Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The importance of peer support during your PhD

Leading on from his previous post, Andy discusses how peer support can be vital for the well-being of PhD students

-Andy Rowe

The introduction of the PhD journey in my previous blog post described the difficult process of managing a PhD. It detailed how pastoral and mental health support is something which is hardly spoken about (I term this a “non-academic” issue) and consequently little is known about it. However, it is a huge issue which can be faced by many an academics at some point in their career. This blog illustrates how important peer support is not only for undergraduate students, but also PhD students; many institutions struggle to adequately provide a means to enable peer support. This is where I, briefly, sing the praises of what we do at Loughborough University. 

I have co-created and currently co-lead a social and support network at Loughborough University (Click here for our twitter account) which enables students from across the University to come every Tuesday lunchtime and socialise with others whom they would not usually engage with. It is incredibly informal and we want people to put their work to one side for an hour and receive support from those who are also going through the same process. We politely request for people not to come and talk about their work, as it is a chance to get away from that and there’s more to life than the PhD! It also shows that as PhD students we are not on our own in what we think and what issues we are facing. We also provide signposting to other services which may be able to help with more specialised issues. We have cake, tea, coffee and a buffet lunch every so often and support students, where possible, to organise certain University-wide events to get the PhD community together. It has become incredibly popular and if only it could be a model for more institutions across the UK.  

More generally what this shows is that supportive peers are incredibly important and they can make or break your PhD journey. It forms a key facet in your PhD experience along with family, friends and supervisors. I’m fortunate as through the network I have met some fantastic people who I would not have met otherwise. However, every department in each institution is different as more often than not you only really associate with others in your own department. From experience, different means of working can have an impact on the development of peer friendship networks. For example there are numerous students at institutions across the country who work in a hot-desk, open plan, office environment and despite being adopted to help people communicate with one another, if people do not want to interact, regardless of the type of work space, they simply will not. In my experience, open plan working does not solve isolation and peer support issues. It can be difficult to formulate friendships as students can become frustrated with this way of working and they consequently work elsewhere in the office where there is a free desk. Whilst this way of working may actually enable people to speak to larger volumes of others, the development of really close friendship support networks can be limited. I am not saying people do not support each other, but students can feel like a “rabbit in headlights” at the sheer number of people working in the same space. 

Secondly, I use my close friend who has just completed his PhD as a further example. He worked in an office environment which he shared with two others and was on the same corridor as other PhD students in the same cohort. His transition into PhD life was easier for him as he developed a close friendship with those in his office because he saw them every day in the same space. This then transcended into meeting the other students at morning and afternoon communal coffee breaks.  

It is also here where I should importantly mention those who work from home; like me. We are forgotten about, there is no doubt about that, and there are different reasons as to why we choose to work from home. But, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, we should not cut ourselves off from the institution – training sessions, which support the RDF (Research Development Framework), provide a huge opportunity to meet others. This is how I met some of my fellow PhD friends. In this situation I would strike up a conversation (don’t be shy!) with them and after the session I would take their email address and drop them an email suggesting meeting for coffee – you would be very surprised of the amount of PhD students who are glad of the chance to converse and socialise informally! 

Overall, as a PhD student, your working environment can have a huge impact on the development of peer support networks. These people are going through the same process as you and whilst each PhD journey is different, supportive peers should be able to understand and offer an empathetic ear. As well as the reputation of the department, the University work space should be a major consideration in your decision to apply there. After all, different means of working have both their advantages and disadvantages, but you have to choose what you feel will be right and comfortable for you as ultimately you could be spending several years in that space.  

Monday, 15 August 2016

Writing to Recovery

Elliot writes about how poetry and creative writing can help ease stress and anxiety and offers some tips for anyone wishing to start their own creative writing journey


Parents Evening for Art was always the same: Elliot tries hard but cannot seem to communicate this in her final piece. In fact, the relief was almost audible when I said I would not be taking Art G.C.S.E. I would never have described myself as arty, let alone creative.

So when my therapist suggested writing therapy, I was sceptical. How would keeping a diary help? I started, if only to say ‘I told you so’ when it did not work. And yet, as I wrote, I found myself addressing emotions and events in my life I had ignored or denied for years. I could finally keep track of my mood and review my progress as the months wore on. It also has helped to read my last diary entry just before a therapy session to focus on what has been on my mind that week.

