By Megan King |

Nowadays, we regularly hear how we need to prioritize our mental health. We listen to podcasts about wellbeing, we read blog posts about self-care, and we glance at advertisements for mental health apps. Maybe we even attend university-organized wellness seminars or research walks in an effort to take charge of our mental health. But what’s often lacking is an honest-to-goodness discourse on seeking counselling during postgraduate life. Between reading, researching, writing, editing, participating in extracurriculars, teaching, grading, maybe even maintaining a side hustle, and (dare I say?!) making time for personal life, postgraduate life is stressful. And every once in a while, some of us might get to a place that even the best face mask and all the Brené Brown books in the world can’t bring us back from.

As we experience the lower points of the PhD journey, we jokingly refer to our distress as the “second-year slouch” or the “writing up bubble”. What these cutesy nicknames really tell us, though, is that the demands of working in academia are still a far cry from the life balance that we all deserve, a point made glaringly clear in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Occasionally, we might come across posts from people who are grieving and working to process the collective trauma of the past two years, be it the loss of a loved one, the feeling of missed connections and opportunities, the loss of personal time to travel, enjoy a meal out with a friend, or even just visit the library; People who are too tired to continue working, but too guilt-ridden to take a break; People who are feeling every ounce of the strain that a 5:00pm sunset can put on a so-called “seasonal slump”; People who are continuing to navigate the challenges of childcare of school bubble systems. And it can be nice to feel whatever sense of solidarity that post might invoke. But more often, it can seem a lot easier to fixate on the academic who published two books and four articles during lockdown all while getting in the best shape of their life because they “had more time” to do the things they “always wanted to do”, and that can feel utterly defeating.

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Why is it that we don’t often hear about the PhD candidate whose anxiety-turned-insomnia only gave them (at best) a two-hour work window each day? And what about the PhD candidate whose most significant accomplishment of the week was showering and eating a balanced meal? I understand that it’s easier to share the good, and of course, people need to set boundaries that serve them. I also understand that some people are generally less afflicted by the stresses of the PhD. But in an effort to be fully transparent, I wanted to share my experiences with seeking counselling as a postgraduate.

It was during the first year of my PhD that I first sought help for my mental health. Before moving to the UK to start my PhD, I had worked as the assistant director of a youth advocacy program at a behavioral health center. I was familiar with a whole slew of diagnoses, and I was well-versed in the language of treatment plans. I even knew the tricks of the trade: journal, meditate, exercise, speak to a trusted friend, find a healthy new hobby, create a space in your home that feels like just yours, etc. So, imagine my shock when I was informed that my self-diagnosed stress, overtiredness, and hardworking attitude was explained by a real healthcare professional as anxiety, depression, and a touch a perfectionism. Me? Depressed? Like the lady in the medication commercial who just sits at her window and watches the rain drops rolls down the glass? No, I was going into the office, cooking for myself, doing yoga, and showering daily. It just didn’t add up to me. I not only downplayed my mental health issues as being the result of homesickness and difficulty jumping back into academic work after a hiatus, but I also told myself things like, “You grew up in a secure, loving, and supportive household, so you don’t deserve to be sad. Other people have experienced genuinely devastating and traumatic life events, and you’ve basically endured zero hardships”.

I burst into tears when my first counsellor told me that my feelings and experiences are relative to me and that even though I may not have experienced the severe traumas that I read about in my former clients’ files, I was still entitled to feeling the full spectrum of my emotions. She helped me to process the guilt of “abandoning” my family. She talked me through my sincere belief that I, a working class, product of the Pennsylvania state school system, former server (with dishwashing and toilet cleaning skills to boot!), did not belong in a PhD program. She taught me how to breathe when my self-critical nature was getting the best of me, and she recommended helpful books, podcasts, and mindfulness techniques that I could look into when I felt like I needed a bit of extra support. I felt comfortable with her instantly, and it only took a handful of sessions before I felt equipped to take charge of my mental health.

Towards the end of my second year, the same feelings crept back up, though: I’m inadequate; I don’t belong here; I don’t work quickly enough; Everyone else probably can’t even fathom that I was accepted into this program; They must think I’m [insert negative adjective here]; Yadda, yadda, yadda. I’d lay awake at night thinking back to middle school where I made a joke that might’ve hurt that one girl’s feelings if she’d actually heard it, and I’d convince myself I was completely unworthy of this opportunity. I went back to counselling, expecting my new counsellor to be just like my first one. We’d form an immediate connection, she’d have all the answers, and it’d be job done! Unfortunately, this was one of those times where expectations and reality were nowhere near aligned. My new counsellor was welcoming, but things just didn’t click. I attended about four sessions, but they lacked the soothing and productive qualities that I was craving. Ultimately, I decided to take a break and revert to the toolbox I acquired with my first counsellor. I did, however, learn a helpful lesson about how different counselling can look with different people and at different phases of the PhD journey. Hopefully, if you’re considering seeking professional help, the following tips might offer some guidance.

Expect challenges. If you’ve never sought the help of a mental health professional before, you might feel nervous about the process and the potential of receiving a stigmatized diagnosis. Alternatively, you might not get all the answers you want when you want them. That’s okay, though! These things take time and persistence, and it’s normal to have ups and downs!

Not everything you learn will be helpful. Part of this process it about finding what works for you. You might find that while breathing techniques or going for walks don’t cut it, writing a short journal entry each day helps you to feel more grounded. Our counsellor can only offer guidance and suggestions, so it’s up to us to experiment and find the coping mechanisms that best serve us.
You’re allowed to be picky with choosing a counsellor. Particularly if you’re inexperienced in the arena of counselling, you might feel like it’s your fault that you’re not getting what you want out of your sessions or that you need to “stick it out” in the hopes that things will get better. You’re allowed to bounce around a bit, though, until you find a counselor who makes you feel supported and challenges you in a healthy, productive way.

You won’t be “fixed”. You may find that you only need a few sessions or you might decide to make counselling more of a long-term fixture in your life. But either way, try to regularly practice the skills and coping mechanisms that you acquire from counselling, even if you’re feeling really positive overall. Mental health can come with all sorts of ups and downs, so rather than allowing yourself to feel “fixed”, keep exercising your counselling muscles to try to prevent the lows from feeling too low.

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Images 2 and 3:, Dr Zoë Ayres

Megan King is a PhD candidate at the University of Kent, studying the process of radicalization in pre-Revolutionary America, and she serves as the Pubs and Publications social media coordinator. You can find further ramblings from her on Twitter.