Researcher mental health: A personal perspective

This is a guest post from Dr Joanna Waldie, Herchel Smith Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Cambridge and STEM Gamechanger.

I’m a postdoctoral research fellow in Physics at the University of Cambridge. My research focuses on developing devices that can manipulate electrons one at a time. I also happen to have had mental health problems since I was a teenager. During both my undergraduate degree and my PhD I had to take two years out to have hospital treatment for these conditions. Which means I have long gaps on my CV which take some creativity to explain when I apply for anything… But it also means I had the privilege of meeting people with a variety of mental health conditions during my times in hospital. I am truly grateful to have met these wonderful people, to get to know them and gain a little insight into their struggles. I am not an expert in mental health, but I think my experiences have made me a little more sensitive to people around me with mental health conditions.

This article is adapted from a talk I gave in May 2018 at a workshop about researcher mental health. It outlines my perceptions of how mental health problems can affect early-career researchers.

The awareness, understanding and acceptance of mental health conditions in our society is improving, but is generally still quite low. Mental health conditions are often invisible. If I have a broken leg or a sore throat then it doesn’t take much for my colleagues to understand that I need time off work. If my mental health is bad then the onus is on me to explain to other people why I need time off work. I worry that people will think I am silly, or oversensitive, or lazy, or skiving. There are a lot of misconceptions about mental illnesses. If I tell someone what mental health conditions I have, I have no idea what this will mean to them, and whether it would match the reality of how I feel. This is particularly the case in the multicultural research environment, where different cultures may have very different understandings of mental health.

However, I think the main issues around awareness, understanding and acceptance are sometimes within ourselves. Because the level of awareness of mental health conditions is generally quite low, you might not realise you are developing a mental health condition, just as your colleagues may not realise it. When I was first diagnosed, it came as a real shock to me. This is often the first barrier people face in trying to get help.

As researchers we have succeeded in our University studies and got our PhDs. We are used to solving problems, achieving highly and getting stuff done. When faced with a mental health condition, we feel desperately that we need to understand and solve the problem, and soon. But even after many years I do not fully understand my mental health problems. I cannot fix them or solve them as I would a problem in the lab. It has taken me years to learn to spot triggers and recognise warning signs when things are getting bad, and to learn some things that sometimes help. I have learnt a huge amount, but there is still much I don’t understand about this illness.

I have told few colleagues the nature of my health problems, but those I have told have been supportive. Sometimes it is me who puts the most pressure on myself, who tells myself I am silly, or oversensitive, or lazy, or skiving, if I take time out. It took me a long time to learn that it is OK to take time out to look after my mental health. But I’m now convinced that it is OK, and that’s been a huge step forward.

When you struggle with mental health problems, it makes a huge difference to have support from family and close friends. Researchers often have to move around a lot to advance their careers, doing a series of short-term contracts in several places. This disrupts their support networks. If someone with a mental health condition comes to the UK for an 18-month postdoc job, it might take them a while to understand how to access treatment in the UK. They might wait for months to be seen by a specialist. And treatment in the UK might be very different to what they have known in in their home country. I’ve been very lucky in this respect. When I was a PhD student, my College provided me with free accommodation near to the hospital where I was being treated so I didn’t have to move back to live with my parents and start all over again on a waiting list. My fellowship is normally only open to people who are moving to Cambridge. But the selection panel took into account that I wanted to stay in Cambridge to continue to access treatment and support at the same clinic. We need to do more to help researchers who might be uprooted from their support networks by moving around for their research.

I’ve benefited from some fantastic support services in the University of Cambridge, including the staff counselling and occupational health services. But you need to know how to access these services. Mental health conditions are often, but not always, ongoing. This means they are classed as a disability. As a disabled person I am entitled to have my employer make reasonable adjustments to enable me to continue and succeed in my job. I have had mental health problems for a long time. When I began my job, I knew that I had to tick the boxes on the forms that said I have a disability, I have a mental health condition, I would like to talk to Occupational Health etc. But how do I feel about being labelled disabled? Not everyone would feel OK about that. These labels can create barriers to people coming forward to seek help.

Research is challenging. We are trying to do things no-one has ever done before. If it was easy someone would already have done it. There will be set backs. Mental health conditions can skew your perspective on setbacks. For example, when you are feeling depressed you can overgeneralise failures. If an experiment goes badly in the lab, you might follow a chain of thought that goes like, ‘My experiment failed. My research is always going to fail. I don’t think there is any point me doing this research. I am a bad researcher. I shouldn’t be doing this job. I don’t think I’d be any good at any job. My life is pointless.’ In the time it takes to say ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ you can get from one set back in the lab to deep despair. Sometimes I want to ask for the ‘reasonable adjustment’ at work of having someone beside me to give moral support during difficult experiments. I’m not sure I can ask for this… But I am lucky to have colleagues and a boss who do support me.

As a researcher you need to believe in your research ideas and your ability to carry them out. You need to be able to sell your research. You need to be excited by your research and be able to convince other people to get excited about it, to publish it, to fund it. This is hard to do if you are feeling depressed, and you don’t even feel like life is worth living. It’s really really hard.

This is not an exhaustive survey of all the issues around researcher mental health. But I hope it highlights some things we need to do to help people with mental health problems to flourish in their research. And I hope it will contribute to greater openness about mental health in the research community, which will surely benefit us all.


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