Mental Wellbeing support group for University of Helsinki Students (MeWe)

MeWe is a group created by a doctoral student in 2015 that aims to provide an opportunity for doctoral students of University of Helsinki to meet weekly and monthly and share their struggles and problems. Here the founder explains about MeWe and how and why it was created:

The importance of sharing: Why the University of Helsinki needs a support group for (doctoral) students dealing with stress, anxiety and depression

I was sitting in the living room, browsing my e-mails, with my partner next to me and fiddling on his phone. My parents had been visiting for Christmas and were packing their things, getting ready to head back home. The holidays had been spent in good company, with good food and this allowed me to forget for a week or two. Forget that, since starting my PhD a year earlier, I had been struggling with anxiety so bad that I would get panic attacks at the mere thought of leaving the apartment to go to the office and work on my PhD, and depression so bad I would just lie in bed staring at the ceiling for hours. And then came an e-mail from my supervisor, which reminded me of all the things I had been procrastinating over the last weeks and months.

I just broke down.

I started hyperventilating. My partner and my parents were asking what was wrong, but I couldn’t articulate anything apart from the only thing that was repeating itself over and over in my mind: “I want to kill myself”. I had to get out of there – I put on my shoes and coat, ran out and just walked aimlessly, crying. Finally, after about 10 minutes, I realized that everyone I left in the apartment must be worried sick and came back. My parents had no idea why I was acting like this and said I was just “being dramatic” about them leaving. My partner, despite knowing more, did not disclose any details so as not to worry my parents. And so, they left for the airport and I stayed behind, still trying to piece myself back together psychologically.

It wasn’t working.

It felt like there was no escape, like the only answer was to end everything. I asked my partner to take me to the hospital, because I felt like I couldn’t trust myself with my own life. Faced with the psychiatrist’s questions about what was going on, I explained my situation as best I could, to which she asked: “How about you take a break?”. Upon hearing this, I broke down again and started sobbing: “I can’t! How can I tell my colleagues and supervisors that I’m just not gonna work for a while? But I can’t work on my PhD… But I can’t just quit and leave other people responsible!”. Everyone in the room knew that the right answer to this was: “You NEED to take a break. Your health comes first. People will understand”, and after some convincing, the message finally reached my brain as well.

After coming home, I composed several e-mails explaining my situation, sent them out to the relevant people, and received an outpour of support and understanding. Of course I could take some time off. They would take care of everything. Our project can wait. I should take care of my own wellbeing, first and foremost. The relief was almost palpable. I started psychotherapy a month later, and now, a year later, I feel almost like a completely different person.

We all know that doing a PhD is tough.

It’s so tough that there are PhD struggle-inspired memes and internet comics. We read them, we sympathize, we laugh. But at the end of the day, when faced with our own demons of stress, anxiety and depression, we feel like there’s something wrong with us for feeling like this. After all, doing a PhD was our choice, so how ungrateful and whiny are we for feeling like crap while doing it?

Our colleagues seem so much more level-headed, put together, focused and organized. It’s just our own fault for being lazy/procrastinators/ungrateful/[insert self-derogatory term]. If only we had a better supervisor/stable funding/nicer colleagues. It’s our own fault for not having a tougher skin/being more productive/more hardworking/smarter/better organized/more passionate/[insert desirable trait]. And because it’s our own problem, we are the ones who should deal with it, and not bother our supervisors and colleagues. Asking for help and expressing doubt just means we’re not trying hard enough. We are all stressed, sure. But genuinely doubting your mental health is a big no-no.

So, how many thoughts and feelings described so far have you recognized in yourself?

How many times have you felt that this is something you have to go through alone?

See, at some point during my deepest darkest moments, I realized that one of the biggest problems for PhD students dealing with stress, anxiety and depression – however minor or major it may be – is the feeling of loneliness and isolation that comes with it. Working as a researcher can be solitary enough on its own, but combined with the lack of discourse on mental health within the research community, it becomes a dangerous cocktail of silence that can slowly poison you from the inside out, leading to stress in the best-case scenario and suicide in the absolute worst-case scenario.

I am not saying that doing a PhD causes mental health issues, but the numbers of doctoral students worldwide dealing with anxiety and depression are staggering. Some universities have recognized this issue, and have better mental health support systems than others. In the case of the University of Helsinki, however, there are next to NONE. I am not a psychologist, nor a counselor, but I decided something needed to be done about this.

And so I started the Mental Wellbeing Support Group for PhD students at the University of Helsinki, or MeWe for short. It started out as a simple Facebook group that I advertised via UH’s doctoral schools mailing lists, which led to weekly and monthly meetings. Within the first several weeks of its existence, over three hundred people joined the group. We had no official support from the university, no designated meeting space (just a room in Aleksandria that needed to be re-booked for each meeting), and the number of meeting attendees varied from several dozens to just two or three at a time.

The meetings were informal, with no particular goal or theme apart from allowing people to share their problems and struggles, be there for each other and sympathize, sometimes offer advice if it was asked for, or just be there to listen. Sometimes I think this is why less and less people started coming – perhaps they would have needed something more, better focused or goal-oriented. It also didn’t necessarily help that I would sometimes need to cancel meeting last-minute because of my own panic attacks.

At some point, partially due to my own lack of initiative and my relapsing depression, partially due to less and less people showing up, the group meetings became more infrequent and further in between. From previous experience, I knew that asking if someone would step in and just be there as a de facto group leader (the only role of which, really, is to say “Hey, let’s meet up here at this time”) would be left unanswered. I don’t mean to throw blame – I know that it’s not easy to step up and, so to speak, take charge of something as delicate as other people’s mental wellbeing.

Nevertheless, this post serves as a call to arms. MeWe needs you.

In about two months, I am quitting my PhD. Maybe temporarily, maybe permanently. Time will tell. It is not due to mental health this time, but rather because working with my therapist has made me realize that I was doing the PhD for the wrong reasons, which in turn exacerbated my already existing tendency towards anxiety and depression.

Despite it not having worked out as well as I would have liked, and despite me not having been the leader/organizer that MeWe deserved, one thing that I still do wholeheartedly believe with every last fiber of my soul is that The University of Helsinki NEEDS MeWe, in some shape or form. Doctoral students of all shapes and sizes, with varying degrees of mental struggles, need a safe space where they can talk, support each other and just… be together. Without judging of trying to ‘fix’ anything necessarily.

MeWe needs someone – one person, or ideally a group of people, that would set up regular meetings. No leadership skills required. No counseling required. Just book a room, let people know and be there. If at some later point someone feels like organizing thematic workshops, inviting counselors or anything like that, more power to you. But for now, MeWe just needs to keep on living. Because we care about PhD students’ lives.