By Rosalie Pronk
My coming out…
With sweaty hands, I walked into my supervisor's office and sat down. 'How are you doing?,' he asked. I replied that I was doing well, which was true, but that I still wanted to discuss something with him. I started stammering, but slowly and surely the sentences came out; 'I suffer from mental illness and I want to prevent that it negatively affects the research for my PhD project'. He looked at me calmly and asked what was going on. I explained to him that I had been in intensive therapy for years, had multiple diagnoses, and that it was possible that I would not be doing well at times. I would be interviewing people with these same mental illnesses as part of my research on physician-assisted dying in psychiatry. So I wanted to make sure that my interviews were going the right way and that I wasn't making any improper interpretations of my data. The question was whether he would be willing to help me with that. After discussing this we came to the conclusion that it was a good idea to ask a psychiatrist from our project group to assist. The meeting ended with these words from my supervisor: Just don't think I will treat you differently than my other PhD students'. I smiled relieved. I wouldn’t want to have it any other way!
Now my supervisor reacted very positive, but I also know stories of PhD candidates suffering from a mental illness that didn’t go so well: threats of dismissal, disqualification of research results and papers, or just extremely blunt remarks. You always take such situations into account, but it still hits me raw when I hear stories like that. It can be difficult enough to deal with mental illness and stigmatization, and being treated so negatively at work makes it even harder.
Questions, questions, questions
We all want to do our research well, feel good and be able to thrive at work. But how to do that when dealing with a mental illness? Do you tell your supervisor what's going on? Do you tell your colleagues what's going on? What if your condition makes communication (with supervisors, colleagues or patients) difficult? What if things don’t go well and you can't show up for work? What if you are temporarily absent after a suicide attempt? In addition, how do you handle your research findings when your research subject becomes personal? Especially during a PhD, which can often be a lonely process, the struggles of work in combination with mental illness may be exacerbated. Dropout is then lurking.
I too struggled to show up for work every day, and fortunately I was given the freedom to make my own decisions about this. I too was completely absent at periods, but received support from promoters and colleagues. I too had to go to therapy several times a week, but could be open about this.
It has been so incredibly important to me that this was possible, and I would wish it for everyone in a similar position.
So, now what?
The reason that I am writing this blog is not because I have all the answers to the above questions, but to create openness about the fact that it is sometimes difficult to do your job well when you are struggling with a mental illness. I want to see if we can get the conversation going among and between PhD candidates and supervisors. I feel it is very important that everyone feels safe within a work environment, and that there is an understanding response to people who come out with their mental issues.
In addition, I would like to offer my fellow PhD students a word of encouragement. It is possible to do and complete your research well while suffering from a mental illness. Sometimes with some struggles or bumps on the road, but there is no reason to think that this is not within your reach.
I would love to get the conversation going. I will do so by organizing events on mental illness during a PhD. Be sure to keep an eye on the Doctoral School news channels for updates!
Do you recognize yourself in this article? The PhD advisors are here for you. Get in touch with us for a consultation (email@example.com) and stay tuned for upcoming events on mental Illness during a PhD in the beginning of 2022!