In January, I posted a request on Facebook and Twitter for resources related to mental illness and academia. I had been contacted by a reader recently diagnosed with bipolar disorder, who was seeking information. The response to my request was greater than I expected, and many expressed a wish for a list of the resources I discovered. I eventually compiled such a list and posted it on the blog in this post, Mental Illness and the Academy. I also asked for guest posts on the subject. I feel it’s important and yet too often shrouded in secrecy and shame. Today’s post is the first guest post in the series. I expect at least one more. Thank you, reader, for your willingness to share.
Our story begins at a frat party at a near-Ivy R1 ten years ago. F, an MA student, was visiting some friends from undergrad when he met B, a sophomore and varsity athlete. We fell in love, first with each other, and then with academia. Now, a decade later and after a variety of geographical and career moves, we are both working toward doctorates at a large Mid-Atlantic university – B in social work, and F in linguistics.
In a variation on the two-body problem faced by academic couples, we are confronted with two bodies and a giant elephant in the room. F was diagnosed with bipolar disorder five years ago. He has been hospitalized twice and deals with the regular peaks and valleys characteristic of the disorder on an ongoing basis.
We intend to write about our experiences coping with this situation, but to begin, we would like to note that, due to a combination of planning and serendipity, we have a number of factors working in our favor. First, our university provides excellent health insurance, allowing for no-cost inpatient hospitalization and very low-cost outpatient treatment. Further, the faculty who know about our situation in both of our departments have been highly supportive. We also saved money before grad school to reduce financial stress and keep costs manageable.
That said, however, not a day goes by where we do not wonder if choosing to pursue tenure-track academic careers while coping with mental illness is a healthy or smart decision.
Prior to enrolling in our current programs, B coordinated research studies and F held the holy grail of adjunct jobs at the aforementioned near-Ivy R1 – a full-time gig with benefits and a salary comparable to that of many assistant professors. It was during this period that F was first hospitalized after a manic episode that coincided with the end of the spring semester. In the fallout from this hospitalization, we were given our first glimpse into just how hostile academia can be toward those with mental illness when F’s department first attempted to reduce his courseload and then declined to renew his contract. This work experience provided invaluable perspective on what we were getting ourselves into as future academics. Undaunted, we pressed forward.
Getting by day to day as a graduate student and academic-in-training is extraordinarily difficult for F. Since grad school requires much more production when compared to a full-time teaching position, the ability to effectively structure one’s time and motivate oneself to produce work are extremely important to overall success. However, doing this is difficult when one struggles to get up in the morning, let alone conduct independent research. The ups and downs of dealing with periods of depression and mania are also difficult within the context of a semester where a couple of off weeks can substantially disrupt coursework. It is in this sense that the unstructured nature of grad school and the constant need for intrinsic motivation are the underlying causes of the majority of the problems that F deals with on a day-to-day basis. And, lying at the end of the challenges inherent to grad school, F will face a market with very few available tenure-track jobs in linguistics.
While B caught the academia bug later in life than F, she is in an arguably better position in terms of expectations for tenure-track employment post-grad school. All of the students who graduate from her program in social work go on to tenure-track positions or post-docs at R1 institutions. She’s also been very productive two years into her graduate career with four first- or second-author publications in major journals, six conference presentations, two department-wide research awards, and two dissertation grants under review. However, she copes every day with figuring out how to be a productive scholar while dealing with the day-to-day uncertainty that is living with a spouse with a mental illness.
On any given day, regardless of how well things went at work, B wonders if she will come home to F having a major depressive or manic episode. During F’s second inpatient hospitalization, which happened only a few weeks ago, B struggled to deal with a spouse in the hospital while juggling a revise and resubmit deadline, two fellowship application deadlines, and heavy coursework commitments. Planning ahead is a challenge, and B has had to pass on a number of opportunities because of the time and energy constraints of dealing with F’s mental illness.
But while the struggles of dealing with serious mental illness in grad school can be daunting, even more daunting is the prospect of life after grad school. We both worry that even if we are able to find two tenure-track jobs in the same geographic location, mental illness will cause one or both of us to not get tenure. As grad students, mental illness is often not viewed as a liability to departments, but the reality that a badly-timed manic episode might derail a tenure case is a constant threat looming over our heads. We also worry that we’re chasing an unattainable dream that may inevitably be detrimental to our health given that we’ve had to give up other things – like hobbies and a large network of friends – in order to cope with the demands of the profession. At times, the desire to get out and get a “safe” job is very strong.
In the end, dealing with serious mental illness while in academia, let alone as a dual academic couple, is extremely challenging. We know that it may all go wrong. But we think we’re at a place where we’re okay with putting in the work even if it doesn’t happen for one or both of us.
Besides, what else would we do?