There is a heavy cost to getting a PhD that nobody talks about.

Image: Tim Gouw

Embarking on a PhD is a journey of epic proportions. Initially filled with excitement and enthusiasm, students are compelled by the idea of pushing the frontiers of human knowledge.In time, this enthusiasm can fade. Devoting three to five years of your life to such a tiny subject niche has the ability to do that, even to the most devoted of individuals. Unfortunately, the long and winding road takes both a physical and psychological toll. Stress management will inescapably take centre stage, and your ability to manage it will be extensively tested.

In 2011, a study carried out by the University of Texas found that 43% of their graduate student participants reported experiencing more stress than they were able to handle, with PhD students expressing the highest levels. This likely explains the high attrition rate. In 2013, it was estimated that 30% of students who embark on a PhD in the UK leave university without finishing. This statistic was worse in North America, where in 2008, almost 50% of students left graduate school without their doctorate. However, research has shown that the majority of students who enter doctoral programs have the academic ability to successfully complete the degree. Therefore, it is likely that the culture of PhD programs are to blame.

My personal experience

I have suffered with depression for my entire adult life. Worryingly, the stigma surrounding the subject remains rampant. Enough so that it doesn’t come into the majority of people’s conversations unless a suspected suicide hits the news. In academia, the silence is even more deafening. For myself and many other PhD students, our thesis hovers over us like the sword of Damocles, even in supposed moments of rest.

For me, paranoia proliferates. I become so fixed on what my supervisory team think of me and my thesis progression that I sacrifice most of my outside interests. Now, I feel guilty when I take time off, regardless of how essential it is to avoid physical and mental exhaustion.

For a long time, I assumed that I was expected to maintain a false illusion of mental stability and confidence when interacting with others within the faculty. Not only emotionally taxing, it was isolating – something which is already an inevitability as a PhD student.

Further, none of my closest friends or family have been previously exposed to what a PhD entails. Of my immediate family, I am only one of two who went to university. Of course, they have been nothing but supportive.  But in the majority of cases, the advice they have provided has unfortunately fallen on deaf ears, and has sometimes further contributed to my anxiety.

Luckily for me, my supervisory team are fantastic. With their extensive support, providing advice through personal experience, they are helping me through the PhD process. But this isn’t the case for everyone. As an alternative, talking with other PhD students can also help alleviate mounting stress. For me, the latter has been the greatest way to help break the chains of isolation, as the more students I talk to, the more I began to realise that I am far from alone.

We need to break the silence

Why does the stigmatisation of mental health still exist, when approximately 1 in 4 people experience a mental health problem each year? Poor mental health within universities is an escalating problem. Not just because it affects how students learn, but it can also significantly contribute to whether students actually finish their degrees.

Disturbingly, in 2017 the All Party Parliamentary Group of Students found that 69% of students have felt depressed within an academic year, while 33% of students had experienced suicidal thoughts. The actual recorded suicide rate of students within higher education in England and Wales within 12 months ending in July 2017 was 4.7 deaths per 100,000 students, equating to 95 suicides. Although a relatively small number, this has increased on previous years.

Across the UK, universities are taking positive steps to help combat this growing problem. For example, the University of Bristol has spent £1 million on a new wellbeing service for students, following seven suicides within a six-month period. Such initiatives are to be welcomed, as are signs of coordinated leadership nationally, but much more still needs to be done. Hopefully raising awareness of students’ mental wellbeing, alongside emphasizing communication and increasing support can prevent the loss of life of more talented young people.

Keith Flint.

Keith Flint, The Prodigy

Keith Flint.

In my opinion, the king of the misfits. I was introduced to The Prodigy when I was still in nappies. My brother has always mentioned to me that I used to dance around like I’d been possessed every time he played one of their records. Their influence on my life has stood the test of time. I have listened to the band practically every day for approximately twenty years. From ‘Music For The Jilted Generation’ and ‘The Fat Of The Land’ through to ‘Always Outnumbered, Never Outgunned’ and ‘Invaders Must Die’, their music has always been an instrumental part of my life, helping me pave my own path going forward. 

