PhD’s, Perspective and Why I Don’t Like Sundays

By Connor Farewell

*Note that this blog just details my personal opinions, feelings and ramblings; some of you will be bored, some of you may not agree with what I have to say, or indeed how I say it, but it is not intended to offend anyone in anyway and I wholeheartedly apologise if I do.*

The prospect of writing this blog has been hanging over my head for…an absolute age, come to think of it. It’s not like I haven’t had notice (I’ve known for about 6 months). And yet, when it came to actually thinking of a topic?

I had nothing.

The first year of my PhD came and went and, sure, the experience was fine. Some even might say it was good. But nothing to really write home about. Before I knew it, I had hit the infamous “2nd year slump” that I had heard so much about. Most people who are doing/have completed their PhDs are aware of this stage; it’s that moment of utter panic and confusion when you realise that you don’t have a clue what you’re going to do and/or you seriously question your sanity for embarking on this “wonderful academic journey” in the first place. What I needed was perspective. And perspective, was what I would soon receive.

Those of you who have had the misfortune of phoning me early on a Sunday morning will be aware that it is not a good idea. It is a sure-fire way to annoy me. So much so that most of the time, I’m just not going to answer. Don’t take it personally. So bearing that in mind, when my phone rings early on one particular Sunday morning in December (the 13th if you’re curious), I ignore it. When it rings again. I ignore it. Rings AGAIN. I swear at it, smile at my creative use of profanity and… continue to ignore it.

Remember what I said about perspective? Turns out it was desperately trying to get hold of me. After the 5th or 6th time ringing, I decide enough is enough, let’s see what this absolute cretin wants, daring to wake me from my slumber. The conversation, paraphrased, went something like this:

Me: “For Christ sake, WHAT?!

Perspective: “…”

Me: “…”

Perspective: “He’s committed suicide”

Hearing that one of your best friends of almost 20 years has taken his own life, was, to dramatically understate it, a bit of a shock. The cavalcade of feelings I experienced at that moment were both varied and intense. I remember them vividly; encompassing utter devastation, nausea, confusion and bizarrely, an intense desire to ignore what I had just discovered and focus on working out what I wanted to eat for lunch. Priorities indeed. The following 6 weeks were, without doubt, the worst that I have ever had on this Earth. But channelling The Beatles and with a little help from my friends, I am here, through to the other side, battered and bruised but by and large, physically and emotionally intact.

Now, despite my directionless rambling so far, I am coming to a point. My friend, and in many ways my brother, was 24 years old. And most tragic of all is the fact that his story is not an isolated case. According to the Office of National Statistics, in the UK in 2014, there were 6, 122 suicides in total, with males more than three times likely to commit suicide. Between the ages of 10 and 29, the rate of suicide has remained relatively consistent since 2005, at approximately 10 per 100, 000 people. As scientists we should be reasonably careful about extrapolating data too far but in the interest of illustrating a point, as well as putting the statistic into a little bit of context, according to the 2011 population census, the age bracket of 10-29 encompassed 11. 97 million people. In addition, the charity PAPYRUS predict that each year, between 600 and 800 individuals between the ages of 15 and 24 will take their lives. As age increases, the statistics become even more depressing, with just shy of 50 per 100, 000 people between the ages of 30 and 59 taking their own lives.

These statistics and my own personal experiences have made me aware of two points. First, in general terms, the stigma associated with mental health illnesses in this country needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. I’m certain that each and every one of you reading this can think of at least one person you know that suffers from some form of mental health issue. Moreover, I bet that there are also people you know who are suffering in silence. Why is this happening? And why, according to the statistics at least, is this particularly an issue with males? Who knows? At the risk of painting all men with the same stereotypical brush, perhaps it’s down to some kind of engrained gender role or some false idea that needing help is embarrassing and comparable to weakness? I have no idea but I’m sure many of you do and I would be very interested to hear your thoughts.

Secondly, the UK is not exactly renowned for the availability of high quality, consistent mental health facilities. For example, I was once told by a GP to “Get over it and just go for a run or something.” Not exactly helpful. Don’t get me wrong, that isn’t to say there aren’t some magnificent mental health practitioners out there; I know there are. However, the issue arises with the inconsistent availability of services across the country. Take my home town of Frome, a small town in Somerset. To this date, there are still no local services that specifically cater to mental health (although they are coming). It’s very easy to look back on past events and try to rationalise why they happened; it certainly does make you think whether I’d even need to be telling you this story and whether the statistics would paint a better picture, if that kind of infrastructure was available more readily.

So what’s the conclusion to this depressing episode? Unfortunately, for now, there isn’t one. The issues I’ve described are still issues today and will likely still be issues in the foreseeable future. However, anything to increase the overall awareness of these problems is a start. But the take home message for anyone that reads this, (particularly if you can relate to any of the points I’ve raised), is as follows:

You are never alone in this. Not only are there people just like you out there, feeling similar things to yourself, but there are also people who care for you and who want to help. There is no shame in reaching out.

And what of me? I’d be lying if I said ultimately writing about this topic hasn’t been slightly cathartic for me. My whole experience was heart-wrenching. However out of the embers, hope has arisen in a variety of ways. The relationships I share with my friends who were affected have been strengthened, new friendships have been forged and awareness of the surrounding issues has increased dramatically. For me, making it through such an ordeal has highlighted how much love there actually is in the world but more importantly, how much people are willing to share it.

Perspective indeed.

In memory of Callum David Thomas Wooldridge – May You Never Be Broken Again

 

Advice and Contact Details

If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health issues, there are a number of completely confidential services available to get in contact with, both in and outside the University of Southampton.

Samaritans – “If there’s something troubling you, then get in touch”

Phone: 116 123      Email: jo@samaritans.org

HOPELineUK – “If you are at risk of suicide, or are worried about a person at risk of suicide”
Phone: 0800 068 41 41

Enabling Services Drop In: A drop in service with the purpose of signposting people to the most appropriate source of help for their situation.

Located in Building 37, between 1-3 pm each day.

 

References

Office of National Statistics, Suicides in the UK, 2014 registrations. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171778_432185.pdf

Papyrus: Prevention of Young Suicide

https://www.papyrus-uk.org/

 

 

This blog solely represents the views of the author and does not reflect the views or opinions of BSPS. Blog content and comments will be moderated and any offensive comments removed.