Then I discovered poetry. A new world opened up to me. The brilliant thing about poetry is you do not have to be William Blake for it to help you. It is a snapshot of your thoughts at a particular time. Free verse, haiku, gazhal – it is up to you how you express yourself best. Above all, it is therapeutic to write it out. In addition, you will discover a new community of mental health poets. Ready to inspire and comfort you in equal measure. Anyone is welcome in this community.

As a student, we are used to writing for an academic end. Essays, lab reports, assignments. Rarely, however, do we write for the sake of writing. When we do write with no academic goal or deadline, we can unearth what our subconscious is really thinking. Spare time when you are a student is highly valued, but writing to help with recovery need not take up a lot of time. There are small exercises you can try, which might make a big difference to your mental wellbeing. 

Here are some ideas to get you started:

  • Write out a list of emotions you feel. You could even generate a word cloud using an online tool here.
  • If you suffer from psychosis, try writing out what the voices are saying
  • Write a letter to someone who has caused you distress in your life explaining how they have made you feel (although you do not have to send it!)
  • Keep a diary, maybe start by writing one sentence a day of how you feel
  • Write a short story based on your experiences
  • Compose a poem in whatever form you like – feel free to express yourself!

When my mental health is poor, I feel like my mind is filled with dark clouds. Writing is the rain. It is an active process of reducing the size of the clouds, and getting rid of some of them entirely. No matter whether you are the next Shakespeare or you are not creative at all, I hope you will join me in writing to recovery.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Why dropping out of University wasn’t the worst thing in the world

Amelia writes about how university is not for everyone, and how leaving can open up many doors to new experiences

-Amelia Hartley

Often when I tell people I withdrew from the University of Southampton after studying Physics for nearly two years, they tend to look surprised, confused and occasionally horrified. To the latter, I’ve packed in an amazing opportunity and I have closed all my doors. No one wants a drop out who can’t stick with something, no one likes a ‘failed’ degree. 

Luckily for my self-esteem I have never felt like I have failed. Instead, I have taken an opportunity to walk away with my head held high and I have acknowledged that University isn’t for everyone. And that’s the message I want to push. There are so many 17 year olds, who don’t know what they want to do but who are then pushed by parents and teachers into choosing a subject at degree level and choosing a University to go to. University itself can be a very daunting place. Young adults are living away from home, often for the first time. They are cooking and cleaning for themselves. They must learn how to pay bills and rent. They try to get to grips with the social side of uni, including drugs, alcohol and sex. And that isn’t even mentioning the academic side!

For me, University just started unfortunately. Someone very close to me suddenly passed away in December of my first year, triggering a downwards spiral of my mental health that I was unable to prevent. Despite attempts at turning things around in the gap between first and second year, I had already missed out on too much content and felt behind. I couldn’t get things together in my second year and was finding my stress levels were soaring and my anxiety and depression were torturing me. The thing that saved me in my second year was running the Positive Minds peer support group for Student Minds. Not only was this an incredible opportunity for me, it also helped me realise that Physics was not what I wanted to do for my future. I wanted to work in mental health and without attending University up til that point I never would have known how enthusiastic and passionate I was about it. 

I initially had the idea of leaving Southampton and beginning another degree, probably Psychology and began researching open days and courses and ordering prospectuses. I thought I could get some work experience and applied to volunteer at a number of places. I wanted to get as much as experience as I could in mental health related areas and I now had the time to apply and investigate. However, I saw a job at Student Minds advertised and completed the application, emailing task and an intense interview day, to be rewarded with a job offer. I will be starting there shortly and things have turned out better than I ever could have dreamed. I’ve made my own future and opportunities and have learned so much from this experience. I’ve gone from feeling so low and defeated to being incredibly optimistic about the future and relieved with my decisions. 