I remember seeing the Firestarter video when I was a kid. Keith wearing that oversized United States styled t-shirt. By societies standards, he was this freak. But to me, it helped me understand and conceptualise that being a bit different is more interesting and exciting than being like everyone else. That alternative look is probably why I never gave a shit about what others thought I looked like. Perhaps that is why when I grew my hair out to the point I looked like an unwashed willow tree, it still didn’t bother me.

As you may have now guessed, I was a fucking misfit in school. Alternative as hell, and not particularly liked as a consequence. Likely due to how weird I was… probably. When school became unbearable, music was both my defence and release. The Prodigy were the guys who topped that list. Often music that helped me lash out against the intolerable, it kept me focused on the bigger picture. As of right now, that focus has become slight overcast in shadow. Liam Howlett (Producer/Engineer of the band) has informed fans this afternoon that Keith killed himself. If I was in water, I think I would have sunk sixty feet. Keith, this enigma that I always considered to be larger than life, has now been engulfed by it. 

The best gigs I have ever had the pleasure to go to all had The Prodigy headlining the bill. Milton Keynes Bowl 2010, Brixton Academy 2012 and Creamfields 2013. All events that I will never forget. They have become pieces of my history which will inevitably shape my own future. The ‘we don’t give a shit’ attitude they repeatedly evoked towards negativity has been a driving force in my own life. The message helped stimulate movements to surround myself with people that actually matter, alongside changing and removing toxic parts of my life. Both of these actions helped to trigger movement onto the correct path for increasing my own self-worth and general happiness. You must think that I’m overexaggerating when I say that a band can have this ability, but they did. Re-listening to songs that I grew up with immediately induces memories. Happiness in some circumstances, and the feeling of growth in others. The latter particularly applies to the turbulent periods of my adolescence, wherein I would usually rinse either ‘Fat Of The Land’ or ‘Invaders Must Die’ on repeat if I had a shitty week. But that’s why it still invokes incredible emotions. It allows me to understand and accept just how far I have come, all the way back from starting out as an initially bullied, weird little kid, to now; wherein I am a successful young adult… and PROUDLY still a pretty fucking weird person.

Keith, you helped me pave my own way. I know the worth of being unique. I have embraced that, so thank you for being a core component to helping me identify and realise that fact. Rest in peace, you twisted instigator. 

If you haven’t really listened to The Prodigy before, please give some of their records a listen. If you wanted a top 10 list in terms of which songs impacted my life the most, I have left that below. I am sure that I’ll be listening to them over and over for another 20 years to come.

  1. Poison
  2. Voodoo People
  3. Breathe
  4. Firestarter
  5. Charly
  6. Their Law
  7. Serial Thrilla
  8. Diesel Power
  9. Smack My Bitch Up
  10. Out Of Space
  11. Bonus: Run With The Wolves

Untreated depression: It will damage your brain.

Image: Kat Jayne

It is a scary prospect, but it is something that has accumulated serious momentum. From a scientific point of view, I have to admit I do find it fascinating. However, from a health perspective, this is rather worrying. The conclusions being drawn? Untreated depression may be causing brain degeneration.

Considering one in four people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year, this might raise concern. It becomes even more alarming with the publication of a recent study highlighting that approximately 35% of people newly diagnosed with depression refused to seek treatment. Without professional help, how long can depression toxify and contaminate an individual’s identity? Easily an entire lifetime. Not seeking help for prolonged periods of sadness or emotional absence may not be just affecting your character, as was often thought for decades. 

The ‘all in the mind’ mentality is dead. The divide between physiology and psychology was clearly defined for many years. When patients were physically unwell – because of say, a broken bone or arthritis – any accompanying mental health instabilities were waived off. Depression often accompanied these ailments (and still does, of course), but the diagnostic significance of such was irrelevant. If a patient suffering from a chronic disorder like arthritis said they were depressed, the general consensus amongst medical practitioners was: ‘well you would be, wouldn’t you?’. The same conclusion was always drawn. The patient was simply depressed as a consequence of the pain associated with their arthritis, or their broken leg, and so forth. No real attention looked into the other potentiality; what if the depression causes physiological ailments? What if a psychological disturbance could be having serious negative effects on the body?

