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A person I care about has problems with depression and anxiety and is starting a PhD soon. She has some questions I was not able to answer, so I was hoping you could give some advice. It is in a developed European country. I do not want to specify the country for fear of doxing her.

She was successful in her Bachelor's and Master's degree. She has had a job in her area the past more than a year and was also successful in it, with her boss being happy with her work. However, because of COVID, she has been on home office basically the whole time, allowing for a lot of flexibility. This has allowed her to not work when she was not feeling well and as long as the job got done, everyone was happy. It is the same story with the Master's studies, as long as she learned the things in time, that was sufficient. The flexibility has also made it much simpler to go to therapy, which is rather hard to get outside of standard working hours.

While it is possible that things will be good most of the time, there is a good chance she will need some accommodation at some point. She will also likely be starting using antidepressants and it is not clear what short-term effect that will have.

What is the best way of going about this? If we knew the supervisor and knew that they would be understanding, it seems like the way to deal with this would be to tell this professor. The university where she will be working has a disability office, so contacting them sounds like a good choice. Could the supervisor feel like we (she) is trying to go around him by not telling him first (he clearly shouldn't, but does it happen)? Do you think we should try to start discussing this with the university now, or is it better to wait until she officially starts? A third option would be to start resolving this when (if?) problems arise, but that does not sound smart.

Another thing we are worried about is what happens if there is something in her studies that causes her problems to get worse. Would it be reasonable to contact the disability office about that? For example, I would be worried about external pressure before paper deadlines. What is the best way of dealing with that?

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    One important thing to ask is what specific evidence does the DO need to consider your friend as falling under their purview. Better to sort that out now, and get it on file at the DO as soon as possible. Doing it in an emerging crisis just adds to the difficulties.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 13 at 12:56
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    I strongly suggest getting treatment, including guidance on how to navigate the new job of being a PhD student, from a mental health professional before starting a PhD. Jul 14 at 7:48
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I strongly recommend to have a conversation about this with the supervision very soon. If the supervisor is going to be non-cooperative, the most convenient time to learn about this is now - because the cost of changing supervisor is going to be the lowest now.

An attempt to coerce the supervisor into providing reasonable accommodations via the disability office is not going to make for a pleasant experience. A good supervisor will do so much more than required of them that replicating this by invoking legal rights wouldn't work out well.

The conversation to be had with the supervisor now probably should stay rather general. The objective is just to figure out whether they are generally supportive and whether the nature of the research is compatible with the forseeable accomodations. Eg, as a mathematicians having days where you just can't isn't a much a problem; if your research involves tending for animals, clinical research, access to rare equipment, etc, it might be more difficult.

Also talking to the disability office is a good idea, too. They should know stuff like whether the university is offering counselling services to grad students, how to apply for more time for any kind of formal components, etc.

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    I'd absolutely agree that "legal/policy requirements", as opposed to the advisor acting from goodwill and sympathy, is suboptimal. "Staying within legal requirements" is not at all convivial... Jul 13 at 20:35
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Persons with depression and/or anxiety can have very different disease trajectories and it is very hard to anticipate severity, length of episodes, reactions to treatment and medication, etc. For this reason, I would be very careful with sharing "what might happen"-sort of information.

Talking to the disability office (what a horrible name) is a great idea but I would first ask for information in general: what sort of help they provide, what are the processes for people with mental health problems, etc. I would also ask what they advise about informing the supervisor(s) and/or research group. They should have plenty of experience both about PhD students and researchers with mental health problems and how this specific university handles these issues. I think talking to the disability office is also confidential so it is unlikely the supervisor is likely to know about it - unless the DO is asked to interfere.

Also, I would ask the supervisor about flexible working hours in general because that answer will also impact of what needs to be shared with them. In this talk your friend could also mention she does not deal well with pressure and how she is currently doing. In any case, having honest and open communication with the supervisor is probably best - but without emphasising the worst-case scenario or trying to guess the future. She could mention, for example, how she worked during the pandemic and succeeded with her job (what you wrote in the second paragraph).

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    “disability office (what a horrible name)” How else would you name it? Though in this case “special needs” might actually be a suitable, better name.
    – Michael
    Jul 13 at 18:54
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    @Michael Here in Australia, they're often called "equity" offices.
    – nick012000
    Jul 14 at 4:01
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    @Michael Anything less stigmatising would be good. I fear a name like 'disability office' could discourage students to pass by and ask their questions, especially for the milder cases. I think at my previous uni it was called 'student counselling'.
    – Aolon
    Jul 14 at 5:06
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    "Accessibility Office" is common in the US, but I feel that this is a little confusing. It wouldn't be stigmatizing to refer to disability if having a disability wasn't stigmatized. Using a euphemism doesn't change that. Jul 15 at 16:44
  • @ElizabethHenning You are absolutely right, it should not be stigmatised. I also agree that the variety of names can be confusing and not using the word disability where appropriate does not help removing the stigma either.
    – Aolon
    Jul 16 at 6:16
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In European countries psychological issues as well as illness are very private subjects most persons even supervisors or professors would feel uncomfortable knowing about. Not because of stigma but simply because it is none of their business. In Germany there are even laws prohibiting your employer from knowing what illness you have when you call in sick, for example.

The to-be PhD should talk about this with their therapist. Therapists know about these topics and should have an idea about how to play this game in this country; they have been to university themselves and just in case they know who to ask.

Disability office is about disabilities, afaik most psychological afairs do not legally qualify as disabilities, so it might be that they are entitled to help with psychological issues or not - again it depends on the country.

Maybe there is something similiar to a disabilities office explicitely for psychological counseling. It is also possible to contact the students' union for support or advice.

On the other hand it is understandable that you want to be transparent with the people you are going to work with... again, depending on the country and the scientific department in question, you could simply state that there is a private condition that might result in regular appointments or spontaneous sick leaves... Most people I know will accept this and even offer support, and not think about whether it is about a chronic illness or a psychological issue.

Disclosure: I visit my therapist every week myself, and have to leave early on those days. All of my colleagues know, that I leave, but none of them would ever ask me why I leave.

Keep on keeping on

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    Chronic or long-lasting mental health conditions are disabilities if they interfere with normal functioning. Jul 15 at 16:40
  • @ElizabethHenning This is definitely how it should be. But whether it is a legal status depends on the country, so without this information it is difficult to say that the disabilities office is a sensible choice to talk to. I only want to emphasize that there are other services that are - presumably - more fitting. Also taking into account that a to-be PhD is probably rather young which makes is less likely that somebody officially diagnosed their condition as chronic (noi)
    – Björn
    Jul 16 at 8:09

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