Laura is studying a PhD in Cancer Genomics and was diagnosed with MS in September 2020 following multiple hospital admissions. Here, Laura talks about how this affected her mental health and what more could be done to support other students going through the same thing.
University is an extremely stressful time in itself, without the additional worry of health issues. I dealt with symptoms throughout my undergraduate degree, from 2009 to 2012, but was undiagnosed at the time. I felt there was very little support at university for someone without a diagnosis, so I just muddled through and somehow achieved a 2:1 in biological sciences.
It was horrible lying in a hospital bed knowing my parents were essentially packing up my life and I had no control over any of it.
Fast forward six years and my health took a real turn whilst undertaking my PhD. I started my doctorate degree at the end of 2017 and had multiple hospital admissions over the next 18 months. During one admission in early 2019 I was forced to give up my flat because the university informed me that my stipend was going to be stopped. To my surprise, I was not eligible for any sick pay. My parents drove 200 miles to pack up all my belongings. It was horrible lying in a hospital bed knowing my parents were essentially packing up my life and I had no control over any of it.
When I resumed my studies about five months later, it was on a phased-return basis gradually increasing to full time. Suddenly all of the stress hit me. I began feeling down and crying a lot. Everything had caught up with me. I approached the university’s mental health team and had a few counselling sessions with them. It helped to talk to someone.
At the end of 2019 I was admitted to hospital for a month and was discharged needing to use a wheelchair due to my orthostatic intolerance. Upon my return to campus, the university had put a reasonable adjustment plan in place and I applied for disabled student allowance to help with my studies.
By this point, I was almost ready to give up on my career. I decided to make some changes and give it one last go. My PhD changed to being completely computational as opposed to a mix of lab and computer-based work and I also changed to part-time study (80%). Both of these changes made things easier for me. When the pandemic hit, my studies suffered very little interruption as I was already working from home.
In 2020, I had two further hospital admissions requiring IV steroids, and was officially diagnosed with MS in September. Each admission means more time away from my studies, but because I can now work flexibly from home my stress levels have improved.
Previously I would have kept forcing myself to work and ended up getting frustrated and upset, now I accept my ‘off’ days and rest.
More could be done to make options clear to students. Without digging for information, I wouldn’t have known about changing to part time. I have days where I cannot think straight; previously I would have kept forcing myself to work and ended up getting frustrated and upset, now I accept my ‘off’ days and rest. My advice to anyone studying whilst navigating a medical diagnosis is to be kind to yourself. If things are not working for you, take a step back and think of changes that may help you. You are not alone.