Thursday, 1 March 2018

Having a breakdown as an early career researcher: it's not always doom and gloom.

This is a guest post by Irene Sutcliffe to celebrate University Mental Health Day.  We have a standing invitation for guest posts - see here - and they can be under your real name, pseudonymous, or anonymous.  Irene is not the writer's real name, so it is not the actor

Academic Twitter is aflame with tales of mental health in academia, whether it be students, early career researchers or tenured academics. A prominent theme that has emerged is that academic institutions are woefully unequipped to deal with mental health issues. While I have no doubt that many of my colleagues - and their students - at universities across the UK have not received the best support possible from their institutions, my story is more positive.

I’m a postdoctoral researcher on a project at a leading UK university. It’s a digital humanities project, and I’m part of a small team.  I don’t live in the town where my institution is: I work from home but that’s OK – all I need is my laptop and the internet. We’re all integral to the project: if one of us cannot work, it affects us all. Moreover, what we do is so niche and highly skilled that employing someone to cover a role is impossible. We have deadlines, we have responsibilities (I wish I could tell you more but my status as an ECR means I don’t want to provide clues as to who I am). Essentially, someone going off sick for a long time is potentially catastrophic for the entire venture.

I finished my PhD in 2014 and started my role straightaway. I have a history of anxiety and depression, and have been on medication for over 20 years. At my induction meeting, I told my boss about my medical history, but said that as I’d just managed to do my PhD with only a couple of ‘blips’ I didn’t anticipate any huge issues. They were glad I’d told them: the admin department were informed that I had a disability but I declined an Occupational Health meeting.

I won’t go into the reasons for my breakdown: that’s another story. It wasn’t about my job, or even academia, more about my attitude to myself and events beyond my control. By December 2015 I was really struggling, and in January 2016 I had a complete breakdown: I dashed straight back to my parents in A Very Rural Part Of The UK and spent three months there, mainly in bed. During this time I was diagnosed with severe depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD, in case you didn’t know, is really vile and totally misunderstood. See

The minute I fled, I told my boss I was ill. Realising how serious it was, they only asked that I a) obtain sick notes and b) check in with them once a week. I had three months’ full pay, which was a relief (my institution has a good sick pay package). After a while, I asked if I could do some work while off sick, to give me something to do. My boss and Departmental Administrator agreed, and so I gradually built up work until I was doing half my usual amount per day. I found the courage, from somewhere, to leave my parents’ place in April. By this point, I was on half-pay for three months. At the end of July I went back full-time, partly because that was when Statutory Sick Pay kicked in.

Mentally, I continued to struggle throughout the rest of 2016: I was on the waiting list for specialist treatment for OCD, but the list was long. I was also weaning off a strong dose of diazepam from September to November – far too quickly, in hindsight. By December 2016 things got so bad that I was voluntarily admitted to an acute psychiatric ward. The whole time I was in touch with my boss, who was very understanding. I was discharged after a few days, but readmitted over Christmas for two weeks.

I was moved over to a different medication after the second admission which didn’t agree with me and in mid-January 2017 I was readmitted to the unit. Once again my boss was great, only requesting that I obtain sick notes. Two weeks later an incident led to me being placed under Section 3 of the Mental Health Act (effectively, detention for up to six months). Telling work about this was terrifying, especially considering how unwell I was and how much the project would suffer. But the only vibe I got was ‘My colleague and friend is unwell and suffering. I just want them to be OK’.

I spent two months on the ward and was discharged in late March. I saw a brilliant doctor in Occupational Health in April who agreed I could go back to work, and I started on a phased return in May. Since our project’s funding was being renewed for a final year at the end of June, my department offered a flexible contract from that point if I wanted it. I ultimately declined, but it was great to have the option. My boss asked that I check in with them via email each Friday, but didn’t hassle or pressurise me at all. By mid-June I was back to full-time hours. I saw the Occupational Health doctor again in August and they were really amazed at my progress, and said I could always contact them.

Life is stable now, due the right medication, amazing therapy and the passage of time. I have plans for the future, and my boss is more than happy to sponsor me for a postdoc. I worry that my history of having over 200 days off sick over a year and a half is going to damage my prospects, but there’s not much I can do about that.

So: if you have mental health problems and are starting a new role, be upfront from the outset. As my boss knew that I had issues, it made things easier when things went south. Find out what your options are with Occupational Health – institutions should have decent provision. If necessary, send your line manager information about your condition (with something as misunderstood as OCD, this was helpful). Most importantly, be kind to yourself. As a wise psychiatrist once said to me, ‘You can’t be an amazing academic if you’re dead’.

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