental health services probably related to a prior step: awareness. Therefore, consciousness of the importance of mental health among academics, early career researchers, and postgraduate students might be a way to tackle this gap. Interestingly, Gorczynski et al. (2017) found a positive association between mental health literacy and help-seeking behaviours in a sample of 380 university students. This suggests that visibility and advocacy for mental health could be the first step for a better and fulfilling postgraduate journey.
Postgraduate studies are full of wonders and dark challenges, full of brilliant moments and self-doubt; however, sometimes, being aware of the hole in your boat is essential to keep going.
There is not a magic wand which makes you realise that you need help. Sometimes, when you are a postgraduate student (MSc or a PhD student), depression hides between the daily stress, isolation, tiredness, or simply behind the tasteless flavour of your favourite comfort food. Whereas the evidence suggests that the first step is awareness, admitting that we need to ask for it is not as easy as it seems. It never is.
Although there is not a step-by-step guidance for mental health awareness, I would like to share three important tips that helped me take the leap and seek out help:
- It gets bad, it gets worse, but “it gets”
This does not make sense at first, but my previous therapeutic journeys (more than what I would like to admit) have only shown me that sometimes I will have the strength and the strategies to face demanding situations, but other times I will not. This is a tricky thing to accept, especially when your own learning process within postgraduate studies requires autonomy, self-study, and lots of motivation. However, one soothing truth is that all these difficult situations will pass. Yes, it gets bad, it gets worse, but it goes on.
- Evidence suggests “your mental health” includes “you” and “health”
I cannot emphasise this point enough. Although, it will be difficult to admit you need help; there is a higher chance you would regret not asking for it earlier. Using the boat metaphor for postgraduate studies I used before, imagine how smooth your journey will be if you do not have to spend 70% of your time desperately trying not to sink. You must take care of your boat, and by doing so, you will have more energy, not only to excel in navigation skills but also to enjoy the landscape.
- Fear is often greater than the danger itself
This could be applied to multiple scenarios. “Me, having difficulties when my research is about wellbeing strategies?”, “This can wait, I need to keep pushing myself until this deadline”, “I just need to keep going”. Telling your peers that you are not feeling like your usual self will not harm you. Email your supervisor about your mental health concerns will not undermine your success. Asking for help will not take all the time off your PhD. Acting always leads to greater things. It seems daunting, of course. But remember that the fear is often greater than the danger itself.
Although the awareness process is different for everybody, it could be understood through the lens of a common medical problem: vision problems. My brother has hypermetropia and astigmatism, two visual problems that undermine his ability to see objects at long distances and perceive details of the ones close to him. The first time my brother used glasses, he remembers he thought: “So, this is how all the people see!”. He described it as if he learnt how it was like to see the world in high definition. Similar to my brother, wearing glasses of mental health awareness would not only help you to realise your weakness but also provide more high-quality strategies for upcoming challenges in the academic world.
If you are struggling with your mental health right now, here are some places/websites/resources that can be a good starting point:
Gorczynski, P., Sims-schouten, W., Hill, D., & Wilson, J. C. (2017). Examining mental health literacy, help seeking behaviours, and mental health outcomes in UK university students. The Journal of Mental Health Training, Education and Practice, 12(2), 111–120. https://doi.org/10.1108/jmhtep-05-2016-0027
Guthrie, S., Lichten, C. A., van Belle, J., Ball, S., Knack, A., & Hofman, J. (2017). Understanding mental health in the research environment: A Rapid Evidence Assessment. RAND Corporation. https://doi.org/10.7249/RR2022