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I am a first year PhD student, and since starting, I’ve had worsening mental health problems which I have tried to deal with to no avail. I ended up failing quite a few things in the second term earlier this year and am on a very very fine ledge with the exam board.

One of the biggest factors upsetting me during this time is my inability to read a paper. It’s incredibly important to read as many papers as I can in my field, and I find so many excellent and relevant ones, but once settling down to read them, I just don’t. My brain refuses to take in the words. It causes me a lot of pain and sadness and makes my mental health worse. I found that I am self sabotaging myself on an extreme scale especially when I need to have read it by a certain time, but I just don’t. I focus really hard on objects on my desk and end up breaking down and taking a long time to settle myself down.

I have spoken long ago to the universities mental health services and the counsellor was very vague and seemed to skirt my immediate problems instead offering suggestions that didn’t really help. I don’t understand what is happening to me so I don’t know how to speak to colleagues or advisors. I’m just a poorly performing student right now who doesn’t seem to know what’s going on in their field.

I don’t know what I am suffering from, but I feel like I’m slowly drowning in despair. I am on here to ask for advice. This website has helped me a lot.

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    I strongly suspect that the benchmarks would be field-dependent, location-dependent, and X-dependent. In my own case, (US, math, high-end...), I could not understand the meaning of the thesis-question posed to me for at least 1.5 years, despite very aggressively reading available sources. Apart from the possibility that you do have literal "depression", there is also an all-too-real possibility that you are encountering "genuine professional difficulties" for the first time... which, as in my own experience, is a complete surprise for people who've always been "exceptional students", etc. – paul garrett Jul 30 at 22:58
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    I don't think it is good to "read as many papers as you can". You are not at a point where you need a broad overview over your field, that's your adviser's job. (Though this partly depends on the local culture. In which country are you?) – user151413 Jul 30 at 23:23
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    You should rely on mental health professionals, not people on the internet. – Anonymous Physicist Jul 31 at 6:34
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    Maybe consider getting screened for ADHD, preferably by a psychiatrist who specializes in it. Not being able to focus on what I'm reading has been a recurring issue, and getting diagnosed could help you find ways of improving that. – Hey Aug 2 at 18:56
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    Maybe find a study partner (for a specific paper), or a "book club". Sometimes this setup is a lot more motivating... – Jakob Aug 3 at 18:02
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Let me make a few comments from an academic point of view:

  • Make sure you pass your classes. You say that you have failed some classes and imply that your position is in jeopardy. Given this, you should feel free to focus entirely on coursework and give yourself a pass from reading papers. There will be plenty of time to read papers later, but continuing to fail coursework could be a major problem for your career.
  • Make sure you are reading the right papers, at the right level of depth. At this point, you are probably better off reading survey papers (or even textbook chapters) rather than specific journal articles. Further, it is better to understand the "gist" of many papers than to spend weeks trying to understand every detail of a single paper.
  • Discuss your paper reading with your advisor (or another professor familiar with your situation). Your advisor may be able to suggest more appropriate papers. Make sure you're willing to take advice, even if the advice is to do something other than read papers.
  • When reading papers, consider taking notes. If you can afford it, an iPad is a great investment for note taking. But changing your goal from something abstract ("studying") to something concrete ("a few pages that summarize the gist of the paper") may help. Further, allowing yourself only a few pages per summary may ensure that you focus on seeing the big picture rather than getting into all the details.

Of course, this advice is from an academic, not medical, perspective -- we cannot give medical advice and I would defer to your therapist or doctor in any case.

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In a graduate student's life (or any person's, for that matter), going through a mental health crisis is very common nowadays. Things have been worsened due to this pandemic (but, that is not the point of discussion here).

Instead of focusing on "why" part of your question (i.e. why are you feeling this or that?), I would suggest a few things:

  • Do regular exercise: Exercise is something that always brings back the mood. Start with small sit-ups, jogging some miles, pushups and you will see that you sweat. When you sweat heavily, your mood tries to come back.

  • Go somewhere and cry if you have to This is a bizarre suggestion but this one always removes so many things from our conscious mind. So many things start to matter that wasn't.

  • Eat good food Eating is most important. I am sure, you must be feeling like there is a knot in your stomach, but, force yourself to eat at least 4 times. Avoid coffee or tea or any drinks that affect mood.

  • Create a study environment You must create an ambient environment that you love to stay in. You like sitting there like there is peace.

  • Just sit and relax Just "sitting" is a problem for many. Sitting without doing anything has been big stuff now given the emergence of AI and technologies. We are always with something in our hand. But, try to sit "yourself". Let all thoughts come, that's ok. It will vanish, or find its route to go away.

  • Writing helps Writing stuff or even drawing, scribbling do help the mood. Nothing needs to be meaningful. Just random also helps e.g. An ant talked to me today and said my stomach is full. I was delighted to listen to him. He was indeed full with sugary paste.

  • Remember this is not the end of the world Nothing is the end. You may feel like not good enough, but, that is okay. Nobody is perfect or good at anything. People become good at things eventually. Takes time. Perserverence and focus is the key. Just remember that no matter what, this is not the end that can end things.

  • You mean something in this world You are here for something. May be just to "live". Just live as you wish. If you have to read a paper for that, why not?

  • Read slow and small Read slow and small amount every time you sit to read. Not to think anything other than that small amount. Try to bath that, sleep with that, eat that, and run that. Then you will see things are getting back to normal.

  • Remember to call friends for a meetup Just try catching up with friends and families for small random talks. Not necessarily stuff related to yourself, but, sometimes nonsense also helps.

Last but not least:

  • Piling up research papers creates guilt If you are not reading at all and just piling up papers starts adding extra burden on the head and you start feeling guilty about it. That you are not doing anything for this, you can't do it. So, when you pick a paper, make it a commitment to finish it up. At least read the abstract and conclusion of any paper that you pick. That is enough.
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    I don't know whether this would help the OP, but when I was studying for my PhD I rigged a stationary exercise bike with a reading stand attached to the handlebars. I could fit an hour of exercise and an hour of paper reading into one hour of elapsed time. – Patricia Shanahan Aug 1 at 23:15
  • @PatriciaShanahan That’s sounds like a really good idea, thank you. I have been thinking of going to the gym and taking my iPad with me so I can cycle and read – DiracPretender Aug 6 at 18:54

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