A comprehensive guide to surviving postgraduate courses when you have a history of mental illness

After working super hard in the last stages of my undergraduate degree at the University of Huddersfield, I managed to secure a scholarship for a Master’s by research course (MARes). This was something I had aspired for: I was passionate about English Literature, academia and the idea of staying on at the faculty under the guidance of tutors I admired and respected.

A MARes course is distinguished from taught courses in that you have no lectures, oftentimes no research seminars (unless your school provides them as a social opportunity, which luckily was the case for me) and predominantly worked in isolation, doing independent research towards a thesis of around 25,000 words. I knew what to expect from the outset: it was widely acknowledged at my institution that postgraduate courses are highly demanding and stressful, particularly when responsibilities such as employment, family and personal lives are being simultaneously juggled. Tutors persistently stated that it would be a challenging mental experience as postgraduate courses are no easy breeze following an undergraduate course: they’re a pretty major shock to the system for most students who are expecting a continuation of the experience they’ve already had.

With all the warnings in place, I thought I had things under control. I thought I had a pretty solid picture of the year ahead: I anticipated peaks and troughs of (self-made) deadline-induced stress, frequent overnight library sessions, headaches from thinking about feminism too hard and maybe a few explosive arguments with loved ones, for good measure. However, despite all of this mental preparation and the unwavering support of a wonderful supervisor, brilliant friends and a strong family who were constantly cheering me on and picking me up at my various times of stress, somehow I still ended up burning out. A few days after my thesis hand-in in May 2019, I had a full-fledged nervous breakdown that led to me moving back home with my parents and becoming a shut-in agoraphobic who struggled to eat, sleep or basically function as a human independently.

It has been pivotal for my recovery to reflect on the events and symptoms that appeared in the lead-up to my epic eruption: I’ve spent a lot of time analysing how the course affected my mental health and how I both succeeded and failed to managed my stress as it mounted. This practice has been super important to me because having that awareness of what went wrong is useful so that I can prevent it from happening (on that scale) ever again. It was easy for me to look at my role in the picture. Part of the reason I hit the rough patch was because I am a Type-A personality who has been prone to anxiety since I was a child. Looking back at my obsessive and quite often self-destructive pattern of overworking till exhaustion, I’ve realised that some of my attributes such as perfectionism, low self-esteem, heightened emotional sensitivity and an unaddressed general anxiety disorder definitely fuelled my downward spiral. When left to my own devices, I am a stubborn cookie who struggles to set boundaries and “clock off” from tasks. So, doing my research independently meant that I built tall walls and sat at my laptop for stupidly long periods of time, feeling guilty if my attention was diverted anywhere else.

What astounded me, in retrospect, was how commonplace the “crash and burn” effect was for others who had done postgraduate courses. It turns out that I was far from alone: I just didn’t realise when I was a student because the experience was so insular and a lot of my academic peers were dispersed around the country, in their own bubbles of self-contained anxiety. I had a flurry of people reach out after I posted a plea for advice on social media, not long after I had my breakdown. This was easy for me because I have always been candid about my mental health, especially since I went through a severe depressive episode in my late teens that left me really determined to break through the stigma that forces people to stay silent. It transpired that some of my old classmates had been affected by their postgraduate courses as profoundly as I had, some of them also disappearing from the face of the planet for months following submission, spending their days like curled up dead spiders in their childhood bedrooms back at home. Through sheer exhaustion, illness or fear of stigmatisation, most of them buried their heads in the sand and struggled through their issues privately.

It struck me that student wellbeing and the support, or lack thereof, is such a widespread issue and something that needs to be addressed immediately. High levels of stress can lead to premature drop-outs from courses and students walking away from academia, degree in hand, deflated and depressed.

I’ve concocted this list of tips for anybody who knows they’re susceptible to depression and anxiety, primarily because I know what this is like myself. If you’re considering a postgraduate course, get your contingency plan in place! Speak to as many students as possible and inform yourself about the experience so that you can deal with realistic expectations.

