Managing your mental health – advice from a PhD student

6 March 2019

With the pressures of university students often face some unique challenges in regards to their mental health and wellbeing. PhD student Frances shares her experience with mental health, accessing support services and activities to help manage her day to day life.

hand reaching out with sunset in background

I’m in the second-year of a full-time PhD in the department of Psychology and Human Development in the Institute of Education, and as any student will tell you, your time at university can be a bit of a rollercoaster. Managing your mental health and studying during the ups and downs of both can be difficult.

I have bipolar disorder and it’s really important for me to organise my time carefully so I can enjoy my research and importantly, my life away from it too. Here are 5 tips I’ve found really useful to look after myself.

1. Get support

I was cautious about disclosing my condition to UCL and my supervisor, but honestly, it’s the best thing I did. There’s so much support available. The Disability, Mental Health and Wellbeing Support team referred me to a mental health mentor and organised this whilst my Disabled Students’ Allowances (DSA) application was being processed. More information about DSA can be found here but UCL can guide you through the process. If you do have a mental health condition, remember you can talk to staff in confidence about the support available.

My DSA provides me with a mental health mentor who I meet at the same time every week. We look at my workload for the next six months and then work backwards, making monthly and weekly plans. This allows for any blips along the way, holidays (which it’s really important to take) and time each week for other activities. Doing this reduces my anxiety because I trust the plan and if my mental health takes a downward turn there’s flexibility to move things around. It’s also great to check in with someone on a weekly basis in a safe space where you can be completely open about how you’re feeling.

2. Eat. Sleep. Move.

We all know that eating a balanced diet, good sleep hygiene and being active all contribute to our wellbeing but it’s easy at times of stress, or when feeling overwhelmed, to fall into bad habits.

Eat: If you are short for time, or want to grab something on the go, Students’ Union UCL run four cafes and there are a range of cafes on campus where you can also find vegan, gluten-free and halal options.

Sleep: Research has shown that having a regular sleep pattern has many benefits but that’s not always easy to maintain when you’re studying. Pulling all-nighters and then binge sleeping disrupts your body clock, causing us to feel jet lagged. Going to bed and waking up at the same time each day and getting 7-10 hours sleep will have a positive impact on all areas of your wellbeing.

Move: Join UCL’s Bloomsbury Fitness gym where you’ll find a fitness suite and free classes included in your membership fee. Alternatively, you could join Student Central’s Energybase Gym if you want to enjoy a swim too, or there are several other affordable gyms near campus. I enjoy running and UCL has a running club, or if like me you’re more of a plodder, there’s plenty of local green spaces.

3. Get involved

There are many ways to meet other students. Check out the Students’ Union UCL clubs and societies, or perhaps join a reading group. If you’re a doctoral student, sign up for some of the Doctoral Skills Development Programme courses. Most courses have online discussion groups and I found chatting to students from other departments really useful.

A great way to get involved and improve your wellbeing is to volunteer. Take a look at the range of volunteering opportunities available at UCL.

UCL’s libraries (and the new Student Centre!) are a good place to meet up with other students or you could make use of the quiet study spaces which means you can be around other students but get on with your work.

It can feel quite isolating, especially if you’re a doctoral studies student or studying away from campus, so making use of the facilities available is important so you feel part of the student community.

4. Take time out

It’s easy to feel pressure to study all the time and neglect other areas of your life. Working with my mental health mentor, I plan my schedule to allow me at least one completely free day each week. It’s best to find your own working schedule so you can study when you’re most productive. Having time away helps nurture your creativity which benefits your studies. Time out can mean seeing friends, exercising or just allowing yourself time to do nothing. Being kind to yourself is really important.

5. Talk about your mental health

All of these points are important but I’ve saved the best until last. If you’re struggling, talk to someone and get professional help. UCL’s Student Psychological and Counselling Services can provide therapeutic support and signpost you to other organisations. Keep your supervisor or personal tutor and your lecturers informed. They want to help and can work with you if you’re struggling. Looking after your mental health and wellbeing is important for everyone and there’s help at UCL to do that.

Frances Lewin, PhD Student, Psychology and Human Development, f.lewin@ucl.ac.uk