In the 21stcentury, the argument for this is strong. Chronic, untreated depression appears to have a degenerative effect on the brain, damaging it from the inside. Here I want to highlight some key pieces of research which link depression to neurodegeneration. The idea here is to help us all understand just how important seeking assistance might be if you think yourself or a loved one might be suffering from a chronic depressive episode. Trying out different methods to combat depression will be beneficial both for emotional stability and life fulfillment, but also for the health of our brains, too.

A major finding was published when discovering differences in the brain scans of depressed and non-depressed patients. Looking at cases of major (clinical diagnosis of chronic) depression which had lasted for more than a decade, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Ontario, Canada identified that during episodes of major depression, the patients’ brains would show signs of inflammation. The study group identified that a key protein associated with the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) inflammatory response was approximately 30% higher in the brains of people who lived with depression for more than a decade. However, this isn’t the only study to report such a finding. Another study published in 2016 looked at the whole-body levels of CRP (another biological marker of inflammation) in patients with depression and those without. The observational studyidentified that depressed individuals exhibited CRP levels more than 30% higher than those without depression.

The results presented here are startling, collectively indicating that we may need to change our thinking about depression and its effects. The evidence strongly affirms that depression truly is a biologically based disorder, rather than something that only exists in the field of psychology. But how does this link to degeneration of the brain?

Whilst inflammation is used to protect the body from infection amongst other functions, excessive inflammation can cause extensive cellular damage. Chronic inflammation within the brain has been linked to several destructive neurodegenerative diseases. One of which is Parkinson’s disease, which primarily manifests itself as a movement disorder, wherein patients begin to show signs of slowed movement (bradykinesia), until movement becomes practically impossible without medication. This primary symptom is caused by the destruction of neurons in the portion of the brain which is essential for movement. Unfortunately, there is currently no cure.

Whilst the contribution of inflammation to Parkinson’s disease does not appear to be the primary causation, in Alzheimer’s disease it may be a different story entirely. Alzheimer’s disease is the most common neurodegenerative disease in the world. In the United States alone, approximately 5.7 million peopleare currently suffering with the disease, which is primarily associated with progressive and severe memory loss. Again, there is currently no cure. Recent researchpublished in the Lancetnow appears to highlight neuroinflammation as a central cause of Alzheimer’s disease, with many otherstudies further supporting this idea.

Multiple lines of research therefore support the idea that ignoring a potential major depressive episode could have considerably devastating consequences for the long-term health of the brain. What can we do to fight back? Alongside seeking professional support, as little as 20 minutes of exercisecan reduce your bodily levels of inflammation. This is alongside the general health benefits of exercise, including reducing the risk of type 2 diabetes and cancer. Diet is the next big consideration. There are several foods which should be avoided due to their contribution towards inflammation, including red meat and refined carbohydrates. On the other hand, there are many foods which are considered to be anti-inflammatory, including green leafy vegetables such as spinach and kale, fatty fish like salmon, and a range of berries. A more exhaustive list of pro- and anti-inflammatory foods can be found here. Supporting this switch in diet, women whose diets include more foods which trigger inflammation and fewer foods which restrain inflammation have up to a 41% increased risk of being diagnosed with depressionthan those who mostly eat a less inflammatory diet.

Depression is a biological disorder and we all need to take this into consideration. Its link to inflammation and bodily damage cannot be underestimated, and it is something we must consider when either ourselves or a loved one is currently suffering a major depressive episode. If you are adamant about not seeing a professional (I highly advise you do, however), exercising more and switching up our diets may provide an answer that we desperately need.

A new year should never mean a new beginning.

buh.pngPhoto: Pexels

The new calendar year… a time associated with celebration yet often tainted with the thought of beginning anew. As January rolls in, many of us are overcome by feelings of starting over, in correlation with forgetting of the past. Whilst new year’s resolutions should often to be employed if you believe you have the ability to become a better person, trying to forget or ignore previous life experiences would be cheating yourself. Continue reading “A new year should never mean a new beginning.”

Don’t let the past dictate your future.