This is not an article suggesting that all postgraduate courses cause irrevocable suffering! After all, I had a great time pursuing my studies, despite the struggles with mental health lapses. I think that with realigned expectations, even with a susceptibility to conditions like depression and anxiety, it is still possible to have a good time and have a gratifying experience, rewarded by the victory of handing in your finished product.

1. Make a physical wellbeing checklist.

Are you eating balanced meals at regular intervals? Are you drinking enough water during the day? Are you sleeping enough? When was the last time you took a shower? Are your vitamin levels up to scratch, or is that persistent lethargy a sign of some major anaemia, vitamin D or B12 deficiency?

These are the questions that we forget to ask ourselves and that’s ironic because they are the simplest ones, yet it’s common knowledge that the way you feel physiologically literally feeds into the way you feel mentally (and vice versa!). I’ve tried to integrate this approach into my recovery and often address each point on the checklist before jumping to more sinister conclusions (never Google your symptoms. Like, ever…). I can feel like the world is falling apart, that I’m regressing to how I felt when I was mentally unwell yet often, poor quality sleep, dehydration and excessive caffeine are to blame for uncharacteristic behaviour and low mood. Addressing our body’s basic needs should be a major priority: think of it like a machine, if you’re not running maintenance, how is it meant to keep functioning?

Are you taking any medications to help manage mental health already? If so, maintain contact with your GP for regular check-ups as it’s vital to review medication dosages and efficacy throughout treatment. If you’re not reliant on medication but feel like you may need to consider this option, as a means of handling the pressures of the postgraduate course, enquire about this possibility and make an informed choice. Sometimes we can deal with things better when we know that our feelings and struggles are inherently linked to situational changes. Yet, as much as understanding the laws of cause and effect can help to see the bigger picture, that doesn’t automatically stop you feeling low or very anxious. It’s definitely worth seeking advice (which you could also do anonymously using helplines such as Mind or Samaritans) and other treatments such as talking therapies, holistic treatments and meditation.

Finally, have you been drinking more booze than you ought to be? As much as it may be instinctive to reach out for a stiff drink, spliff or cig, it really won’t help to abate the stress. If anything, the use of substances tends to worsen our capabilities as well as our relationships with loved ones. Abusing your body with the excessive use of stimulants and depressants is a sure-fire way to get your wires all mixed up, which is particularly significant because these substances can have an impact on hormone levels, mood fluctuation and cognitive performance.

Scheduled walks away from the setting of the uni campus and my accommodation were a lifesaver. Nice views and necessary respite from being glued to a screen!

2. Set realistic boundaries for yourself- ones which include space for doing recreational activities and/or absolutely nothing.

Rome wasn’t built in a day. A whopper of a dissertation or thesis isn’t going to be spontaneously generated in an overnight bender (not without considerable repercussions, anyway…). My advice would be to strategise your plan of attack on the thesis because this is more beneficial than locking yourself away in the library for 14 hours a day, guiltily staring at a blank page and refusing to leave until somehow, an entire chapter materialises. I can verify that burn-out is a solid 2/10 and I would definitely not recommend it to anyone, especially if it can be avoided. You may not feel that you deserve a break but that is most definitely a symptom of postgraduate delusion. Your time is precious and it should not be solely devoted to academia: neglecting friends, family and a social life only exacerbates feelings of loneliness and contributes to isolation.

The way I think about it is:
– If you take care of yourself now, your wellbeing is protected and this helps you to sustain yourself and keep persisting with the project for a long time.
– However, if you slave away mercilessly at your thesis and sacrifice your wellbeing, the words may get written but you will be less likely to sustain yourself long-term and this could lead to serious mental health issues.

As difficult as it may be, set yourself realistic boundaries and stick to them where possible. You may think that a nice dinner with friends isn’t really all that much of a priority with a deadline looming overhead, but the impact it can have to leave the house and actually engage with other human beings is INVALUABLE.

