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The studENT - A Year of studENT Mental Health

  

(posted on behalf of @Suzana Varga

Dear fellow ENT PhD candidates around the world, my name is Suzana Varga, and I am a PhD candidate in my final year at Rotterdam School of Management, Erasmus University. It is marvelous to be part of such a diverse and warm community as the ENT division, and it is with immense pleasure and great pride that I have the honor to be this year’s PhD representative at the global scale. 

Some of you may remember my name from an earlier studENT blog post that my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Sai Kalvapalle, and I wrote together about mental health and well-being in academia. And YES, Sai has successfully defended her doctoral degree few months ago – please do not hesitate to send your congratulations her way! (Just a proud friend 😊)

Very much following what Sai and I have started back then with scratching the surfaces of the topic of mental health in academia, I would like to continue in a similar spirit and allocate the space for my blog posts to discussing various themes around well-being in the PhD community and beyond. As such, with this post being the first in line, I would like to kick start a series dedicated to different reflections of my own and those of other fellow PhD candidates. Specifically so, on challenges and coping strategies when it comes to navigating through the distress often stemming from high, manyfold, and time-sensitive demands that we put on ourselves as ambitious junior scholars.

Let me start off this Year of studENT Mental Health with offering a brief rationale why I deem this topic so utterly important to allocate an entire year to it.

First of all, the quality of our lives largely depends on our subjective well-being. This being true for both the personal and the professional segments of life. Namely, generally higher subjective well-being does not only reflect more energy and will to seek joy in our personal lives, but it also has benefits for our work performance. Namely, it implies that we approach our work with more positive affect creating space for heightened creativity and productivity. There is plenty of research coming from positive psychology that highlight the importance of positive emotions, such as optimism, joy, hope, trust, and faith, for a healthy sense of self, which in turn facilitates an active and functional role in our society (for further readings check out Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman and/or Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi). It does not come as a surprise that when our subjective well-being is harmed, our general quality of lives suffers, including our productivity and overall performance at work. Namely, the mere prevalence of negative affect can easily cost us our motivation levels, lead us into procrastination, and chronic sense of, well, just not doing enough… And it is only a matter of time when long-term dissatisfaction in one area of life may spillover into others as well often creating a downward spiral. Just like positive affect facilitates engaging in more creative activity, negative affect can easily narrow our attention spans and lead us into tunnel vision where suitable solutions just do not seem to occur no matter how much harder we try. How many times have you found yourself in a rush to deliver in face of a tight deadline and felt stuck in your own ways longing for just the figment of a fresh thought? I cannot even count for myself. So all in all, our mental health is important and deserves more attention.

Secondly, while there seems to be a top line agreement in our professional world-wide community that mental health is important, there still seems to be very little truly open conversation about it. The reason for this often lies with an erred conflation of mental health related difficulties with an overall lack of professional competence. I, myself, have fallen in this trap as well. It is comforting to understand that these two notions can be interdependent yet distinct from each other in many ways. We engage in years and years of formal training to get equipped with various professional competencies. Be it in the form of theoretical knowledge that we acquire or practical experiences that we gain during the different levels of formal education as well as through the informal means of trainings, workshops, and actual execution of tasks within various work settings. Whereas very few of us if any has received formal (or informal) guidance in coping with our own distress in general and at work in particular. Hence, no wonder we know the technicalities of how to fill in a reviewer’s form for a conference or write-up the Introduction section of a manuscript, but we struggle with regulating our motivation for these and many other tasks and with finding joy and groundedness in the face of increasingly overwhelming demands of our work. The longer we keep shy about such needs and efforts to familiarize ourselves with helpful coping mechanisms, the longer the taboo and implicit assumptions about mental health difficulties equated with failure and weakness will last. Well, the thing is, speaking and more importantly practicing mental health on daily basis can help us remain sharper and more creative thinkers as well as more inspired writers. Breaking the silence and speaking about it is, hence, an important start – please do contribute with your thoughts, share your concerns, and struggles with others – trust me – many are experiencing the same and would love to open up about it. Be accepting of and compassionate with each other – be the listener whom you would need on the most difficult days. And slowly, the new normal may become being loud and proud about difficult topics rather than being shy and lie low just to avoid standing out. 

