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How to Breathe During Your Studies: Mental Health and Academia

Introducing our very first GUEST BLOGPOST by Alex Fitzpatrick. Read more about her at the end of the post.


College, as the old saying goes, should be the best years of your life. But for many undergraduates and postgraduates, these are the hardest and most stressful years of their lives. Academic studies can be incredibly rewarding, but they can also be the most challenging to juggle along with personal issues.

Mental health is a deeply personal issue for me, especially as an academic – I’ve been struggling with mental health issues since I was thirteen years old. For years, I found both anxiety and depression to be manageable alongside my studies – not great, of course, but I could get through the day and get all of my work done. Once I hit college, however, I could see that things were getting out of hand.

In the beginning of 2017, halfway through my first year of my PhD, I had a mental breakdown that resulted in a month-long absence from the university. I felt lost and empty, without any enthusiasm for my research, or anything else. Luckily, my supervisory team was incredibly supportive and gave me the time and space I needed to get myself sorted with therapy and medication. Along with that, the advice and support my advisors gave me during this time helped me return to my research feeling not only focused but also confident in my ability to work at the best of my ability. It didn’t happen overnight, of course – it took months of ups and downs, of good and bad days. But I was eventually able to get myself back on track with my PhD.

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If you’re feeling overwhelmed, lost, depressed, or anxious during your studies, here are 3 best tips I can provide from my own experience:

1. Talk to your supervisor.

Be upfront and don’t try to hide your problems, especially when it begins to affect your work ethic. A good supervisor wants to see you succeed, but not at the cost of your health. You don’t need to give all the details, of course, but let them know how things are and they should be able to help you figure out how to proceed from there.

2. Check if your university/institution offers any support.

Many universities have a counseling service that you can book an appointment with, usually for free. Counsellors can not only be directly helpful, but they may refer you to different professionals that may better suit your needs. Universities can help you connect with support groups and more resources.

3. Remember that your academic career is not a race.

This is something one of my supervisors has been telling me over and over again, and she’s right! Don’t feel like you need to be working every day, all day. See if you can take a leave of absence if you need some time off. Some study programmes may be more accommodating than others, of course, but it never hurts to ask about taking mental health days.

Everyone’s situation is different, of course, and unfortunately, some people may not have the kind of support they need. Universities and institutions need to start taking mental health more seriously – academia can seem like a terrifying and competitive place where placing work before health is normalized to an unhealthy degree.

We need to normalize the idea that it is not a weakness to ask for help or take the time we need to get better – our health and safety must come first.

And please remember to seek professional help if you feel like you are severely depressed or suicidal: here is a website of hotlines for suicide prevention from all over the world.

You are not alone!


About the Author

Alex Fitzpatrick is a zooarchaeologist and PhD student. She is a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, where she is researching animal remains from caves off the coast of Scotland. She is the current social media manager for the science website (they own I Am Sci Comm twitter account). I Am Sci Comm account has over 14,000 followers. You can learn more about Alex on” The Female Scientist” blog.

Visit Alex’s blog Animal Archaeology .Follow her on Twitter @ArchaeologyFitz  & @SciCrastina and on Instagram @AFitzpatrickArchaeology.  

*Please seek professional help for all mental health-related issues.

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Picture Credits: Prexel FreeStock Photos

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