3. Try to establish some sort of routine- it can help you to feel grounded and ‘clock-off’ when you’ve met the goal for the amount of hours worked or words written. Then the rest of the day is yours to do what you please, with.

The hardest element of the postgraduate course, for me, was adapting to the fact it was essentially a full-time job (since I was unemployed). For a substantial period of my thesis, my life revolved solely around being sat at my desk and typing. I sometimes found it hard to justify eating, showering or socialising with friends because I felt as though I hadn’t achieved enough with my day. Towards the end of the writing period, I made an active effort to start the day at around 7am, eat breakfast and then work from 9-3pm on my thesis with occasional fresh air/coffee breaks. My rule was that my university-related documents were not to be opened after these hours, even if they stayed dormant on the taskbar. I was not allowed under any conditions to turn back to my thesis, especially after 9pm (because I have been known to work through the night on previous projects).

The result of this rota was profound: admittedly it was difficult to maintain at times and there were odd days when things didn’t go to plan but overall, I felt more proactive with this structure and often enjoyed my evenings more because I could read what I wanted and watch TV, knowing that my working day had been effectively attacked and that I’d dedicated a solid amount of time to the task. This was a good morale booster and stopped me from working topsy-turvy hours.

Time off can help to abate the build-up of stress by offering you distraction and invaluable perspective on your work: academia is just one part of your life, not all of it!

One of my most effective rules was creating zones within which I could only do certain tasks. This was my workstation most of the time- I wasn’t allowed to write recreationally or read in this area, as it was strictly for academic work.

4. If you have a good supervisor, utilise them. It’s what they’re there for! If you don’t feel comfortable with your supervisor, or you’re just flat-out incompatible with their working style/advice, look into alternative options such as your secondary supervisor.

I was privileged to have the support of an incredible supervisor, a figure I truly valued as an academic and as a confidant. My supervisor offered honest critique at all stages of the course, including before I’d even officially started, and gave me motivational talks in her office when I was tearful and ready to give up. Somehow, I always felt that I entered her office with the weight of a worthless thesis on my shoulders and left feeling as though I was worthy of being published. She had that kind of persuasive power.

I was lucky because I was able to be candid with her and confront the issues I was facing even on a social level and with my mental health. I had the assurance that whether via email, telephone call or a face-to-face meeting, we’d talk about what was going on and what we could do about it. The operative term there is ‘we’ and I would like to emphasise that because postgraduate courses are notorious for their isolating impact upon students. Having the support of an academic is imperative because when the poop hits the fan, they’re the ones who should be standing on the sidelines to cheer you on. By the end, they’re there to drag your sleep-deprived body across the finish line.

A good supervisor is important because they have experience under their belt and they’re already part of an established network of scholars, who can offer you insight and inspiration, as well as constructive criticism to help you up your game. They should be a mentor and there should be a sense of trust so that you can effectively collaborate with them when you need guidance.

If you don’t feel that your supervisor is appropriate for you, there are also numerous other points of call including academic support staff (like a secondary supervisor) available for most departments as well as platforms such as health and wellbeing support centres, commonly provided as part of university SU facilities.

5. Reach out, wherever possible.

So many people are in the same boat as you! It may feel like you’re all alone but many of your peers in the academic community will understand exactly what you’re going through. You don’t even have to physically verbalise that you’re struggling if you’re too nervous: a simple handwritten note under a roommate’s door or a Drake-esque late night text to your bestie is enough to let somebody out there know that you’re not doing too well. Maybe you need a cathartic talking/crying session or maybe you’re in need of complete and utter distraction, either way, it’s useful to let people know. They deserve to know because they care about you and have the capacity to notice changes in your behaviour that you may not be privy to- the divide between the way we see ourselves and the way others look upon us is vast, so it’s useful to consult somebody who is outside of your mind and able to look upon a situation objectively. An example of this is my best mate’s intervention a few weeks before my deadline. She forced me to go out for a pint, calmly explaining that she’d seen me in this manic state of overworking and anxiety before. She reassured me that I’d be back shortly after a drink but that I urgently needed to leave the house, otherwise I’d succumb to going fully stir-crazy. I respected her opinion as a close friend and despite initial resistance (and a spontaneous cry 10 minutes before leaving the house), I had a great time seeing my friends and genuinely felt somewhat restored by the evening. The next morning I was reinvigorated and focused on my work because I’d actually had time away from it for the first time in ages.

