The side effect of academic life: How to deal with depression and anxiety!

Working in academia is a privilege: we are usually independent and have the freedom to decide our own work, we manage our own work and constantly exposed to a young, dynamic, and developing environment. If people look at this world from the outside, they might think of it as a paradise. Unfortunately, the struggle to produce innovation and progress and be always at the frontline comes with a price: A recent paper in the journal Research Policy showed how the risk of suffering from mental health issues is higher for academics than the rest of the population.

Why is this the case? Why do people choose to seek an academic path l and get lost along the way? Why should academia be so tough instead of a joyful and happy place?

The first pieces of advice I want to give is:

You are not your research, research is what you do, not who you are!

Academics often answer the question “What do you do?” by saying “I am a PhD, postdoc, researcher in science, humanities, etc.”. Don’t confuse your identity with your work. Your academic work is a slice of the pie. You are all the other things you do outside of academia. People around you love you despite the title of doctor. Have you ever thought of this?

Many academics, above all PhD students, complain about a poor supportive environment or are frustrated because labmates don’t follow protocols. But let’s face the truth, would a job outside academia be any better? How many people start complaining about their workmates when you ask the question “how is work?”?. So, do not allow other people to define your happiness. Happiness is inside yourself, it comes from you. If someone is nasty to you, leave them alone and ignore them.

Whatever they say, if not supported by facts, it’s their opinion.

If you find yourself in a low mood for a consistent period of time, look for professional advice from a counselor. I understand many people might find this a strange solution. In some countries, as in Italy (where I am from), people associated the idea of counseling to madness and psychosis. So, they refuse this idea in the first place as they don’t want to be labeled as mentally ill. Delete this idea from your mind – counselors are here to help and give tips about overcoming unhelpful thinking such as anxiety, depression.

Look for professional advice!

If you are an are not confident to express your feelings to another person, do your own research on the internet.  Learn what it’s causing your unhelpful thinking that drives your depression/anxiety. Also, it would be useful to read about the feeling-thinking connection and learn how to distinguish feelings from thoughts  Most of the time, what you think isn’t real is your own world in your mind.

Finally, you might not see it because inside academia, but not so many people apply for graduate school or are doctors. For example, only 3% of the UK population are members of a PhD programme (in science). Outside academia, you will be considered a highly respectable person. Try to see your position of academics from a different perspective. How would society see me because I am undertaking such a challenging career? From now on, I would encourage buying a new diary and make your own gratitude book. Write at least 3 good things you made on that day and read it through anytime the negative thinking kicks off.