Thirdly, while having conversations about mental health is a necessary first step and can take us far, taking action can take us even further. The good news about the coping mechanisms with distress is that they can be learned and developed over time. With conscious effort and awareness, it is possible to become better at time management, prioritization, realistic (instead of perfectionistic) goal setting, managing work-life balance, and so forth… The even better thing about this is that by learning and exercising such coping skills, it is not only our work efforts that become more consistent and sustainable in the long run, but also the quality of our lives in general increases substantially. Many of the institutions we work at, luckily today, have formal support functions for such developmental journeys – be it occupational psychologists or physicians, well-being counsellors and/or coaches, course programs for various forms of self-development, and so forth. Hence, don’t be shy about it, remember that if you recognize that you experience difficulties in any of these areas, it is actually admirable, brave, and responsible to step out and learn how to support yourself. You are only being consistent with your learning orientation that most likely brought you to academia at the first place as you aim to master yet another, this time personal skill that can over time support you in your professional endeavors as well.

Lastly, while this may all sound intuitively rather clear and straightforward, perhaps even obvious, it strikes me quite surprisingly how easily we dismiss what obvious may be in face of high work demands. It may be just me, but I cannot get a count of how many times throughout my PhD journey I thought if only I worked a little harder, a little more, then just perhaps maybe I would get closer to – plug in whatever you may want(ed) to achieve – in my case, securing the chances of an academic job in the future. One may think this was intuition speaking for myself and pushing me to over-function despite all the signs my body and mind were desperately shouting at me. Somehow, I managed to shut down my actual intuition that was trying to warn me probably starting from the very first tension headache, through muscle soreness and back pain, digestive issues, all the way until my personal “favorite” – a full-blown migraine with aura. No need to feel sorry for me, I am writing this, because I know I am not alone. We all experience the consequences of stress in different ways. Many of us, however, tend to respond to stressors, that already put quite some strain on our bodies and minds, with demanding even more so from those very same bodies and minds resulting in a secondary stress response. Prolonged periods of exposure to high stress levels can easily lead to various degrees of physical and emotional exhaustion that are in extreme cases often referred to as burnout syndrome. As someone who has personal experiences of burning out during their PhD trajectory, I wouldn’t recommend it – not to say that there is need for panic if it happens – it can be a great time to take space for oneself and re-examine and realign with one’s value system. However, if anything, it would make me inexplicably happy if more of it could be prevented. Hence, lastly, let me reiterate – it is important to have open discussions about mental health and well-being related themes in our community. That way, we do not only normalize and validate each other’s experiences but also, we create an opportunity for all of us to keep reminding each other that in face of serious stressors instead of pushing ourselves even more so, we shall be kind and caring towards ourselves. Such efforts can help us in reconnecting with our intuition, which in turn can facilitate reviving and rebuilding capacity for dealing with challenges ahead. Therefore, when in (‘overwhelmth’ and) doubt, give yourself permission and others a reminder to take a breather.  

I sincerely hope that this blog post encourages many of you to reach out and show support to each other. Please do not hesitate to connect and share your thoughts with me as well – let’s keep the conversation going!

The resources in this article:

Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2013). Flow: The psychology of happiness. Random House.

Kalvapalle, S. & Varga, S., “Let’s talk about mental health and well-being in academia!”, The studENT, Entrepreneurship Division, Academy of Management, 14 March 2023,

https://ent.aom.org/blogs/wei-jun-hsueh/2023/03/14/the-student-mental-health-well-being

Seligman, M. E. (2002). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. Simon and Schuster.

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