By Emma Nielsen
When I’m not PhD-ing I’m often covered in paint. Recently, I gifted two paintings to the ‘crisis house’ that helped me and held me together earlier this year. Today, I received the most unexpected of thank you cards from the house. It was one of those game changing, reflective moments and I very nearly tweeted about it. Why? Because I work in self-harm and suicide prevention and I think that the ‘crisis house’ (which I maintain is an odd term to use to describe places of sanctuary and support) does a fantastic job. Because hope is possible and hope is here. Because small things can make a huge difference and small acts of kindness can change your day and change your world. Because I tweet most everything and why should this be different?
But it is different.
It is a disclosure and talking about mental health as an Early Career Researcher (ECR) is not a neutral act. Depending on who you talk to it is either brave or foolish, but never neutral. Even as someone who is directly and indirectly relatively open about her history, I am aware that writing it down is a gamble. But I don’t want to work in a world where it is only acceptable to talk about lived experience in the past tense. Or where it is too much of a gamble to do unless you already have your tenure position and an established reputation. How can we meaningfully encourage others to talk about suicidality when we still live in a culture where we don’t talk about it ourselves?
In many ways, I live in a very privileged world. I work in a lab that is passionate about involvement, engagement and the value of lived experience and sees no reason why this would not apply to the whole team. I have an incredibly supportive supervisor who I can be very honest with. My mental health has never been a secret and I am respected for who I am and what I bring – no more, no less. Above and beyond, I have colleagues who will visit me in hospital and deal with important emails when I’m out of Wi-Fi range. I have collaborators who send support (animal GIFs and postcards) and mentors who mean it when they tell me to prioritise my health and stay well. In short, my world is full of ‘good guys’.
But disclosure is still a risk.
I know it is a risk because I’ve felt it. I’ve dealt with the judgement from Healthcare professionals when I have told them about what I study and, with guidance, I’ve navigated satisfying the additional requirements needed to get back to the PhD that I love. I’ve handled being asked at an international conference if I ever felt ‘a fraud’ as a researcher, given my lived experience. Sure, at the time, I came out with something strikingly coherent about spheres of expertise, but it shook me. It really shook me and it made me question whether there was a space for me in academia. No one should be made to feel that. I shouldn’t still feel as though I have to work twice as hard as my peers as I have something to ‘make up for’. I shouldn’t feel the pressure of how to explain the periods of absence from my PhD at job interviews. If I had been physically unwell there wouldn’t be a problem in explaining; this would not be a conundrum. Within a field that should be informed and understanding, when it comes to mental health there remains a question mark around how open to be. A question mark and a lot of silence.
And that is part of the problem. For as long as we go on leaving the silence unchallenged, people will internalise it. I’m guilty of this myself. When planning my research fellowship last year, I selected dates based on temperature. Yes, New England is beautiful in ‘the fall’. I got to experience Halloween, Thanksgiving and the US Elections. I got to go to the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT) Convention and the Harvard Vs. Yale football game. These were all awesome features of the Autumn, but they weren’t why I chose that semester to travel. I chose the Autumn semester for ease of covering up.
I think if you had asked me at the time why that mattered, I would have said because I want the choice to disclose or not. And 100% I think everyone has the right to make that choice. For me though, I think it is closer to the truth that I wanted to be seen as a researcher first and foremost – as if lived experience somehow challenged that. And this is the problem. This is the underlying hum that I think needs to change.
As researchers we frequently quote prevalence statistics, yet I wonder who we think they refer to, if not ourselves as well. There is no simple ‘us’ and ‘them’. At best, expertise and experience is a Venn-diagram, arguably with a decent sized overlap. There are lots of us with lived experience – who have had thoughts of harming, who have harmed or made attempts, who care for someone affected and/or who have lost someone to suicide. We all wear many hats and we shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge that. Research is richer for having input from multiple perspectives. Research communities are too.
Just as we want to educate people that is it okay to talk and that experiencing suicidal thoughts is not that uncommon, we need to turn the spot light back on ourselves. I think we need to consider why we collectively aren’t able to support a culture in which academics, particularly ECRs, feel freely able to raise their hand and say ‘me too’.
I was once asked why I spend my time painting when ‘painting is never going to save the world’. At the time I shrugged and said ‘it might’, but in all honesty my painting won’t. Painting sure hasn’t saved me, but it has helped me to rediscover a version of myself that I deem worth saving. For me, painting is authentic and authenticity is transformative. I think if we could all be a little more authentic – with ourselves, with our colleagues, with our social media presence. If we could all do that, maybe that would start to change our worlds. From here there is hope.
This article was originally published at IMH Blog Nottingham (original publication) and it was republished at NetECR with permission.
Emma Nielsen (@EmmaLNielsen) is a PhD student in the Self-Harm Research Group (SHRG), University of Nottingham (firstname.lastname@example.org) and an Associate Fellow of the Institute of Mental Health.