Monday, 29 May 2017

Breaking the Stigma

Written by Juan Pablo Ruiz

#OktoSay: Let’s Talk Mental Health in Academia

About a month ago, Head’s Together launched their #OktoSay campaign to destigmatize mental health in the UK. Around the same time, a study done in Belgium was published that showed that “one in two PhD students suffered from psychological distress, while one in three were at risk of a common psychiatric disorder.” As soon as it was published, I had three people send me the article. It seemed that, at least in my network, I had become the go-to whenever this type of news showed up. This isn’t surprising given that a year ago, I founded my blog and resource, Labmosphere.com, where one of our core pillars is addressing mental health issues in academia.

Dark and ironic then, that those messages went ignored because I was at the time dealing with crippling levels of anxiety and, for the first time in my life, depression.

When I started my blog, I had just finished taking a free positive psychology course called the Science of Happiness, and before that had been trained as a Peer Supporter at the University of Oxford to help students dealing with mental health issues. At the time, I was dealing with stress and anxiety from my personal life, but believed that when I solved the situation, so too, would my life get back on track. Lab was a haven from everything outside, because things here were objective, and the data flowing continuously.

I was the happy-go-lucky grad student who was known for yelling “Science!” and running into the lab excitedly whenever an interesting result surfaced. I danced through the empty halls of the institute on weekends, blasting music and singing at the top of my lungs. Life was good, science was good. I wanted everyone to experience that. I thought I was immune.

But my anxiety continued to return, especially after I hit the expected third-year slump in my PhD. Sometimes, there was no clear cause or trigger for it; I would spend whole days in front of the computer in lab, using all my energy and lessons in mindfulness to regain the sensation of breathing freely and the ability to focus on my work.

That’s when my aunt, a psychologist who works at a clinic in Mexico, suggested I might have Asperger’s Syndrome, or Autism Spectrum Disorder Level 1. Until then, I had thought I was just unique and quirky: someone who was overly enthusiastic, intense, and avoided weekend plans to spend days shut in his room reading and writing about the strangest of topics. The professional diagnosis came a month later, but the recognition clicked as soon as I obsessively read the resources my aunt recommended. There were others like me, others who understood the gifts and challenges I had been unsuccessfully trying to describe to friends, family, and partners (cue the Tarzan music).

As freeing and joyful as the news was, and as much as I wanted to try on this new identity I was receiving in exchange for the thousands of labels I had accumulated over my life, the diagnosis coincided with a break-up and another slump in the PhD that left me at my lowest self-image I had had in a long time:

Maybe there WAS something inherently wrong with me, rather than just different. Maybe I shouldn’t aspire to do certain things because my brain just wasn’t built for them.

This is when the depression began, and managing that, alongside my anxiety, became overwhelming. It’s something I would never wish on anyone.

Being on the autism spectrum puts me more at risk for mental health issues, but no one is truly immune. The experience did give me much needed perspective: where before there was only empathy for those struggling with mental health issues, there is now solidarity. I too, am walking this path.

I understand what it is like to have weeks fly by without data because your motivation and concentration to work go out the window, what it is like to miss meetings because you’re in bed unable to get up, or hiding in an empty corner of the tissue culture room because you just broke down in tears and how difficult it is to recognise and admit that you need help and to ask for it.

I understand from a deep place of gratitude that having a powerful support network in my supervisor, friends, and family, made all the difference during the recovery from depression, and while I still work on my anxiety. And I understand that, unfortunately, not everyone has such a strong support system available to them.

This is where environment plays a huge role in either mitigating or exacerbating the mental health struggles we can all experience. We cannot continue to ignore the countless anecdotes, now being backed by hard data, such as the Belgium study. These point to the sad truth we must all face: that the current academic culture and environment are doing more exacerbating than mitigating.

Behind each of these data points is a story, a life, some of which are tragically lost to mental health issues. We cannot continue to feel isolated and alone.

Those of us that can and are willing must join our stories and voices to advocate for ourselves and those who cannot. It’s #OktoSay. As someone who has been there, I urge you to reach out. It gets better, and you are never truly alone.

In healing solidarity, Juan Pablo Ruiz.

About the Author

Image of Juan wearing a labcoat and taking notes
in a laboratory with glassware in the background


Juan Pablo Ruiz is currently working towards a DPhil in Biomedical Sciences. His research interests are in tissue and stem cell engineering, as well as developmental biology. He also has a wide array of interests which include positive psychology, literature, and creative writing. He recently received an ASD level 1, or Asperger's diagnosis, and is now working to break the stigma surrounding mental health and neurodiversity in academia

Overcoming Hurdles During My PhD


Written by Alex

Deciding to do a PhD is an enormous life decision. It's something that will take over your life for at least three or four years after you start. Overall, it's been an amazing experience for me, and now that I've come out on the other side, with my doctorate in hand, I've had some time to reflect about navigating the experience as a student with a disability. My PhD is in Arts and Humanities, so this post reflects my experiences in that faculty.

