Extraordinary People

The end of student burnout: PhD Mindfulness is boosting mental health

One in two PhD students experience psychological distress

We talk about mental health in schools more than ever before and starting those conversations as early as possible, yet what about people in higher education?

Students who go on to complete PhDs are under immense pressure, often without tools to manage stress having left school before an era where wellbeing is taught in classrooms.

Now, many of them are muddling through or dropping out, with one in two experiencing psychological distress and one in three at risk of a psychiatric disorder.

On a mission to create change, and having endured her own challenges while studying, Dr Marion Brooks kickstarted PhD Mindfulness to help reduce these devastating statistics.

[Credit: Dr Marion Brooks]

We caught up with Dr Brooks to hear about her incredible work and why she believes the organisation she founded back in 2016 is vital for our future generations.

Dr Brooks said: “Any PhD should challenge you as it is the pinnacle of education. However, no one had ever discussed with me the impact that it could have on my mental health.

“Once I completed mine, I felt I needed to share my testimony and support anyone going through a similar experience. I want to reach out to anyone who feels alone and raise awareness.”

Having taken the route of mindfulness to manage her personal struggles, Dr Brooks now promotes this practice as a really useful coping mechanism.

[Credit: Dr Marion Brooks]

She also shines a light on the importance of recognising mental health as equal to physical health, saying they work in tandem and are “one and the same”.

While this leap is always tricky as mental health is not visible, it is because our hormones and neurological connections impact our state of mind and brain ­– which is physical.

With this understanding, Brooks says she is baffled as to why there is no mental health training offered in the PhD programme.

Dr Brooks said: “For a physically intensive programme, such as most sports, physical training is a standard requirement, not just in learning the sport, but in supporting the human body to physically cope with the stress and pressure it will experience under such intense activity.

“No one would send an individual into the ring for a World Championship boxing tournament without any physical training, neither should it be that a student steps up to the pinnacle of education and be left without mental training for a mentally intensive programme.”

[Credit: PhD Mindfulness / Facebook]

Brooks continued: “I feel there is such a lack of awareness of our surroundings, our own bodies and our health. This is how people end up with serious health conditions or breaking down and not understanding why. If we become aware, we can spot the signs before crisis.”

While there are many factors that impact mental health, Dr Brooks says that PhD students in particular spend a lot of time alone over several years, where the rewards can be low.

She believes that mindfulness can provide training to guide people towards a happier or more neutral state as they learn to live in the present.

Dr Brooks explained: “Much of the time our mind cannot deal with certain situations as it is either stuck in the past, thinking of all the errors we have made or things we regret, or it is in the future, thinking of what could go wrong or how we could be perceived by people.

“Mindfulness helps to bring the mind back to the present. When I started practicing it, I began to notice the rustling leaves on trees, or the air that I breathed, and just embracing and appreciating each moment, whereas before I was in my own isolated PhD bubble.”

As Dr Brooks chips away to help people feel less alone, she also believes institutions need to step up and be held accountable for the impact that the academic culture has on students.

[Credit: PhD Mindfulness / Facebook]

In the meantime, Brooks works tirelessly to raise awareness and stamp out stigma, and recently completed a 30-day challenge for mental health charity, Mind.

Quizzed over what her advice might be to anyone struggling right now, Brooks said she is keen to encourage people to check in with their bodies which can signal signs of emotional distress.  

She said: “Breathe in. Breathe out. Spend some time to notice the tension in your body. Now, along with your breath, start to release the tension in different areas you feel.

“It is not a cure and there may come a point when you realise in yourself that: I am not okay. I am not doing things the way I used to. I am not enjoying the things I used to enjoy.”

Brooks added: “When or if you notice there is an issue, please seek professional support. If you feel this support is not accessible to you at that moment, talk to friends or family, group members, supervisors or other members of staff you can trust.”

For more information, click here: PhD Mindfulness.

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