Managing mental health on fieldwork: a research skill?

Published on 11 March 2016

Mental health problems are a major issue in academia, including for post-graduate students. A study published in 2015 shows that more than one out of three PhD students in social sciences has suffered from depression. Although this is being recognised by the media, universities still offer very few opportunities to get informed and receive support for mental health issues, as counselling centres become overwhelmed by the demand. Moreover, the issue is rarely included as part of the course of doing a PhD, like ethics or funding. In development studies, fieldwork often lasts six to 12 months. It is time to consider mental health as an important research skill since poor mental health can seriously undermine the development of a career and researcher’s wellbeing. 

Space to Share

About a year ago, it was suggested that sharing personal experiences of doing fieldwork should be part of the Methods Week at IDS, especially for PhD students who go for their first ever long-term research trip, and often alone to a very different environment of their own. At the time, I was just coming back from my own fieldwork in Ghana of seven months, where I encountered depression and high anxiety that remained long after my return to the UK. It pushed me to lead a session during Methods Week where people can discuss how such experiences changed them and give tips to others on how to prepare to go, and to come back. I was very surprised that many people came to see me after the seminar to thank me for giving them a space to share, as it is sometimes too hard to even talk about it with friends or family. Realising that we were all going through similar experiences helped us to overcome the residues of our guilt.

An Interesting Encounter

I met Lili a few months after I returned from Ghana. She is a trainer at an organisation called AFS that deals with yearlong exchanges for high school students. She told me the story of her sister who went to study abroad and came back with severe depression. After this, Lili’s parents refused to send Lili abroad, afraid she might follow the same path, but she found a different programme (AFS) where students were trained before going abroad, preparing them for cultural shocks and unfamiliar living conditions. Lili ended up spending a year in Portugal, where she had a great time. After her return she became a trainer for future students that helped her further understand her own experience abroad.

Lili recently moved to England and she told me that despite her experience in the field, she still had to go through a really rough time during her first few months in the UK. Cultural shock affects even experienced travellers. Just like I did when I went to Ghana, Lili underestimated her ability to move from one country to another without any struggle. It can happen to anybody, anywhere.

A year passed and we were organising IDS Methods Week again. Given the demand we had last year, we had to do the session on fieldwork again and invited Lili to talk about her experience as a trainer and a traveller. Master and PhD students came from IDS, Global Studies, Sociology and other University of Sussex departments. Between our home and research countries, over 30 different nationalities were represented, which gave a great basis for discussion.

Participants shared their experiences, doubts and fears, and also gave advice for others. One interesting insight that came out of the conversation was about going back to your own country after spending years abroad. The fear of how you changed while abroad can also be a great source of anxiety for returning. ‘It’s not doing my research that frightens me, it is living there again’, said one participant.

Lili made us engage in a fun role-playing activity, which highlighted how easily misunderstandings and unintended rudeness can arise when interacting with people of different cultural backgrounds. One not only has to be well-informed about other cultures, but also has to have a respectful and attentive attitude towards others.

Lili also taught us about the Curve of Culture Shock, which shows how settling into a new country can affect your well-being, which is completely normal. Learn more about the curve here.

What Can your University Do?

It was raised among participants that however well you inform yourself on this topic, receiving adequate formal support from your institution is crucial. There should be a frequent monitoring of the student on the field from the start to after the student has returned as it is often impossible for the person struggling on the field to seek proper help when things are already getting out of hand.

How can we institutionalise more organised and systematic support for PhD students? The counselling services at the University of Sussex offer one-to-one support but they often are overbooked for months and only provide email communications when a student is abroad. When I was in Ghana, it would have helped to get regular phone calls from a counsellor as my internet connection was very limited and I could not express how I was feeling with written words. Fortunately, my supervisors were extremely helpful but it is not the case for every student.

An idea that came up during our session is to try and implement a buddy scheme that links students who have returned from fieldwork to those who are about to leave, and who would normally rarely meet at their university in person. We also raised the need for encouraging more senior researchers to come and talk to us about techniques they have developed over years of fieldwork experience. This is a difficult endeavour but we are definitely committed to the task for next year’s Methods Week.


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