Bipolar and Academia (A Guest Post)

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?

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About Karen Kelsky

I am a former tenured professor at two institutions--University of Oregon and University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. I have trained numerous Ph.D. students, now gainfully employed in academia, and handled a number of successful tenure cases as Department Head. I've created this business, The Professor Is In, to guide graduate students and junior faculty through grad school, the job search, and tenure. I am the advisor they should already have, but probably don't.


Bipolar and Academia (A Guest Post) — 10 Comments

  1. Much of what B & F write about mental illness holds true for anyone suffering from other chronic illnesses too. I am in my first year as a TT faculty and have been dealing with chronic illness since the winter before I started grad school. For the last seven years, I have had many struggles with my health and at many points have questioned whether my body is up to handling the physical rigors of a job at a R1 university. It’s not easy. I have given up many things I wanted to pursue, especially opportunities to travel. I have had to cancel meetings, classes I’m teaching, and even flights because I’m too sick to leave the house. I try to schedule work meetings later in the day because I tend to feel ill when I first wake up.

    We have no say in the hand we are dealt, but only we can determine whether or not the choices we are faced with are worth the potential physical and mental strain they will put on ourselves and our relationships with those around us. You need to do what is going to make you happy, but also acknowledge your physical and mental limits. And unfortunately, life isn’t always fair. F’s experience with having his adjunct contract not renewed is a testament to that. But universities are, in the end, businesses like any other; beyond what the law requires them to do, some departments will be more sympathetic than others.

    I am glad I have been able to make my journey as far as I have, and I will do everything in my power to keep my health from preventing me from having the career I want. But after being sick most days for many years, I can also accept that there may come a time when I have to go to my dean and have a long talk, and that the outcome of that talk may not be exactly what I’d like to hear (although I am very lucky to have an extremely compassionate and understanding dean).

    • I hope you will look at my post below and get in touch with DVR in your state. They may be able to offer you some discrete help or at least help you decide where or not to speak with your dean and how to say it. I think that Vocational Rehabilitation agency names differ from state to state.

  2. Thank you for sharing this. I struggle with depression & think I have BPD, but haven’t gotten an official Dx because there is not a safe place to explore with my student health insurance. I tried going to our student counseling, but 15 minutes into discussing my intake form, the Dr. told me he wanted to put me on meds. When I said I’d rather explore what’s going on with my thyroid first, he said, “Well okay, we can just start with counseling and add meds a little later. Just so you know, if you’d like to come beyond the 11 visit max, you have to be on meds.” My university medicated and/or hospitalized over 11% of its population the year before I arrived (not quite 2 years ago). I haven’t gotten updated numbers, but I don’t need them to know better.

    I’m fortunate enough to have had some training in self-care & peer work that helps me recognize when I’m having an episode, but sometimes it’s hard to keep track while in grad school. I worry that the stresses of pursuing tenure will only make things worse. I’m working to get things in order before then, however. Bittersweet to know that I’m not the only person thinking about these things.

  3. Dealing with chronic illness (as I have) is tough, whether in academia or not. But it pains me that so many people question whether they can make it in academia–the implication being that the corporate world is somehow more welcoming. What academics, particularly those who have little to no experience in the corporate world, tend to not realize is that corporations hold a great deal more power over the individual and are _generally_ a lot less forgiving of illness (not to mention more restrictive of schedules, etc.). There are exceptions, of course, but the truth about the labor market is alarming. Just last year a company in the northern part of NY state had to deal with a bit of public relations fallout when it was reported that workers in their factory were being made to wear diapers so that they wouldn’t have to take bathroom breaks (!). Sadly, this is not an anomaly, as anyone who studies the history of labor relations knows. White-collar offices can be just as unforgiving of human needs–look at what happens with mergers, shutting down of huge offices, etc. My point is that the nonacademic working world can be astonishingly rigid, regimented, and harsh. With my illness, I have found academia to be a much more supportive and liberal environment to be in.

    One could make comparisons as well in the area of raising children. In general, it seems to me that my academic friends have much more flexibility and are a lot less stressed when a child is sick than my friends in the white collar (or certainly blue collar) world.

    Capitalism is all about minimizing cost and maximizing profit–the reason health insurance started being tied to employment in the first place (in the ’30’s) was so that companies could get their workers back to work as quickly as possible. Go to a doctor, get a pill, get back in the factory –none of this staying in bed and waiting it out stuff. (This also is a clue to where Americans get their reflexive reliance on meds as opposed to cultivating a healthier lifestyle.) True, as capitalism/financial considerations make deeper incursions into academic life, we will be seeing more restrictions on faculty and far less freedom –but this is something to fight against, not capitulate to. Academia should lead the way toward more compassionate, humane ways of living, but it starts with academics appreciating what we have and how it differs from the lives of most Americans.

  4. Karen and others, I am surprised no one has mentioned the ADA yet. The ADA has got everyones back, the all american wingman. All your students and staff should be referred ASAP! to the disabilities office on your camuses.


  5. I am so grateful to see this post, but incredibly frustrated by it at the same time. The ADA in academia? Maybe for Steven Hawking, but it is unlikely that someone with an invisible, stigmatized mental illness–especially one as difficult to pin down as bipolar disorder–will be protected by institutions who don’t even see themselves as subject to unemployment law most of the time.

    After 16 years as an academic (and a damned good one) on the nomadic, visiting Professor non-tenure track, I was forced to give up my lifetime dream two years ago. It took a long time to bring myself to do it, but I applied for and began receiving disability benefits 60 days later.

    Yes, it is a godsend that there are more respites during the academic week than a 9-5 m-f business schedule, but with the possible exception of running for president, I have never seen anything that matches the real time public vivisection of academic life.

    Yet, here I am back on this website as I struggle with the decision to apply for a a tenure-line job and go back to work. Nothing has ever matched the joys I felt in the classroom.

    As little as I can imagine the ADA being of much assistance on campus, I admire the work of the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation. I found out about them through a disability group at Worksource during a long period of unemployment. They could offer protection, job coaching and other great services to help you stay in your job. It takes time to find them and get through their process but nobody wants to see you keep your job more than the state and they are interested in long term solutions that match your education and skills.

    Had I found them earlier in my career, I may have been able to go the distance to the tenure track and tenure. As it was, they provided a therapist and helped me find my way out of an increasingly desperate cross country merry go round that I rode completely alone.

    So maybe I am not so bitter after all. I hope someone will read this and find DVR. They will help you find your way.

  6. I agree. Thank you for these threads. I found them very helpful.

    I realize that I’m a little late to the party, however I was hoping for a better explanation of how B & F chose their school. I hope to start a MAcc program in the fall. I am finding information on bipolar/older student friendly universities. How do I find locate that information? Suggestions?

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