In my life there are many people who have been impressed and proud by what I have done and those people have kept me going and allowed me to pursue what I love. I have a mum who is endlessly supportive and loving. When trying to study for my final second year exams, I kept spreading my work out across the table, staring at it for one minute and then bursting into tears. My anxiety was so acute I felt in a complete daze and my body was getting infection after infection whilst my stomach was suffering from constant tummy aches. My mum gave me three options – 1) I study as well as I can and try as hard as I can in an attempt to pass the exams and get a Diploma of Higher Education, 2) I don’t bother working hard but go and sit the exams just to go through the motions and know I am dropping out anyway so it doesn’t really matter or 3) I stop now and begin my preparation for the future. I tried option 1 for about a day, I tried option 2 for two days and after no improvement in my emotions and feelings towards my studies, I went for option 3. My mum helped me so much and gave me many hugs and cups of tea. I am very grateful to to have such a supportive parent when there are many people who wouldn’t be as lucky. Hopefully other people would have a family member or friend to offer support and guidance even if their parents were against the idea of leaving University. 

There are many people within universities who will want the best for you and these people are happy to talk through every possible option, answer countless questions and pass you a tissue when you cry. If there is someone out there considering a change in course or university, or feels the way I did and wants to leave altogether, weigh it up and talk it through to as many people as you can. But ultimately, do what makes you happy and less stressed. Don’t push yourself into illness and stress and don’t do anything that will have a long-term detrimental effect on your mental health. At the end of the day, we’re the ones living our lives, not our parents, college teachers, university lecturers or otherwise. We must be stuck with ourselves with or without a degree forever and it’s far more important to be happy and healthy above all else.

Saturday, 13 August 2016

Introducing the "PhD Journey"

Andy writes about the challenges faced by students embarking on a PhD course

-Andy Rowe

I cast my mind back nearly four years ago and the elation of being awarded funding to do a PhD. I think everyone who is accepted onto a PhD programme has a certain perception as to what it will be like: having your own office, jet-setting across the world and presenting numerous papers at conferences in glamorous locations (although this is usually not the case). 

What is not well documented is the mental turmoil that one can face throughout the “PhD journey.” It’s difficult, really difficult in fact, and there are constant set-backs which student’s face particularly with workload and managing demanding supervisors. Not only this, but there are also issues in trying to find time to socialise, dealing with obnoxious peers, managing your own workload and supervisory issues. The fact is mental illness is all too common, but not well reported, and so people start a PhD with a degree of false pretence. Moreover, these issues need reporting to show what the PhD journey is really like.    

I compare the journey to climbing a mountain unharnessed; its precarious, you’re on the edge and there are many ascents and descents. But the support (the harness) comes from family, friends, loved ones and of course peers and supervisors. These are the people you rely upon to get you through it; to be there in both the good and bad times. However, not all PhD students have a supportive network around them and can often feel isolated and alone. Isolation is common, very common in fact, during a PhD. There are those who work from home, who have families, who are carers, who may be ill themselves (either physically or mentally) and who don’t live in close proximity to their university. 

From my own personal experience, the PhD journey is an isolating experience, particularly working from home, but my tip is to never cut yourself off completely from training sessions and the chance to meet others. Use those more sociable occasions to create your own ‘harness’ or support network if you find you do not have support from family or friends. 

Unfortunately, there is a culture of acceptance around mental health issues in academia, a point raised by an anonymous academic through the Guardian website in March 2014 and the constant work load causes students to burn out; exacerbating mental illness. It’s a common problem and something which I have experienced on several occasions and there is an element of guilt which creeps in if you are not doing work. It’s a vicious circle and one which is notoriously difficult to break out of. 

My advice is not to be afraid of taking regular breaks, exercising, and taking days off and holidays. These can all help reduce stress and improve mental well-being. That’s actually one of the advantages of doing a PhD: flexibility – you manage your own workload and you are afforded time off, just as you would be if you worked, so don’t be afraid to allow yourself to unwind.  

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Getting through my dissertation (and constant worry)

Emily writes about the pressures during her dissertation and how she dealt with them whilst having ongoing stress and anxiety.
- Emily Smale

First term of third year, and it was looming over all of us. Dissertation. I had known the subject I wanted to look into for months, but what I wanted to find out was still a puzzle to me. During dissertation seminars I would hear people discussing their ideas, the literature they had already researched and the questions they had drafted. I felt so behind.

