Teaching While Mentally Ill

BlogHer Original Post

Imagine trying to teach while voices in your head are telling you your students are trying to kill you.  That has been a reality for Elyn Saks, a professor of law, psychology, and psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at the University of Southern California's law school.  This week Saks published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education documenting her personal experiences with mental illness in academia.

Over the past few days, links to the article have been moving through academics' e-mail inboxes like wildfire.  There's good reason why.  Not only does Saks share some pretty startling experiences and talk about how she has overcome these challenges, but she also opens an interesting discussion on whether, when, and to whom an academic with mental illness might disclose her illness.  Here's an excerpt:

The first question you must ask yourself is whether to tell your chair and dean. I can think of arguments both in favor of that, and against.

One of the pluses would be the psychological benefits of not having a secret and being able to be open. More practically you might be able to get extra support, or formal accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). You would serve as a model for other academics in your department and your students.

There are, of course, real pitfalls to telling, too. There is a tremendous stigma, still, around mental illness. People may believe, consciously or not, that you are unreliable or even dangerous, and they may fear you. They may think you can't do the work or your scholarship isn't good, even if it is very good. That may not be intentional on their part but can nonetheless have a big impact on your work life and your prospects for tenure.

Saks is the author of a memoir, The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness.  (You can read a review of the book by a writer who has schizoaffective disorder herself at Femi-Nation.)

Mental health has become a big issue on college campuses.  Campuses with unusually high rates of suicide have worried about distressed and distressing students for several years, and the shootings at Virginia Tech in the spring of 2007 raised awareness nationally of student mental health.

That said, aside from mental health centers for faculty and staff on some campuses, there has not been significant attention paid to the mental health of those who teach students.  Anecdotally, there is evidence that mental illness in academia, particularly depression and anxiety disorders, are not uncommon.  Years ago, I attended an academic talk on mental health, and the presenter mentioned he was studying four disorders in a particular (nonacademic) population: major depression, bipolar illness, schizophrenia, and dysthymia.  Someone asked what dysthymia is—it's mild-to-moderate, long-term depression—and those in the room exchanged knowing glances.  Finally, someone said, "Ohhhh. . . It's what we all have."

Many commenters on Saks's Chronicle article shared their own experiences.  Wrote one,

Thank you for this brave and thoughtful piece. I struggle with chronic depression and find that academe is probably one of the best places for me, because of its relative flexibility (compared to many other workplace environments). However, I'm still not quite ready to be "out." I agree that coming forward would probably be a good thing, but it also presents more risk than I'm ready for. I really admire you!

Another has faced greater challenges:

I very much appreciate your article and walking the reader through an actual experience you probably have had many times. I suffer from chronic mental health issues, although not to the severity that you do. But nonetheless, they do have an affect on my ability to work at times. I do not feel safe in disclosing any of it to my academic employer. I often hear comments in the work place about people who "are depressed or whatever" are just weak and need to toughen up. I have attempted to get consideration for my "general health issues" in scheduling of courses and my duties as a program chair without much success. In fact, I have found the responses to be hostile. We need more people like you to come out into the open and speak up so that more of us in the shadows can also come out, without resorting to ADA or legal action, which I know in the end will be used against me one way or the other, because I don't work in an institution with tenure (proprietary college). Thank you.

A commenter on a post at Historiann shared her own experience of not getting support when she needed it:

Fried from post-partum depression but afraid that taking a semester’s unpaid leave would jeopardize my future tenure bid, I jumped back into my job 8 weeks after giving birth–with disastrous results. (My female chair’s attitude: “I made tenure as a single mom. You have to give up your life and do what it takes. DO IT.”)

It's tough for graduate students, too, whether they teach or are students.  Wrote one woman with a disability that may be a mental illness on the blog Rate Your Students,

Ever since my diagnosis, I have prayed to every god imaginable that I could be "normal" again. And most of the time, I am. I'm properly medicated and as healthy as I can be. But, you have *no* idea how humiliating it is to approach a professor (especially a mentor or a "shining star" in your field of study) and say, "Hi. I'm abnormal. This here sheet of paper gives me accomodations for which most students would maim a nun. Please, oh pretty please, don't put as asterisk next to my grade when I earn yet another A." Because that's how I feel - I work my ass to the bone taking an overload of course hours, studying endlessly, researching for seminars, while working to pay bills and to gain experience - but every time I EARN an A, part of me feels like I don't deserve it...because there's still a socially accepted stigma about mental disorders (as is evidenced often on this blog.)

The grad student blogging at PhD Depression also connects the ways an academic life, and particularly the pursuit of a PhD, can contribute to a major depressive episode.

Dr. Isis also has a must-read post in which she responds to a scientist suffering from depression.  In it, she not only offers sympathy, but also some concrete suggestions for accommodations, including some that may be made under the Americans with Disabilities Act.  She also links to a post by computer scientist Mark Chu-Carroll, who also has depression.  His post is also worth a read, as in it he considers why people have no problem watching him take pills for one illness but not for another:

Somewhat over 1/2 of the people who hear that I take an antidepressant express disapproval in some way. Around 1/3 make snide comments about "happy pills" and lecture me about how only weak-willed nebbishes who can't deal with reality need psychiatric medication.

I confess to being thoroughly mystified by this. Why is it OK for my stomach, or my heart, or my pancreas to be ill in a way that needs to be treated with medication, but it's not OK for my brain? Why are illnesses that originate in this one organ so different from all others, so that so many people believe that nothing can possibly go wrong with it? That there are absolutely no problems with the brain that can possibly be treated by medication?

Why is it OK for me to take expensive, addictive drugs for a painful but non-life-threatening problem with my stomach; but totally unacceptable for me to take cheap harmless drugs for a painful but non-threatening problem with my brain?

What about you?  How have you seen mental illness addressed on your campus, in your or your child's classroom, or in your workplace?  Is it stigmatized?  And what are you doing to cope or to help?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox and is the founder of Eager Mondays, a consultancy providing unconventional professional development.

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