Doing a history PhD with major depressive disorder

Three and a half years into my history PhD, I can say that it has been hard work, and I know it will continue to be until the day I submit.  But I have a chronic illness that undoubtedly makes the task even harder.  I am one of the estimated 20% percent of Australians who experience mental illness in any given year, and one of the 64% of humanities PhD students who indicates as ‘depressed’.[1]

Mental health in universities

*Trigger warning: suicidal ideation

Rates of mental illness are higher among certain groups of people (e.g. LGBTIAQ+, Indigenous) including university students and employees. While there is a growing public awareness of mental illness, fewer discussions on the issue have been raised within university settings. Several recent quantitative studies from Australia, the UK and the USA have revealed an image of psychological and emotional wellbeing in universities that is perhaps best regarded as alarming. A British survey found that nearly eighty percent of university students had ‘mental health issues’ over a twelve-month period, with a third experiencing suicidal ideation.[2] The figures are almost as dire amongst the employees in higher education, both academic and non-academic, with one Australian survey revealing that university staff experience mental illness at a rate three to four times higher than the general population.[3] In regard to the mental health of PhD students in particular, a quick Google search shows a wealth of anecdotal evidence of the psychological cost of doing a PhD. Hard data has only recently begun to emerge, and while there are no Australian studies to refer to, the most comprehensive one from the University of California, Berkeley in 2014 reports that forty-seven percent of their PhD students indicate as (non-clinically) depressed, with some key issues identified as: sleep and overall health, academic engagement, career prospects, financial stability, and the supervisory relationship.[4] Interestingly, as mentioned above, the number of students who can be considered depressed rises to sixty-four percent in the arts and humanities.

My PhD journey

Some of my own mental health challenges have been related to the PhD, while some concern other aspects of my life, such as the significant history of mental illness in my family. Both factors are equally important, and both have impacted on my ability to work. My academic performance up to the completion of my Honours year, coupled with a fairly commitment-free life, led to the assumption that I should have completed a PhD with relative ease. But of course, a PhD is different to experiences that came before it, and life has a way of falling short when judged against unrealistic expectations.

I went into my PhD on the back of several years of intermittent depressive and anxious episodes, and having recently experienced three significant deaths in the family, including that of my mother, which was sudden and unexpected. But when I started my PhD at the end of March 2012, I thought my topic was fascinating and full of potential. I did my Confirmation early, and enjoyed a marvellous research trip to America in May 2013, my first time outside of the Australia-New Zealand region.

North America May 2013

Clockwise from top left: Niagara Falls, McMaster University, New York skyline, Rice University, Brooklyn Bridge, University of Iowa

It was upon my return to Australia when things began to get really difficult. It was about then that I started to attend conferences, and I became aware that my mother’s death was to have a long-lasting impact. Although over moments of grief became less frequent and severe over subsequent years, it would return at significant times, such as on the anniversary of her birthday – which always fell on the week of the conference of the Australian Historical Association in early July. I attended and spoke at two of these, in Wollongong in 2013 and in Brisbane in 2014. Some of my colleagues and my supervisor can attest to how difficult that was for me: all at once I was grieving, public speaking, creating work to a high standard, and having to socialise with many strangers, which I wasn’t good at the best of times.

I first went to the GP for ongoing fatigue at the end of 2012, and shortly afterwards I was put onto anti-depressants. This was the start of a painfully long journey, including four unsuccessful medications, making my disorder treatment resistant. Along with notable levels of anxiety, my main symptoms over a period of approximately 3 years included: severe fatigue, anhedonia (‘the emotional range of a brick’, or feeling no enjoyment), psycho-motor retardation (‘fog brain’, or a general slowing down of cognitive and motor functions), suicidal ideation, unhelpful thoughts (e.g. ‘Why bother trying to do work, I’m too tired and it won’t be any good’). All of these lead to very unhelpful behaviours that only perpetuated my disorder. Largely I fell back on avoidance: I avoided socialising and doing activities I once enjoyed, and I avoided aspects of work: writing because it was so hard, publishing because that was even harder, some conferences because I believed couldn’t handle the stress, and contributing to group discussions because I believed I had nothing to say. Finally late last year I was referred to a psychiatrist and received the clinical diagnosis of the mood disorder, Major Depression.

