Thursday, 18 August 2016

The Importance of Support

Written by Hazel Lowe 
I was asked to write about coping strategies that I have used as a PhD student with a chronic illness.  I have had mixed experiences as someone who was diagnosed at the beginning of my 3rd year, which made my funding situation complicated but also left me struggling to adjust to my abilities being different.
  1. Accept the support that is available

    I disclosed to the Disability Service and my Department as soon as I had a diagnosis.  At my university in the UK you can disclose confidentially to the Disability Service if you do not want your Department to be made aware of your disability but in my case it was obvious I was ill so I decided it was to my advantage to make my supervisor aware of my condition.  I met with a disability advisor at my university who explained the sort of support available.  I had to provide a letter from my GP stating my diagnosis so that a needs assessment could be carried out at the local assessment centre.  The assessor was really kind and helpful and asked about how my disability affected my work and what help I needed.  At this point, despite being diagnosed with a chronic illness, I thought I would bounce back in a few months so I was reluctant to accept much help.  Several months later when I was really struggling I had to email my assessor and ask for further support which she approved and the university put in place. 
    My first coping strategy as a PhD student is to disclose to the Disability Service at your university and accept the support that is available to you.  For me that included daily taxis back to my house and a printer to allow me to work from home on the particularly bad days.  I was fortunate that a time came when my symptoms lessened and I could walk far enough to use public transport but if my health deteriorates in the future I wouldn’t hesitate to ask for further support.
  2. Find someone to talk to from within academia

    As part of my support package I got weekly mentoring with a specialist disability mentor at my university.  My mentor works with students with a wide range of conditions and from different disciplines.  She has helped me decide how to approach various issues with my supervisor and develop the skills to be productive in a short amount of time.  I suspect I would have quit my PhD without her support.
    My second coping strategy is to find someone you can talk to who understands disability and academia.  Maybe your university has a specialist disability mentor but if not I would suggest approaching the staff disability network or staff equality office and asking if they can connect you up with a mentor.
  3. Be clear and concise about adjustments

    Around 6 months after I got ill I asked to be referred to Occupational Health.  Many companies have an Occupational Health group who are responsible for everything from Display Screen Equipment assessments (i.e. making sure you are sitting properly at your desk) to ensuring staff travelling abroad get the right immunisations.  They will usually have a specialist GP whose job it is to report on the reasonable adjustments needed by staff in order to carry out their job.  Having a report from Occupational Health sent directly to my supervisor made it clear to him what I needed from the Department.
    My third coping strategy is to learn to be clear and concise about your needs.  You don’t need to disclose the exact nature of your disability every time, for example, that you book on to a course even though in my experience people will ask.  You are the expert on the adjustments you need not them so focus on politely stating your needs and don’t get drawn into justifying yourself.
  4. Hold on to your support network

    This might seem like a glib thing to say as I understand that some people find personal relationships difficult at the best of times but it is important.  When I had to reduce my working hours because of my health it was tempting to cut out everything else so that I could focus all of the energy that I had on my studies.  In reality you don’t get a PhD without making some sacrifices so my social life is a fraction of what it used to be but I have kept weekends as my own with one day for rest and laundry and one day for socialising.  The friends worth holding on to have adapted to my need to go out for lunch rather than dinner.  They understand that I can’t walk far or stand around in the cold for ages and that I might need a lie down after travelling to their house.  This small amount of balance between getting enough work done to succeed and socialising in order to be a functioning human being has kept me going through the worse periods of illness knowing that when the latest infection passes there are people who will be pleased to see me on my terms.  It also helps to stop me from being impulsive when I’m feeling isolated and bored which generally leads to doing far too much and feeling far too ill to work for several days.  Skype and FaceTime are also a great way of connecting with family and friends when you don’t have the energy to leave the house.
    My final coping mechanism is to regularly make time for socialising, or whatever it is that you find makes you happy and helps you process your thoughts and feelings.
 About the Author
I am Hazel Lowe, a PhD student in Quantum Optics and Laser and Plasma Physics at Imperial College London.  My research has been on the development of a multi keV x-ray backlighter source via laser irradiation of extended cluster gases.  I believe that academia should become more diverse and that the institutions funding research need to review how they support individuals with disabilities and chronic illnesses who have the skills to become great researchers but who need reasonable adjustments and flexibility to achieve that goal.  I became part of Chronically Academic to raise the profile of this community with a view to campaigning for changes to the culture in academia and the funding opportunities available.

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