As a PhD student with mental health challenges, I sometimes question whether my experience is the same as my peers. Did they look for a supervisor who understands mental health?  Do they see themselves reflected in resources about ‘caring for your mental health’ and ‘self-care for students’?

Don’t get me wrong, entering a PhD and being me has been remarkably rewarding. I have a supportive environment to explore my ideas, where my strange questions can lead to insightful conversations. I’ve met peers who not only accept and encourage me but challenge my conceptualization of the world and my approach to research. I have a supervisor who sees value in my perspectives and believes in me. When applying to Carleton, I was even exposed to students who use their experiences to shape their research and help their community. In essence, it feels like my potential in defining myself as an academic is limitless. While I’m still waiting for this to come crashing down (I’ve heard this happens in second year), I can’t help but think it’s the contrast between the supportive spaces I’ve found and the concessions I’ve had to make that makes my disappointment sting all the more.

At times, it can feel like the very institution of academia doesn’t accept me, and that even with acceptance, inclusion isn’t guaranteed and support is strictly rationed. For example, despite publishing an article on breaking the silence on mental illness, Carleton’s counselling services aren’t set up to provide long-term support – which automatically necessitates that I seek support off campus. In order to pay for therapy, I’ve had to label myself on provincial and school documentation as having a disability (regardless of whether I identify as that). While I’m grateful for the support that’s offered, the process of being forced into a label has sucked.

While writing this, the qualitative researcher in me couldn’t help but see the underlying theme in my experiences – the disconnect between the people and the system. My social and academic environments are ones of support and collaboration, where being me is a strength. How, then, have our institutional processes and policies not caught up?

These systemic barriers probably won’t change anytime soon (or maybe they will, and I’d be thrilled to be wrong here) but here are steps that prospective and current PhD students can take to protect or maintain their mental health based on my own experience:

Prospective students:

  1. Include what you need (for your mental health) as a criterion in your search for the perfect supervisor or school.
  2. Have open conversations with your potential supervisor about mental health. See if they are open to using different approaches to support you.
  3. See if you can speak to a current graduate student about their experience. This can help you get a feel for the lab culture, and if it would be a supportive and inclusive environment.

New students:

  1. Get registered with your university accessibility services as quickly as you can. Your disability coordinator can help you navigate OSAP and the NSLSC.
  2. Think about moving your health information to Health Services on campus. This can be helpful for coordinating your services and setting up a comprehensive circle of care.
  3. Pay attention to when bursaries open and close at your university. There are usually programs or bursaries that are specifically for helping people with disabilities.
  4. See if you qualify for any of the awards on external websites.
  5. Be open with your supervisor. It’s not all sunshine and daisies and sometimes they can suggest strategies to help you cope.
  6. Establish your support network prior to entering the program. Your supervisor isn’t your therapist, and it can be easy to cross boundaries and over-share if you don’t have solid supports in place prior to starting the program. Further, I’ve found it hard to connect with peers if they don’t share similar life experiences and have relied on my friends more than ever.

The items in this list came from hours wading through blogs and Reddit treads (which, frankly, are often gloomy) and conversations with other folks who have been there, done that. As such, this isn’t a prescriptive list outlining the steps to success for PhD students with mental health concerns, but rather steps that have been helpful for me so far. I hope these lists might even slightly reduce the amount of labour necessary for our participation in academia. At the heart of it, I write this because, at the end of the day, we belong here.

Mel Edwards is a first year PhD Student in the Spatial Determinants of Health Lab. Her research interests include the use of e-mental health to support underserved populations in rural communities