Academia

Please put your own mask on first, before helping others: Taking care of suicide researcher’s mental health and wellbeing

By Hazel Marzetti.

As suicide researchers we inevitably think about suicide (virtually) every day. We spend our time reading, writing and thinking about the saddest and darkest times in other people’s, and sometimes our own, lives. We want to understand these experiences, we want to improve these difficult times, and we want to enhance the support available to mitigate these difficulties. We invest huge amounts of time and energy into considering the ethical complexities of designing and undertaking this research to safeguard the wellbeing of our participants and, when it’s done, we reflect on whether we have done enough and on what more we could do. It is fair to say that suicide research inevitably comes with a range of emotional demands.

For early career researchers the specific demands of suicide research can also be accompanied by more generalised worries more widely associated with being an early career academic. For many early career researchers (whether postgraduate research students or early career researchers on short-term, precarious contracts) uncertainty about the future, imposter syndrome, financial worries and isolation can contribute to poor mental health and wellbeing. To add to this over the last two years there has of course been the additional challenges and stresses that have come with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Taken together, that’s a lot of potential worries.

Planning to keep me upright

Now, I can’t speak for other PhD students but for me, deciding to do a PhD in suicide research was a big transition. Having had a number of personal and professional experiences of suicide, I was drawn to the topic through a desire to understand suicide better and improve the support available. But undertaking a PhD in suicide research meant I had to give up my full-time job (and all the associated stability) and commit to thinking about suicide every day. Not only this, but I quickly realised that I would be doing so, for the most part, completely alone. Whilst I had supportive and knowledgeable supervisors, they were extremely busy and we met once a month for an hour-long supervision in which we needed to discuss the project, my writing and progress. I was quickly aware that this was not going to be the close line managerial relationship that I previously had in my workplace where we saw each other every day, worked together closely on projects, and knew how each other liked our tea (a very important feature of any close relationship in my humble opinion).

To help support myself throughout the process of undertaking this PhD research, I therefore wanted to plan a number of proactive actions to support my own wellbeing and that I could put in place before I encountered any issues. I have termed these my ‘toolbox’. This was in addition to those taken to support the wellbeing of my participants, but that’s a whole other blog post, which I won’t have time to cover here. Instead, today I’ll share with you what I did to try and maintain wellbeing throughout my PhD. Spoiler alert: it did not always work, and it won’t be right for everyone, but I hope that sharing what I did will perhaps at least give you some idea of where to start if you are worried or struggling. You can also download the editable PDF worksheet that I made, which attempts to give folks something tangible to work with. If you have any questions or suggestions I would love to hear from you; you can find me on Twitter @hazelmarzetti or send me an email (at hazel.marzetti@ed.ac.uk).

Learning from others

The first step was learning from others. I signed up for NHS Education for Scotland’s trauma informed practice free online course which was brilliant and encouraged me to think about how my practice could be trauma-informed and how this meant both considering my own and my participants wellbeing as interlinked through the research process. I also arranged for Forth Valley Rape Crisis to run a short training with some students in my cohort focussed on vicarious and secondary trauma. This really emphasised the need to take care of your own wellbeing as a necessary part of being able to better work with others and helped us to reflect upon what we needed to enable us to do so.

Reflecting

Whilst I was preparing, I read a lot of articles from folks also doing emotionally demanding research (although not necessarily on suicide ) and there was a lot of helpful suggestions (resource list included at the end of the post). One that kept coming up was keeping a reflective diary, but there was less guidance on how to do this.

I know that when someone asks me how I am doing, regardless of how I’m actually doing my reflex is to say “fine!” (I know, I’m working on it). Prior to doing my PhD I wasn’t really someone who kept a diary (I was one of those people that always wanted to, but in reality couldn’t maintain it for long periods of time), and so I wanted a way to get beyond this reflex.

To try and do this, as early as possible I reflected on the things that I do and the ways that I feel when I am doing well – this can be anything from eating, drinking and sleeping habits to how you engage with the ‘fun’ stuff in my life and take care of your appearance. I then reflected on what I do when I’m not feeling good – both the early warning signs that something is not quite right and those that require you to do an emergency stop and call for assistance. These reflections were highly personal (and also dynamically changing throughout the research process) but gave me some concrete indicators that I could reflect on in my wellbeing diary and they helped me reflect on my working patters as well as alerting me to when I needed to make changes.