6. Engage in communal activities at your institution.

At the University of Huddersfield, there were weekly research seminars scheduled in (though they weren’t compulsory) wherein academics came from all over the country to give talks about their particular research in different literature practices. These sessions were informative and mentally stimulating but more than anything, they were an invaluable opportunity to see peers in the postgraduate community. It was a social gathering that got you away from your desk and feelings of solitude, plus it usually led to a nice lunch in town with the lecturers. Everybody was at different stages of their projects and were working on completely different themes yet there always seemed to be room for conversational overlap. The main strand of conversation that everyone could participate in was mental health- people were candid about struggles and often, issues from personal spheres such as bereavements or moving house seemed to perforate the academic bubble. There were reasonable adaptations made, as a result. Temporary leave, suspensions and extensions were available as required and nobody was made to feel lesser for using those opportunities. That’s what they’re there for!

It’s so useful to be amongst others doing postgraduate courses- they’re the individuals that recognise the signs of decline and stress. Often, the issue is that if you don’t realise for yourself that you’re ill or that your behaviour has changed, you’re not in a position to seek help. This is why your peers and academic staff are so vital! Don’t alienate yourself by internalising your anxieties- they’re normal and should be recognised as the natural fallback of managing highly stressful projects, such as juggling the preparation of large bodies of text and various deadlines.

Fears for peers – let’s make a healthy culture where we check up on our colleagues regularly!

7. Try not to compare yourself to others.

Your progress is not dictated by how you fare in comparison to others- people deal with stress subjectively and you may not know how somebody truly feels. Focus on your own work and create your own steady pace when getting through tasks. Everyone works differently and it would be pointless to spend your time imitating the process of others. Some people work steadily and keep to tight-knit schedules whilst others rely on spontaneous bursts of creativity, going for weeks through a drought and then bringing the flood of words all in one go.

It isn’t easy to force yourself into new productive habits and where possible, you should try and hold onto your comfort zone. For instance, your best mate might be a nocturnal whiz, capable of generating like, 3000 words a night whilst you might be an early bird who clocks off by lunchtime with the rest of the day to yourself- one is not better than the other, they’re simply different. Conforming to other people’s way of working doesn’t necessarily equate to their level of productivity and this can often present itself as a major stress-factor.

8. Plan, plan, plan!

Organisation and structure are the key to sustaining postgraduate studies and wellbeing. This isn’t limited to just academic practices- I’m talking financially and socially, too. A lot of people underestimate the pressures of juggling employment alongside studying and often, one takes precedence over the other. The consequences can be crippling when it comes to the crunch and wages/performances slip. It’s worth looking into student finance (after all, we all know this is practically a virtual cloud of money/debt that doesn’t bare thinking about) or saving, prior to embarking on a course. Some people are incredibly efficient and appear to be straddling all of their responsibilities effortlessly but the reality is that it’s really bloody difficult. Make sure to exercise boundaries e.g. limiting working hours during the week (instead of panicking and taking more on) when it’s not required. Figure out your plan for the week ahead, in advance, and make sure to incorporate plenty of opportunities for fresh air, exercise and completely slobbing out with your glorious friends. You can have everything, so long as you do so in moderation.

Remember: You are, under no circumstances, alone!

Here are some links to relevant articles you might find useful:

Charitable organisations that offer invaluable advice/resources:

“Reasons To Stay Alive”