Monday, 29 May 2017

Breaking the Stigma

Written by Juan Pablo Ruiz

#OktoSay: Let’s Talk Mental Health in Academia

About a month ago, Head’s Together launched their #OktoSay campaign to destigmatize mental health in the UK. Around the same time, a study done in Belgium was published that showed that “one in two PhD students suffered from psychological distress, while one in three were at risk of a common psychiatric disorder.” As soon as it was published, I had three people send me the article. It seemed that, at least in my network, I had become the go-to whenever this type of news showed up. This isn’t surprising given that a year ago, I founded my blog and resource, Labmosphere.com, where one of our core pillars is addressing mental health issues in academia.

Dark and ironic then, that those messages went ignored because I was at the time dealing with crippling levels of anxiety and, for the first time in my life, depression.

When I started my blog, I had just finished taking a free positive psychology course called the Science of Happiness, and before that had been trained as a Peer Supporter at the University of Oxford to help students dealing with mental health issues. At the time, I was dealing with stress and anxiety from my personal life, but believed that when I solved the situation, so too, would my life get back on track. Lab was a haven from everything outside, because things here were objective, and the data flowing continuously.

I was the happy-go-lucky grad student who was known for yelling “Science!” and running into the lab excitedly whenever an interesting result surfaced. I danced through the empty halls of the institute on weekends, blasting music and singing at the top of my lungs. Life was good, science was good. I wanted everyone to experience that. I thought I was immune.

But my anxiety continued to return, especially after I hit the expected third-year slump in my PhD. Sometimes, there was no clear cause or trigger for it; I would spend whole days in front of the computer in lab, using all my energy and lessons in mindfulness to regain the sensation of breathing freely and the ability to focus on my work.

That’s when my aunt, a psychologist who works at a clinic in Mexico, suggested I might have Asperger’s Syndrome, or Autism Spectrum Disorder Level 1. Until then, I had thought I was just unique and quirky: someone who was overly enthusiastic, intense, and avoided weekend plans to spend days shut in his room reading and writing about the strangest of topics. The professional diagnosis came a month later, but the recognition clicked as soon as I obsessively read the resources my aunt recommended. There were others like me, others who understood the gifts and challenges I had been unsuccessfully trying to describe to friends, family, and partners (cue the Tarzan music).

As freeing and joyful as the news was, and as much as I wanted to try on this new identity I was receiving in exchange for the thousands of labels I had accumulated over my life, the diagnosis coincided with a break-up and another slump in the PhD that left me at my lowest self-image I had had in a long time:

Maybe there WAS something inherently wrong with me, rather than just different. Maybe I shouldn’t aspire to do certain things because my brain just wasn’t built for them.

This is when the depression began, and managing that, alongside my anxiety, became overwhelming. It’s something I would never wish on anyone.

Being on the autism spectrum puts me more at risk for mental health issues, but no one is truly immune. The experience did give me much needed perspective: where before there was only empathy for those struggling with mental health issues, there is now solidarity. I too, am walking this path.

I understand what it is like to have weeks fly by without data because your motivation and concentration to work go out the window, what it is like to miss meetings because you’re in bed unable to get up, or hiding in an empty corner of the tissue culture room because you just broke down in tears and how difficult it is to recognise and admit that you need help and to ask for it.

I understand from a deep place of gratitude that having a powerful support network in my supervisor, friends, and family, made all the difference during the recovery from depression, and while I still work on my anxiety. And I understand that, unfortunately, not everyone has such a strong support system available to them.

This is where environment plays a huge role in either mitigating or exacerbating the mental health struggles we can all experience. We cannot continue to ignore the countless anecdotes, now being backed by hard data, such as the Belgium study. These point to the sad truth we must all face: that the current academic culture and environment are doing more exacerbating than mitigating.

Behind each of these data points is a story, a life, some of which are tragically lost to mental health issues. We cannot continue to feel isolated and alone.

Those of us that can and are willing must join our stories and voices to advocate for ourselves and those who cannot. It’s #OktoSay. As someone who has been there, I urge you to reach out. It gets better, and you are never truly alone.

In healing solidarity, Juan Pablo Ruiz.

About the Author

Image of Juan wearing a labcoat and taking notes
in a laboratory with glassware in the background


Juan Pablo Ruiz is currently working towards a DPhil in Biomedical Sciences. His research interests are in tissue and stem cell engineering, as well as developmental biology. He also has a wide array of interests which include positive psychology, literature, and creative writing. He recently received an ASD level 1, or Asperger's diagnosis, and is now working to break the stigma surrounding mental health and neurodiversity in academia

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