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.
Disclaimer: Every experience with mental health / ill-health and graduate school is different. Diagnoses and graduate programmes vary but, beyond that, some people begin graduate school with well-known and managed conditions, while others have disruptive periodic episodes. Some, like me, are first diagnosed as graduate students and experience the two journeys in tandem.
Near the end of the first year of my PhD I got sick. First came bronchitis, and then came something a lot more frightening and much harder to understand. I didn’t have the vocabulary then, but I’d later come to know that I was experiencing panic attacks, dissociation, elevated anxiety and symptoms related to post traumatic stress. On the one hand I’d just won a major national scholarship and was receiving a lot of public recognition. On the other I was frequently terrified, incredibly forgetful, and easily confused. I would feel detached from my surroundings, sometimes for days, and then would sleep excessively to recover. Fortunately, my worst symptoms fell over that first summer, when I had limited responsibilities, and as far as I’m aware no one noticed.
After a few attempts, I was very lucky to find appropriate care and began the journey of managing my health. I was able to finish coursework on a regular schedule. I could pass for healthy even if it took a lot of effort to do so. I’m very aware that this is not an option that is available to everyone.
Graduate school is a mind game for anyone. We all know the daily feat of trying to motivate ourselves to keep going, to produce more, to be more competitive. To quote Dr. Seuss it is “a game that you play against you.” With a mental illness, it’s understandably more complicated. My brain’s abilities may vary, but as a person I’m still an over-achiever who isn’t satisfied with “good enough.” It’s hard to isolate precisely the impact of my mental health conditions on my academic life. Would I have finished faster, published more? Yes, undoubtedly yes. But how much more?
My experience is one that is rife with contradictions. I became an advocate around mental health before I got sick. I’m involved in campus-based mental health advocacy on campus but I’m also not open about my own situation in an academic context. I understand the problems that this entails – I’m not putting a face, my face, on mental illness. Why? Because I fear the stigma and I want to get a job. Am I shooting myself in the foot? Possibly. I wonder this when I consider why I didn’t pursue academic accommodations, and when I’m faced with an employment equity form with a job application that asks about mental health conditions. On the one hand, I think my situation isn’t severe enough to merit this, and these provisions perhaps weren’t intended for me. On the other hand, I do live with an ongoing health condition that I feel I can’t disclose professionally. As a result, I don’t receive any acknowledgement of that struggle. The decision to disclose is not a simple one.
My university has made significant strides towards acknowledging student challenges around mental health and clearly takes the issue very seriously. Where undergraduates may have a variety of services, however, these are often replaced at the graduate level by a single person – the supervisor. In a lot of ways this makes sense, as we work very closely. However, it can be daunting to discuss your mental health with the person who reviews your work, writes the letters that help start your career and who may also provide your funding. Additionally, counselling services are sometimes staffed by graduate students in psychology, and group counselling programs mix undergraduate and graduate students all of which can be pretty uncomfortable to a TAing grad student. Leave policies are rigid, and disability accommodations are oriented towards course work rather than thesis work. Even where services are available, unless they are specifically labelled and targeted to grad students, grad students also often assume that they are only for undergrads.
Now that I am nearing completion and on the job market, there are a few recommendations I’d make to myself in hindsight and to others in similar situations. Based on numerous conversations with other grad students with mental health conditions I also have some recommendations for departments and universities.
- Seek health care as soon as possible. There may be a waiting list and seeking care also provides a paper trail if you ever need to document your illness.
- Find out what resources exist on campus and what the provisions for leave (and what sort of documentation you might need) and disability services.
- Take leave when your symptoms are severe. This didn’t seem important to me in first year, but now that I’m running up against the clock having those 4 months would be helpful.
- Cover mental health as part of your grad student orientation.
- Bring in campus-based resources as part of orientation if possible.
- Make leave an accessible option. Policies that require leave to coincide precisely with term dates may be unrealistic for episodic illnesses. If possible, allow students to take leave and not lose all financial support (or health insurance) during that time.
- Consider having targeted grad student mental health services (ie specific therapy groups and expertise).
- Have personnel located outside of departments that can provide grad school, job and career advice (similar to undergraduate faculty-level advisors).
As for me, my journey is ongoing and I’m still aiming for an academic career. Alongside my degree, I’ve learned a lot from my experience with mental illness (and, I’m sure still have a lot more to learn). It has taught me about vulnerability, resilience and forgiveness and has shown me how fortunate I am to have the people in my life that I do. It has also given me both sensitivity and admiration for my own students who choose to disclose to me.