The highs and lows of being a researcher with Bipolar Disorder

Being a researcher is tough any day of the week. It’s hard to juggle the reading, writing, teaching, publications, conferences (the list can and will go on…). But how about when you’ve got a mental health condition to contend with?

By Kayleigh Caffyn

My mental health condition can be imagined as the biggest rollercoaster you’ve even been on or the biggest wave you’ve ever surfed. Bipolar Disorder isn’t all that it seems – the highs can be seen as fun and exciting, and well, the lows are just lows – right? In some ways this can be considered true, but it’s a lot scarier than that. Add in a rush of adrenaline and fear and you’re onto a winner! Bipolar disorder typically consists of two elements: mania and depression. The mania (or hypomania) can consist of elements such as increased impulsivity, decreased need for sleep and eating, and sometimes even psychotic symptoms. The lows are a terrible depression which can leave you in a pit of guttural disappear, leaving you unmotivated, suicidal, and low on energy. The two are like chalk and cheese, one month you can be on top of the world, the next you can’t even get out of bed.

This depiction of Bipolar Disorder isn’t the same for every sufferer, and can be made even more complex with additional factors such as rapid cycling, or psychotic symptoms. My Bipolar Disorder can be quite confusing at times, with it not falling into distinct categories, or switching every couple of days. It can make planning for work and life events more difficult because you can’t predict what mood state you’ll be in. This is where research can be both a blessing and a curse.

As a researcher, you’re ultimately responsible for the output of your thesis and all of the elements that come with it. This can cause a lot of pressure and imposter syndrome at the best of times, let alone with a debilitating mental health condition! I often have to try my best to plan around my moods and allow them to dictate the work I’m doing. Feeling high? Then my days tend to be hyper-focused and I can work at the speed of light. I might be working for hours on end or feel incredibly sociable. Or I could be really anxious and agitated and can’t focus on one thing long enough to complete anything. Feeling low? Then there’s no chance of any work being done. I may as well kiss the day goodbye and try again tomorrow. The reality of this is that the majority of times my main focus is to keep myself safe, which can often conflict with the amount of work I have to do.

So how do I manage my PhD with Bipolar disorder in tow? Firstly, I work with my disorder instead of against it. I listen to what my body is telling me and work with what I’ve got, in the good and the bad times. Another way I manage is by having plenty of support. My support network of family, community, and the university has been an integral part of my success as a PhD student. It’s been great having support from the university in particular as they are now aware of my situation and can make amendments to my PhD where needed. This includes extending my deadlines, having specialist software, and just having the relief that my department are there for me in times of difficulty. So now when I am having a low period and I am struggling to do my work effectively, I can let them know so that these special adjustments can be made. In more severe situations, I know I can consider temporary withdrawal to allow myself to recover and give myself time to heal. This is a very important option to have as it allows for me to have some flexibility within the PhD, it can be done at my pace.

If you’re struggling with your mental health as a researcher, you are not alone. It can be hard at times, but we will get there. It’s not about how long it takes, it’s about our own journey and path we take to become the best researcher we can be. You should be proud of yourself and the hardships you’ve overcome – life’s a rollercoaster ride.


If you’d like further support with your studies during your PhD, please speak to your supervisors, Wellbeing Support Services or Disability Services.

Header Image: Nick Fewings

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