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Opinion: how mental health problems can affect early-career researchers

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Joanna Waldie

My research focuses on developing devices that can manipulate electrons one at a time. I also happen to have long gaps on my CV that take some creativity to explain in job interviews. This is because I’ve had mental health problems since I was a teenager.  During treatment for this, I’ve been privileged to meet some wonderful people with a variety of mental health conditions and to gain a little insight into their struggles.

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. However, the first person you need to convince that it’s OK to have time off is yourself. It feels like a great step forward when you do.

There are a lot of misconceptions about mental illnesses, not least because their invisibility makes awareness of their prevalence remain low. If I tell someone what mental health conditions I have, I have no idea what this will mean to them, and whether it will 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.

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 learned a huge amount, but there is still much I don’t understand about this illness.

I have told few colleagues about my health problems, but those I have told have been supportive. I’ve benefited from some fantastic services at the University including the staff counselling and occupational health services. That support – at work and from family and friends – makes a huge difference.

There are still challenges – my ongoing mental health problems are classed as a disability, and that meant I had to tick a box labelling me as a “disabled person” when I started this job in order to qualify for reasonable adjustments. Not everyone would feel OK about that. These labels can create barriers to people coming forward to seek help.

Researchers often have to move around a lot to advance their careers, doing a series of short-term contracts in several places. 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.

The sector needs to do more to help researchers who have moved for a job, uprooting themselves from their support networks.

Research is challenging. In trying to do things no one has ever done before there are always setbacks. For someone with a mental health condition, you can go from one setback in the lab to deep despair in the time it takes to say ‘Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’.

Sometimes I wish having someone beside me to give moral support during difficult experiments counted as a ‘reasonable adjustment’. 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 hard.

But friends and colleague can make a real difference in helping people with mental health problems to flourish in their research.

A greater openness about mental health in the research community will surely benefit us all.

Herchel Smith postdoctoral research fellow in Physics Dr Joanna Waldie shares her personal story to support Mental Health Awareness Week

When I need time off, I worry that people will think I am silly, or oversensitive, or lazy, or skiving - the first person you need to convince that it’s OK is yourself
Joanna Waldie

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