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  • Max Bover

“Suffocating with Pressure”: A Personal Insight into Postgraduate Mental Health

I suppose you can consider me to be a university drop-out. Last October, I started a two-year postgraduate programme at a top university with every intention to complete this step to a long and sustainable academic career. Flash forward to January, I am crying at my kitchen table. I am exhausted by the entire premise of a Master’s degree and I decide I am done with university. Years of plotting my steps on a narrowing path dissolve like sugar in your fourth black coffee of the day.

This might read like a familiar image to many of you; universities are incubators for stress and exhaustion, anxiety and depression. Years of neoliberalism has left the fragile university propped up on its largely empty promise of a simple equation: degree = job = money = happiness.

For some, a postgraduate qualification is the logical next step; for some, it is because they “didn’t feel ready to start job hunting”. Whatever your reason, it is fine, but the life of a postgraduate is a far cry from your run-of-the-mill degree. Imagine your last three years squashed into one, more expectation, less time, many of your friends have left town and (hopefully) moved onto the next brave step, you have less time to work but the degree is more expensive, it is not mandatory but certainly a good sign if you can prove you are smart enough to be treated (almost) as a colleague by the same people who taught you how to reference properly just a few years earlier, and you still have to figure out what you’re going to do next year – and that means taking up time you do not have. Who said it would be easy, right?

From the postgraduates I have spoken to, there is a near-unanimous feeling of suffocation that comes as a side to a postgraduate degree. At times, it will feel like there is simply too much on your plate and it is the minimum expectation to finish it all. All of this means that one’s social life becomes an unconscious sacrifice, and without time for oneself, it is a short step to lose sight of personal fulfilment in the here-and-now. This is how the pressures of postgraduate life can quickly spiral into depression.

I can’t breathe with all of this weight on me… there has to be a reason why I am going through this.

- Postgrad, University of York.

Don’t get me wrong, postgraduate life can be a time of enriching experiences far beyond what your previous degree ever offered. It can truly be a time to find out what you want to offer the world. But with a million pieces of a rich life laid out in front of you, it can feel like an impossible jigsaw to ever finish.

I dropped out and I don’t regret it, but I don’t want you to do the same. Universities and governing bodies need to do more to alleviate the stresses of postgraduate life; 50% of students are currently experiencing daily or weekly feelings of loneliness, an 11% increase from the previous data set. This data is from lockdown 2.0, one can imagine the ongoing strain of the pandemic to have only exacerbated this issue. It is all well and good for universities to have mental health weeks, but the support that is provided is largely overwhelmed. This is not isolated to universities, counselling services across the country are under pressure to a point where they are almost not fit for purpose; what use is a six week waiting period when someone can feel the floor crumbling beneath them right now?

Life as a student is incredibly difficult right now, and there is very little than we can do about it. Please, support each other, sometimes a friend is all we can have. What is needed is structural change, no just in the university, but in our country. The powers that be must start tailoring society to be built around fulfilment, not around constant pressure. And if they refuse to act, we must force the issue.

A young person needs every advantage they can get, and a postgraduate degree is certainly a solid step, but “nothing is worth sacrificing your mental health”. Stay safe.

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