Of course, adding on to the stress was our first two assignments of third year. Progressing to Plymouth for my final year from a partner college was challenging. Just before Christmas I made myself physically ill with anxiety. I was juggling two massive assignments and the planning of my dissertation right before the Christmas break. For weeks I was constantly waking up with stress headaches, I would lie in bed and feel my chest tightening as I tried to go through everything I had to do, in such little time.

I finally got my ethical approval 5 days before Christmas. I was so fearful that it was going to take me months to write it up; I rushed into finding a school, receiving permission and planning my methodology all before the middle of January. I spent most of my Christmas break suffering from constant worry and panic attacks. I was not juggling the pressure of third year well, at all.

After Christmas break, I came to the realisation that everybody else was miles behind me. I was the only one in my research seminar that had been to collect my data. Some hadn’t received ethical feedback. It was at this moment I realised how much my worry had gotten to me. Being away from university for so long at a time (Long-distance learner), I lost communication from so many. I assumed that everybody was much further along than me, but they weren’t. I took the time I had at uni to talk through my worries and my ideas with my dissertation tutor.

As time progressed, the tightness in my chest, the pain in my head and the butterflies in my stomach surpassed. It became occasional that I would lie in bed worried about the pressure, as I had three months to write up my data. However, I then got complacent, and pushed the writing up of my findings to the back of my priorities. When deadline month was becoming closer, I decided to write up a schedule for each week with what I had to write, what I should write and what I could write if I had time. I would only let myself panic if I hadn’t gotten around to completing my “had” list for the day. Eventually, submission day arrived and 8,500 words later I was finished.

My advice is; never isolate yourself in times of worry and stress. Keep on with your dissertation tutor if you’re worried about time, keep yourself talking through with friends about ideas and questions. If you have sleepless nights, occupy your mind. It’s okay to not be doing it everyday. Trying to force yourself to write when your brain just isn’t ready will be a waste of time and energy. Taking breaks during writing and occupying your mind with something else, will really, really help. I would wake up super early and try to get stuff done so that I had the rest of the day ahead of me, but I soon learnt that I worked best later in the day/night. It’s not always going to be easy, but having a healthy balance between writing and taking breaks is the best way forward.

For more information on how to find support, click here.

For more information on how to deal with stress during studies, click here.

Monday, 8 August 2016

Noticing depression: When the things that are supposed to feel good, don’t.

Bethany writes about noticing the difference between the symptoms of depression and general sadness, and what this means for someone's mental health.
- Bethany Lipka

I had a friend recently ask me how a person can identify the difference between temporary sadness - or feeling blue - and depression. He was going through a rough time after a breakup and feeling low, and wondering if his mood state was possibly reactive depression. 

I told him that if he is noticing that day after day the things that are supposed to feel good don’t, he should probably give his doctor a call. 

This is the one symptom of depression that to me seems to be common to all sufferers, no matter their variation of the illness: that we lose the ability to experience joy. And after a few joyless days, or weeks, or months, it can become very easy to forget what it even feels like. 

This is probably the most tragic symptom of depression, because of what it takes from us. Days that should be filled with meaning and positive feelings, end up being vacant and unbearable. I was depressed for the months surrounding my wedding, and so much of what should have been the most exciting time of my life was shrouded by my illness. I didn’t even make it to my rehearsal dinner; I was curled up in a ball under a pile of blankets in my bedroom the dark, trying to muster up the energy I would need for my wedding day. 

Since starting treatment for my bipolar II disorder, depression has stolen fewer and fewer days from me. But there are still times when things in my life that are supposed to feel good, don’t. And that’s the difference between sadness and depression, that’s when I know I need to see my doctor and re-evaluate my treatment plan. Because when I’m sad, I can pick up a guitar, or play with my dog, or go for a walk in the park and feel better – at least a little. When I’m depressed, none of those things bring me any enjoyment. 

So if you are on the fence about getting help for mood symptoms, and you aren’t sure if what you are experiencing is depression or just ‘feeling down’, the joy test is a good metric. Ask yourself: when was the last time I really enjoyed something (a good cup of coffee, a book, a meal with a friend), or had fun? If you can’t remember, and if all your recent memories are of painfully monotonous days, you probably want to make an appointment with your doctor. 

For more information on finding support with mental health, click here.

For more information on supporting a friend going through mental health issues, click here.