When the going gets tough, let me counsel you to seek counselling

As part of the ‘Are you OK?’ campaign and Self Care Week, the PhD Life blog has focused on mental health for the week. This time, Teresa Ambrosio urges you to give counselling a chance…

Getting through PhD life is an amazing experience: PhD students live in this kind of limbo, between being a student and preparing for working life. We are usually independent, manage our own work, and are constantly exposed to a young, dynamic, and developing environment. If people look at this world from the outside, they might think of it as paradise. Unfortunately, the struggle to produce innovation and progress comes with a price. A recent paper on the journal Research Policy assessed  that the risk of suffering from mental health issues is higher for PhD students than the rest of the population.

Here are the highlights of this research as quoted on the journal’s website:

  • One in two PhD students experiences psychological distress; one in three is at risk of a common psychiatric disorder.
  • The prevalence of mental health problems is higher in PhD students than in the highly educated general population, highly educated employees, and higher education students.
  • Work and organizational context are significant predictors of PhD students’ mental health.

This study was part of an official research project, but if one were to google “anxiety during PhD”, one would find many stories written by PhD students who are dealing or have dealt with mental health problems.

I have experienced anxiety and depression in the past two years, and I attribute that to my poor choice of mentors. Other students end up feeling down because of lack of positive results, a nasty work environment, home sickness, or lack of social life. To overcome this problem, I tried to keep myself busy with sport, hobbies, volunteering and so on. It didn’t work for me.

The situation changed when I decided to look for professional advice from a counsellor. I understand that many people might consider this a strange solution. In some countries, as in Italy (where I’m from), people tend to associate the idea of counselling solely to madness and psychosis. So, they refuse the idea of counselling in the first place as they don’t want to be labelled as mentally ill.

If you are one of them, I urge you to remove this idea from your mind! Counsellors are here to help and give us tips about how to overcome unhelpful thinking, anxiety, depression. Try not to worry about what your friends or family might think as it’s more important that you look after what you think about yourself and your decisions, than what others are thinking of you.

If you are an international student, as I am in England, and are not confident to express your feelings or afraid that you might not get the message across, you might consider doing your own research online. I was advised to google “Shy No Longer” to help me figure out what was causing my unhelpful thinking. Specifically, take a look at the section “Unhelpful Thinking Style”, and look for the unhelpful self-statements and thoughts that drive your depression, anxiety, etc. Also, it was useful for me to read about the feeling-thinking connection and learn how to distinguish feelings from thoughts.

Remember that you are a capable person as you were accepted into a PhD Program, but that doesn’t mean you won’t need help when the going gets tough. Talking about what you’re thinking, and feeling might be the best thing you will learn as a PhD student.


If, like Teresa, you’ve had to learn to manage your depression or anxiety, we’d like to hear from you: how have you coped with it? What strategies have you set in place? Tweet us at @ResearchEx, email us at libraryblogs@warwick.ac.uk, or leave a comment below. And remember that most universities offer Counselling Services in case you want to talk to someone about a suitable coping mechanism for you.


Teresa Ambrosio is PhD student in Chemistry at the Centre for Doctorial Training in Sustainable Chemistry at the University of Nottingham. Teresa has her own blog post: teresa healthy lifestyle choice where a previous version of this blog post was originally published. You may reach Teresa through Twitter @teres4amb or via her LinkedIn profile.


Image: canada-sunrise-morning-fog-road-2707557 / 12019 / CC0 1.0

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