Today is R U OK? Day, a day created in 2009 to decrease the stigma around seeking support for mental health particularly for those who have contemplated suicide. The following may cause some emotional distress, so I encourage you to seek help, be it from a close friend, family member, (if you’re a student, your university’s counselling support team), or by contacting a crisis support service such as Lifeline (13 11 14), Beyond Blue (1300 22 4636, or Kids Helpline (1800 55 1800). For my fellow LGBTQIA+ community members, QLife (1800 184 527) is our dedicated crisis support service, available 3pm — midnight every day.
In my continued journey of self-reflection and acknowledging R U OK? Day, I'm taking some time to share my story and my own relationship with my brain and my mental health.
Many who have known me for a while will know that before I ended up studying counselling, I was a full-blown STEM boy. I graduated from Medical Science, then Biotech, and settled in to what at the time seemed to be what I wanted to me: a medical researcher. I thought it would be a good step to take because if I couldn’t be a doctor, a researcher who could help inform doctors was just as good! Life was actually pretty good at the time, but 2015 and 2016 were the two years which would put an immense burden on my mental health.
These photos were from that time. I'm smiling in these because I'm not in the lab. I'm smiling in these photos because I felt like the pressure placed upon me by my principal supervisor wasn't in the same location I was in. I had escaped the tension that would greet me every morning I turned up at the institute, trying to see across the open plan office if my principal was in that day. I feared that the data I was churning out every day wasn't going to be enough to placate the concerns of my supervisory team that I wasn't doing enough; that I wasn't spending enough time in the lab.
My anxiety took hold. I've always had it. It's like a friend. It keeps me safe whenever I face a situation where I don't know anyone. I was that shy kid who never spoke up to say hello to the other children in class. In my research life, as much as I loved being in the lab, doing experiments, something felt different. Looking back on it, those two years were where the light and my enthusiasm for being in the medical research industry gradually died. I was contemplating withdrawing completely because I felt like such a financial burden to the group (my project burned through so much money because it was difficult to get a good study population). A cancer diagnosis within my family also took its toll. Being the one with the most knowledge on what was going on and the options to be considered drained me both emotionally and physically.
I put my hand up to do more volunteer work with student clubs, be in a promo shoot for university (that was a great excuse to explore uni and meet new international students), and go take a holiday interstate. As I did these things, I slept became aware that stepping away would be a good thing, and so I did. I took a leave of absence to think about things (without telling my parents), became more interested in the journey and sacrifices international students and their families take to study in Australia, and then applied to study Counselling. When I left my research life, I was asked by the Head of School what could be done better. I told them that there needs to be more effort to remind Higher Degree Research students of the support services that are available to them. This was something that I felt was lacking the most during my time as an HDR student. I told the same thing to the team at the research institute. If you don’t tell them, they won’t come. If you tell them, and do it in a way that facilitates a safe environment to talk about their struggles, you’ve opened the door to healing.
We researchers are a funny lot. We pour so much energy into what we do that we tend to forget about ourselves until it gets to a point where your bedridden for days on end. My principal at the time said to me, "Josh, I want to see you in the lab when I enter through in the morning and still in the lab when I leave at the end of the day." I most certainly did not heed his advice. I paid a visit back to the lab not long ago and caught up with a PhD student from my old group who observed that after I had left, my principal became more understanding of the concerns of his students, and actually encouraged them to take time off. Maybe time does change people. Looking back on it, all of these things that I did to avoid the inevitable was my subconscious telling me to step back and take a break. Things eventually got better, and after pitching a potential research project earlier this year, my course coordinator forwarded me some news about HDR students being encouraged to see the free counselling services and workshops to enhance mindfulness. We’re getting there, and as more awareness around HDR mental health increases, the research environment can become less draining.
I would hope that in the near future there’s a dedicated support group of mental health professionals and research support officers working independently from the main research teams to provide assistance and counselling to HDR students without the fear of principals and associates poking their noses into things. The ability to talk about a student’s concerns about the relationship they have with their supervisor a confidential and safe environment should be something that is actively promoted by research institutes. After all, we students are more than just bodies churning out data for money. You’d think that after all that I experienced as an HDR student that I swore off ever being in that environment ever again; not completely. If I get the opportunity to do a PhD in the counselling field, one of my research interests is to gain a broader understanding of the mental health challenges faced by HDR students from all disciplines, and counselling’s place in improving the mental health quality of this particular student population.
HDR students, the hustle is real. I know it to be real, but the feelings of isolation and pain shouldn’t be dealt with alone. I have seen many push through and find resilience through their journey, and some draw the line in the sand and exit what can be a very exciting area to be in. What is the cost to be borne by yourself and do you know how to channel it something that drives you to do better? Know who you can talk to about your mental health journey. If you don’t know, please ask your friends and your networks. If your research institute doesn’t have a mental health support team, advocate for one. Spend some time away from lab work and thesis writing. For those of you who know an HDR student, invite them to head out of the lab for a coffee or for a walk outside. Ask them how they’re feeling about life right now: what’s going good, what’s not going so good, and what you can do to help them maintain that level of good, whatever that may be. If you are a supervisor, I ask you to reflect on how you can be a supervisor or group leader that encourages your ECRs, MCRs, RAs, and students to take their mental health journey as importantly as it is to make good quality research. Your group will be better for it. Overall, we shouldn’t be only asking someone if they are OK today. We should check in regularly. Check in on anyone you might be concerned about, even the ones that look just like me.