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Most of us understand that an upsetting childhood can affect our adult lives. Depending on the nature of the trauma and the resilience of the individual, resulting consequences can sometimes lead to misery, which often manifests itself through extended depression and anxiety. This is especially the case if no professional help is sought. Continue reading “Don’t let the past dictate your future.”

Never Rush Into A Relationship.

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The end of a serious relationship can cripple us emotionally. I am sure you, at some point in time, have been on the receiving end of ‘This just isn’t working’, or ‘It’s not you, it’s me’, or perhaps even ‘I don’t want to risk destroying our friendship’. There are definitely more stereotypical lines that are used by both sexes, but I hope these are enough to provide you with a sense of relatability. Continue reading “Never Rush Into A Relationship.”

Where Words Leave Off, Music Begins.

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‘Where words leave off, music begins
– Heinrich Heine

The power of music, it’s inescapable. Many suggest it to be the universal language of the human race, alongside being the greatest form of communication on the planet. Think about it… even if we do not understand the language someone is singing in, we can still identify and appreciate good music when we hear it.

Scientists have identified that listening to music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function. Because of this, many people see incredible potential in the power of music to change the brain and modulate its functioning. For example, music has been shown to help stimulate thought to be forgotten memories in Alzheimer’s patients. Curating a collection of music that an Alzheimer’s sufferer may have listened to when they were younger appears to encourage the activation of long-term memories pathways. Additionally, a technique referred to as melodic intonation therapy utilisesthe use of music to trigger portions of the brain into taking over for areas that might have been previously damaged. It is sometimes used for individuals who have suffered a stroke, and lost their ability to speak, for example. In some cases, it can help patients regain their speaking prowess.

It’s unsurprising then, that music is so extensively intertwined with our emotional responses. It almost has the ability to allow us to become an ultimate version of ourselves. Think about listening to music in your car. It makes us feel totally invisible. If we sit there and play the stereo at full volume, it’s almost as if other people cannot see you, as if it tints your windows.

Music is a feeling, not a sound. The majority of music that we choose to listen to gives us some form of emotional buzz. Whether that is happiness, anger, or sadness, music has the ability to stimulate these emotions in all of us. Over the Winter months, focusing on the negative can be, unsurprisingly, unexceptionally normal for us. So much so, the term seasonal affective disorderkeeps cropping up in society. This is then further highlighted when people change their moods once the sun does eventually make an affectionate appearance.

For me, when the sun is out, the UK is one of the best places to be. Sun in the capital is incomparable, and it sets up an unlimited number of possibilities. Yes, sure, experiencing sun all year round on a beautiful beach in Thailand is an idealistic paradise for many. I just think that having to wait for good weather in a place where it is usually so dismal, heightens the experience.

Whilst we all wait for summer, I think music can really help with the negative emotions that we all feel when we brace the winter months. Most of us are clinging onto a savior, in the form of a holiday or travel trip. But, some of us don’t. I know when you’re sad it is exceptionally easy to stick on some upsetting music, thinking it will help with the emotions. It generally heightens them. Sadness as an emotion from listening to particular songs however, isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You can embrace the art of a song that was intentionally designed to provoke sadness. It’s listening to music which propagates your own personal experiences of negative situations that you need to avoid. The songs you used to enjoy because of an ex-partner would be the perfect example of this. An otherwise upbeat and energetic song would now be riddled with negativity and despair.

Last year I curated a list of negative and positive songs to listen to following a traumatic experience such as a break-up, or a bereavement. The post specifically highlighted that listening to the negative first, followed by the positive, is generally better for our psychological wellbeing. This time, I have accumulated a playlist which has been getting me through the wet and rainy days over the past few weeks. I hope it helps you as much as it does me!

Oh Wonder – Lifetimes

Peking Duk, Elliphant – Stranger

MK – 17

Mallory Knox – California

Lower Than Atlantis – Could Be Worse

Lo Moon – Real Love

Just Kiddin – More To Life

Fred V & Grafix – San Francisco

Foo Fighters – Learn To Fly

Draper – Who Are You

The xx – Hold On (Jamie xx Remix)

The playlist is also on Spotify, here https://open.spotify.com/user/115449199/playlist/3wGsGoEnLh2LOM7cocWKmf?si=e-A72QRJRzyei1tUz0FLVg