I have an invisible, physical disability. It's something that varies from day to day. My condition is genetic, which means that it will never go away, and it's something that I've had to learn to cope with. If I'm honest, I didn't really learn to manage my condition until the end of my masters degree. I realized that I couldn't keep working myself into the ground, and that it was much better to take a bit of time off and refresh, so that I could keep going.

In terms of choosing a place to do my doctorate, I was lucky enough to get a funding offer at the same place where I had completed my MA. I hadn't really thought about disability support when I was applying, as I knew it was such a game of chance anyway that I'd be lucky if I got anything. Once I got my position though, all the documents were in place so that I could continue receiving the same support I'd had before.

The system slightly changed in terms of finances - it was my funding body rather than the Disabled Students Allowance that supported me now. But, I found this process quite straightforward as I already had all the required documentation. To be honest, I don't really remember much about this application process, just that the staff at Disability Services were really helpful in getting me sorted.

For me, it was important that both of my supervisors knew about my disability and understood the impact it might have. I use a voice to text software called Dragon Naturally Speaking, which often makes interesting word choices, such as ‘surgical’ instead of 'liturgical’ and taking issue with my use of the past tense. Consequently, my supervisors were a little more lenient with mistakes in my work, in instances where it was clear that it was Dragon making the mistake and not me. Also, one of my supervisors had an office three flights of stairs up. That's not something I'm able to do, so we always met somewhere else. I think being open with my supervisors enabled them to better support me in my studies.

In terms of other students, my disability was not really something that came up much. I sometimes talked about my 'joint problems', but usually only when I was explaining why I couldn't carry things or needed to sit down. I slowly became much better at acknowledging when I needed to sit down during the drinks after evening seminars. Initially, I would just stand like everyone else, but now I’ll seek a seat if I’m struggling.

Another thing I had to learn was to take time off. Doing a PhD is a bit like a job, although it seems to be not so much 9-5, but rather 24/7. You'll see people tweeting about working at all hours, and there seems to be a really unhealthy culture of boasting about how much you're working. This really isn't helpful. One of the most important things for me to do to manage my condition is pacing - pacing myself not only through the day, but also throughout the week, to make sure that I don't burn out.

While I was doing my thesis, I didn't work for two whole days per week. Initially this was just two days throughout the week, one weekday and one day on the weekend, and then it changed to taking the entire weekend off. On these days, I didn't respond to emails or do any work. I might have done the odd bit of reading or teaching prep, but nothing too strenuous. If I hadn’t taken this time out, then it would have had a negative impact down the line. For me, it was much better to have this time off and getting enough rest than having to take at least a week off every couple of months to deal with the burn out. This is a difficult thing to do, particularly when you feel that the people around you are working harder than you, but the most important thing is taking care of yourself.

One thing I wish is that there was more of a community of disabled students. This really wasn't the case for me. I know there are issues around disclosure and so perhaps some people are scared to admit they're having problems. I did find a community on Twitter though - I've found lots of other people in academia, who are disabled, or who have my condition - #spoonie and #eds for example. 

A final piece of advice would be to not be scared to ask for help, and to make sure you ask what is available for you. For example, my university has a computer suite with adaptive technology, which I only found out about at the end of the third year of my PhD, nearly four years after I joined the university. I now employ a policy of 'don't ask, don't get' - the worst that can happen is that someone says no. It can be tough sometimes, but for me this ultimately meant that I received the support I needed to complete my doctorate. 

About the Author

Alex just completed her PhD in an Arts and Humanities Faculty. She has an invisible disability called hypermobile Ehlers Danlos Syndrome. hEDS is a collagen disorder, which means that Alex’s ligaments are too stretchy. Among other things, this causes chronic pain. She also blogs about phd-ing while being disabled and wearing a 'Please offer me a seat' badge on the London Underground at  https://pppphd.wordpress.com/

Sunday, 14 May 2017

You have MS


Written by Stephanie Zihms

After 10 months of tingly arms & legs, a bout of optic neuritis, unexplained tiredness and brain fogs, as well as doubting my own sanity – I was finally diagnosed with MS (Multiple Sclerosis). Even though this was not entirely unexpected it was still a shock and at the same time a huge relief. My response turned out to be ‘full on research mode’. I searched the web high and low for information and anything related to MS – funnily enough my parents did the same – must be a family trait. Probably for a good month or so, I was in a haze of information, feelings, uncertainties, insecurities, strength – or to put it bluntly I was one big mess on the inside but very functional day-to-day.