Choosing a non-negotiable

Now, by this I don’t mean eating, sleeping, seeing the outside world every now and again, and keeping in touch with your friends and family: I mean something that is just for joy. During my PhD it was really important to me that, even if I was working really long days during the national lockdown to meet a deadline and wasn’t able to have whole days off, I committed to having something to look forward to each week. For the most part of writing up my PhD this was a Friday night zoom hang out with my pals, so even if I had to work right up to it and had to work at the weekend, from 8pm on a Friday night, I had a zoom hang out to look forward to and no matter how busy I was, I was committed to going to it and enjoying myself. Nowadays, without the pressure of my funding running out, I am able to have a better work/life balance and so can have many more joyful things in my life – but at that time it was essential for my sense of wellness that at least one thing to look forward to in my week.

Finding support

First and foremost, your institution should have a whole host of resources and services to support your wellbeing, such as mentoring, chaplaincy or counselling services. Where there are long waiting lists it is worth investigating whether there is budget for you to avail of private services if the support needed is related to the research that you are conducting.

In addition to this, through my reflections, I realised that I process my emotions best in conversation and so I agreed with some of my PhD pals that we would create a peer support circle. This meant that after every interview I conducted I had the opportunity to text or call (dependent on where I was) with someone to anonymously debrief on the interview I had just completed. This gave me an opportunity to reflect on my practice as an interviewer and chat through my concerns. We also met roughly once a month for a reflective practice session, to give ourselves dedicated time to think through research challenges we were having and get other people’s constructive advice on them. Through this regularity of contact, we were able to build trust and it was essential to both my wellbeing and my research practice throughout the PhD.

As a post-doc, I wanted a similar group to help support my research practice – the sort of place where I could reflect on my practice, talk to others outside of my project working on similar topics, and engage in a process of reciprocal peer support (you know, the sort of place where you can say “is it normal if…”). So together with Kat Kavalidou and Susie Bennett we set up netECR’s Collective Care group which provides a peer support space throughout the research process for research students and early career researchers. If you’re interested in joining us – just get in touch NetECR.CollectiveCare@gmail.com, we’d love to hear from you!

Helpful readings:

  1. Bedera, N. (2021) ‘Beyond Trigger Warnings: A Survivor-Centered Approach to Teaching on Sexual Violence and Avoiding Institutional Betrayal’, Teaching Sociology, pp. 1-11. https://doi.org/10.1177/0092055X211022471
  2. Boden, Z. V. R. et al. (2016) ‘Feelings and intersubjectivity in qualitative suicide research’, Qualitative Health Research. SAGE Publications Inc., 26(8), pp. 1078–1090. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732315576709
  3. Camacho, D. (2016) ‘Blurring boundaries: An emotionally aware caregiver, social worker, and researcher’, Qualitative Social Work, 15(5–6), pp. 682–695. https://doi.org/10.1177/1473325016652682
  4. Coles, J. et al. (2014) ‘A Qualitative Exploration of Researcher Trauma and Researchers’ Responses to Investigating Sexual Violence’, Violence Against Women, 20(1), pp. 95–117. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077801213520578
  5. Dickson-Swift, V. et al. (2007) ‘Doing sensitive research: What challenges do qualitative researchers face?’, Qualitative Research, 7(3), pp. 327–353. https://doi.org/10.1177/1468794107078515
  6. Kumar, S. and Cavallaro, L. (2018) ‘Researcher Self-Care in Emotionally Demanding Research: A Proposed Conceptual Framework’, Qualitative Health Research. https://doi.org/10.1177/1049732317746377
  7. Lothen-Kline, C. et al. (2003) ‘Truth and Consequences: Ethics, Confidentiality, and Disclosure in Adolescent Longitudinal Prevention Research’, Journal of Adolescent Health, 33, pp. 385–394. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1054-139X(03)00184-8
  8. Rager, K. B. (2005) ‘Self-Care and the Qualitative Researcher: When Collecting Data Can Break Your Heart’, Educational Researcher, 34(4), pp. 23–27. https://doi.org/10.3102/0013189X034004023
  9. Robertson, J. (2000) ‘Ethical Issues and Researching Sensitive Topics: Mature Women and “Bulimia”’, Feminism and Psychology, 10(4), pp. 531–537. https://doi.org/10.1177/0959353500010004015

Hazel Marzetti (@HazelMarzetti) is a Research Associate at the University of Edinburgh (Scotland) and one of the co-founders and facilitators of netECR Collective Care. Email: Hazel.marzetti@ed.ac.uk.