Not just a bad hair day: Mental health in the time of Covid-19

I have never cried at the hairdressers before. But on Saturday as I read the rumours that another lockdown was going to be announced, tears started welling up. This awful sadness just overcame me, as I remembered the last lockdown. Of course there is nothing wrong with feeling strong emotions and acknowledging your sadness, anger or grief. Importantly, it is how you then behave in response to those emotions. And I know that when I am already feeling busy and stressed, I don’t always have the insight to feel myself tipping from OK to not OK. So, after scrolling the BBC news page, I needed to make a pre-emptive strike to maintain my own mental health. Sat with a towel round my head, I started running through my resilience toolkit – the things that help me stay well mentally.

Thinking and thanking

Practising gratitude is one technique that gives me perspective. Trying to ignore the sounds of hairdryers and conversations, I reminded myself that although sometimes I felt isolated during lockdown, everyone I love remained healthy, employed and housed. Not everyone has been so lucky. I also got to spend extra time with my children and my decision not to become a school teacher was reinforced (“Mummy, you’ve failed OFSTED”).

Time to reflect

Since Saturday, I have re-invigorated my habit of daily journaling; Writing down a continuous stream of consciousness helps to empty my head of chatter and to reflect on life. This seems to mute my inner critic to some extent. As I type this, I am sat with my running gear on – knowing that I will feel 100% better if I can get my lazy a*%! out the door and into motion…. Exercise seems to still my mind better than meditation, but everyone is different. Probably my most powerful antidote to low mood is spending time with my friends. A walk in nature (involving cake) with a friend and our children delivered a double whammy in terms of my mental and physical health (and is something I can continue within my support bubble). Although, if I am feeling down, I start to withdraw from social contact – something my close friends recognize and so start hassling messaging me (for which I am grateful!).

Visiting Yorkshire Sculpture Park for art, nature and cake with friends

Good habits and kindness

For those of you with serious mental health issues, my resilience toolkit might sound trivial. Having experienced depression, I am very aware of the importance of getting a proper medical diagnosis and treatment. However, I have tried to enhance my own mental health by instilling good habits like exercise and good sleep hygiene. I wish that I had learned much earlier in my career to be kinder to myself and better manage my responses to stressful situations.

A resource that helped me to think about coping and adapting in academia is the ‘Resilience Toolkit’ written by my friend Sara Shinton for the Institute of Physics. (NB. I am not a physicist and the toolkit is relevant for most researchers). The Wellbeing Thesis is also packed with resources to support wellbeing, learning and research. I particularly like the page which debunks postgraduate research myths – so many academics are held back by such out of date and limiting beliefs.

Support for PGRs

Being in a high performance environment like a university can be stressful. As a community, we have work to do on creating a kinder and more inclusive research culture. YGRS will be developing, and also contributing to, plans to deliver a new vision for the University of York.

Already, you have access to a number of sources of support with your health and wellbeing for PGRs via the YGRS web pages and blog. RETT have a package of online support and training for students including the peer-led ‘How to Thrive and Survive in your PhD’ series and mentoring for those in the last 18 months of their PhD. For new students, you can take advantage of the University Buddy scheme.  The GSA is also here to support you, for example with its independent and confidential advice service and PhD Network. I know that we can do more – so please get in touch if you have suggestions, questions or comments via

How is Covid-19 affecting you?

At our regular PGR Ask Me Anything event on the 3rd November, the Vice Chancellor, me (Dean of YGRS), plus colleagues from YGRS and GSA will be poised to update you on the latest Covid-19 situation and answer questions on this and any other PGR topic – so please come along (you can send in an anonymous question if you want).

Health warning

I should finish this by saying that I am not a trained counsellor and not an expert on mental health. This blog is based on my personal experiences, so if you feel that you are not in a safe place mentally or physically then seek help.

Other sources of support and advocacy for mental health include: Student minds, Office for Students and City of York Council.

See also this Silent Zoom Writing Group set up by York colleagues.

Posted by Dr. Kate Arnold, Dean of YGRS

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