After my family and some close friends, my supervisor was the next person I told, mostly because she was there when I had no clue what was going on and it just felt right to tell her. I also pretty quickly decided to tell HR because I wanted them to know in case things got worse unexpectedly. I recently came across this blog post from Heather on The Mighty (https://themighty.com/2017/02/why-to-tell-people-about-multiple-sclerosis/). She also tweets as Dizzy the Donkey which is worth a follow. The first thing that struck me was that she decided not to tell people because of the fear of being judged – I had exactly the same fear of being judged or perceived as lazy, slacking or not working as hard, which was one of the reasons why I decided to be somewhat open at work about my MS diagnosis. I told close colleagues and office mates and others if it came up due to people noticing changes; most notably, I had to explain my new diet to my lunch club colleagues. This was followed by waves of "but if I admit that I have to change my working hours or ask for other adjustments, I would be considered not as good an academic". I have never really been a 24/7 academic and always valued my weekends and time off but this was never visible at work. Now, with adjusted hours, 1 day a week working from home and days where I looked like s*** it’s a bit more obvious that I’m not 100% fit all the time.

The first thing my supervisor told me was “now you have a reason to take care of yourself”, which is kind of sad because we all should take of ourselves in whatever form that happens. But for me this means I have to be more sensible about how I plan my work, how I set deadlines, what activities I agree to etc. To be fair, at the beginning that didn’t seem to be too big an issue. I agreed to work 1 day from home and adjust my hours as needed; on a good day work a bit more, on a bad day leave early. Outside of work, this meant changing my diet and exercise regime, as well as starting my day with a 10 minute stretch (which I actually manage most mornings).

It took a field trip in mid-February to realise that I have to treat a good day as a normal day and not work more. We went to a geological site that I was excited to show a visiting researcher from Brazil. I had been feeling great – diet and exercise seemed to be working so off we went. The day was very cold, windy and we ended up on site for 6 hours with only a break for lunch. That evening, I felt tired but not necessarily more than after similar days like this – however I couldn’t get any heat in my legs. In hindsight I now know this was a tell-tale sign that something was not right. I ended up off work for 2 days due to severe fatigue. Well done me! By Friday I started to feel better again and another week later I think I am fully back to “normal”. This was quite a big shock to my system and it really highlighted some other issues creeping up – particularly the realisation of "that’s it now – You have MS – life is not going to the same"! For a wee while it felt as if this meant Life is also going to be rubbish. This is, of course, not true but at that time it felt like it.

During these pretty shitty weeks of feeling super low, the counselling sessions really helped. These were offered to me from my employer after I told them about the diagnosis. It took me a while to go and I had to reach a low point where I didn't know what else to do to get me to go. I had my first session on 8th February, about 3 months after my diagnosis. I have now had 4 sessions. They have helped so much and I am glad that they were available to me from work because I had access quickly. HR set up the initial contact and told me to call them if and when I needed it – after calling them I had an appointment 3 days later. Since I did pick up the phone at a low point, this quick access was so important because the first 3 weeks in February were particularly difficult and if I had not had counselling, it could probably have been a lot worse. Unfortunately, I have to say that this, together with an occupational health assessment and reasonable adjustments, is all that my university offered – tick box requirements. There is a disability service but this is aimed at students, there is access to assistive technology – but this is not widely advertised – and again does not really help with the impact on mental health, feeling of belonging and emotional aspects of a recent diagnosis. Through contacts, I found out that there is a type of peer support group but this was not publicised in a way that I knew about it when I needed it. I also found out that we don’t have a working group for disabled or chronically ill staff or a representative on any working group related to staff. I don’t think this is ok and I want to make sure that members of staff that go through something similar in the future have these services available and are aware that they exist. This can only really happen through openness about my own diagnosis and a little bit of lobbying.

Through some existing connections at university I should be able to get some of these things rolling and I’m hoping to get more involved. A key factor in deciding to be open and get more involved has been the Chronically Academic network. This was one of the first forums or networks I joined and I felt very welcome and supported.

About the Author
Image of Stephanie on fieldwork overlooking a rural landscape

Stephanie Zihms is currently working as a postdoc in Carbonate Geomechanics in the Institute of Petroleum Engineering at Heriot-Watt University. Her research tries to understand why rocks deform the way they do and what controls this deformation – crystal size, crystal shape, pore size or pore shape? Or is it the mineralogy or how the rocks formed in the first place? By deforming different rocks under different conditions in the lab she is trying to find some answers. This research and the findings are relevant for a range of subsurface processes like hydrocarbon extraction, geothermal energy production or Carbon Capture & Storage applications. Basically anytime a liquid or gas is put into the subsurface or extracted from the subsurface the conditions change and the rocks will response to this change – by understanding what controls this response within the rocks (grains , pores) we can predict the behaviour in the subsurface. Stephanie was diagnosed with MS in November 2016. To read more about her life as a Chronically Academic also check out her blog: https://stephaniezihms.wordpress.com/