A history PhD itself is full of many varied tasks that can potentially end up as stressful or overwhelming, including: reading and managing an exceptionally large volume of primary and secondary sources, conceptualising highly complex ideas, the writing process, presenting at conferences, and peer review for publication. But there are ways of making these tasks a little more manageable. Cognitive Behavioural Therapy or CBT has been shown to be highly effective in thousands of clinical trials for non-severe cases of anxiety and depression. Some of the main conceptual planks of CBT are actually quite similar to the logical and methodical academic work, such as thought challenging, which I’ve found particularly useful. Thought challenging is based on the assumption that some of the thoughts we have may be warped or inaccurate representations of reality, which in turn impact on our mood and behaviours. In other words, this requires investigating your internal narrative, and finding evidence for and against an upsetting thought or belief (e.g. ‘I am a failure’, ‘I am weak’, ‘I am stupid’). On the balance of evidence, usually we realise that our original thought is inaccurate, and it can then be ‘replaced’ with a more realistic idea.  But this process takes practice, as it isn’t easy to change a habit of thinking. After a few months of trying this myself, I now believe my own balanced thoughts more than I did, and both my mood and my productivity have subsequently improved.

Why is depression more common in the humanities?

Apart from the current state of career prospects and funding, I wonder if there is one challenge that doing a PhD may pose to mental health that is more specific to the humanities. That is the subject of research. Many historians work closely with topics of human suffering, and we aim to deconstruct cultural, ideological, or social forms of oppression and injustice.  Perhaps this is partly why the rate of depression is higher among humanities PhD students than other disciplines. We often deal with different forms of human pain every time we read, or write, or ponder our work. But we should take heart that through our work we are also performing an act of hope and an act of change, no matter how small. Our research is political in that we aim at breaking the historical legacies of oppression and injustice. Such a task is not going to be easy, but hopefully it will ultimately be rewarding.

I find myself writing a history of hope in the Cold War, focusing on a time when many people predicted the end of life on the planet in a nuclear Third World War. Am I writing on the cultural and social value of hope because there are times when I have none for myself because of my mood disorder? Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that I’m studying two figures, Bertrand Russell and Julian Huxley, who each wrestled with despair over the future of humanity and yet at the same time often wrote with an equal amount of optimism. Shortly after starting my PhD I found out that Huxley himself had debilitating depressive episodes during his life. One of these was in 1952, when he won the Kalinga UNESCO Prize for the Popularisation of Science, for which he needed to travel to India to receive. On his way to India, Huxley planned to go via Australia on a two-month lecture tour. But, he didn’t believe he deserved the prize, and he nearly turned it, and the tour, down. He wrote in his autobiography that he only went on tour at his wife’s insistence.[5] And if Huxley hadn’t come to Australia, I wouldn’t have this wonderful, fascinating wealth of material to research. So I’m acutely aware that half of my dissertation almost doesn’t exist because of someone else’s depression. And while I know that my dissertation will still be completed, my own depression has made a complex and hard task even harder. Thankfully I’ve seen some improvement over the past year, and especially the past few months, with new medications and CBT. I can still have some incredibly difficult days, but not as many as before, and now I have the skills to cope better. I’ve recently had some important breakthroughs in drafting my chapters, and seeing my first publication to print, and, I look forward to a day sometime soon when I can say that I’ve submitted.

This post is adapted from a paper delivered at the second Griffith History Postgraduate Seminar, on 20 April 2016.

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[1] The Graduate Assembly, ‘Graduate Student Happiness and Well-Being Report: 2014’, (Uni. California, Berkeley), 2014 (Available 19/4/2016).

[2] Natalie Gil, ‘Majority of students experience mental health issues, says NUS survey’, The Guardian, 14/12/2015 (Available 19/4/2016).

[3] Gail Kinman and Siobhan Wray, ‘Higher Stress: A Survey of Stress and Well-being among Staff in Higher Education’, University and College Union (UK), 2013 (Available 19/4/2016); Christie Wilcox, ‘Lighting dark: Fixing academia’s mental health problem’, New Scientist, 10/10/2014. (Available 19/4/2016).

[4] The Graduate Assembly, op. cit.

[5] Julian Huxley, Memories II, New York: Harper and Row, 1973, ch. 6.