Managing Your Mental Health in Academia

A few years ago, when I was still in academia, we had a meeting of scholars who were part of the university’s Water Institute. We were each given five minutes and two Powerpoint slides in which to introduce ourselves, our research group, and give a rundown of what we were working on, with the idea that it would generate ideas for collaboration. I managed to fit my four grad students, two research techs, and six ongoing projects into the time limit. After which one of my colleagues asked: “When do you sleep?”

At the time I laughed. It was a common joke amongst my research group that I had a million things on the go and was always working – when I wasn’t sleeping. I was doing extensive fieldwork, attending conferences, teaching four classes a year, mentoring grad students, writing grants (and grant progress reports), collaborating with colleagues, writing and reviewing papers, serving on the executive of my scientific society, and giving public lectures.

So when I ran across this blog post last week, in which a UK scholar describes opening up to her students about the stress faced by academic staff in UK universities, it all sounded sadly familiar.

Her story isn’t that different from the stressors facing Canadian academics. Faculty are pressured to publish and get grants, which are becoming more difficult to obtain. Just look at the current furor over the declining success rate for early career researchers in the Canadian Institutes for Health Research (CIHR) system, which eerily mirrors similar issues raised when the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) switched to a less egalitarian model back in 2008.

Faculty are also teaching larger classes, and are expected to do more pedagogically to support students in those classes. Which is great, but merely adds to the list of job requirements – including supervising and mentoring a stable of grad students (these days NSERC expects you to have quite a few), reviewing grants and papers by other (just as busy) academics, serving on university committees, contributing to your research field by volunteering with your scientific organization, etc. And that doesn’t even include the (relatively) recent push to require that scientists communicate their research to the public via lectures, blogs, newspaper op-eds, etc.

Some people can manage the pressure. Others crack under the strain. I fell into the latter group.

It’s been almost four years since I left academia due to mental illness. I’ve written about it previously (here, here, here, here, and here), when it was still raw and painful. The wound festered for several years: consider being forced to leave a job you’ve spent the last 12 years working single-mindedly to achieve. You’d find it painful, too.

A recent post on Tenure, She Wrote by qtchimie brought it all back in excruciating detail. It also helped me better understand what went wrong in my own personal situation, and how long I was actually ill before I made the choice to step away.

The biggest thing I realized? Being in academia fed and normalized my mental illness. During my high phases I could maintain an overfull plate of tasks and commitments; the rewards I got from juggling that plate (grants, publications, working with fantastic colleagues, etc.) created a positive feedback loop, sustaining a high feeling of accomplishment. While the lows were unpredictable, and kept me from getting anything done, I would use them as an opportunity to recharge before returning to a hypomanic state. The ultimate reward for the high side of my illness? Being granted tenure.

I can vividly remember the jittery, frenetic mood that would propel me through a weekend of intensive fieldwork, a week of teaching undergrads and mentoring grad students, and then another week of presenting at a conference while working on papers and grant applications in the evenings. I was juggling so many balls at once that I lived constantly on the edge of disaster. Which explains why I had a minor breakdown when a planned field trip was aborted because two feet of fresh snow made it impossible to transport our equipment to the field sites. When I think carefully about it, I realize that I functioned like this for several years before I had to step away – and that was only because I fell into a low, a depression so deep that I didn’t think I’d ever climb out of it.

They say that’s what happens with bipolar disorder: the highs are fantastic, but the lows are deadly and can last much longer than the highs. They also say that bipolar disorder is most commonly misdiagnosed as major depression, because why would you see the doctor during the highs, when things are great? Instead you see them only when you’re low, and things are terrible. Given this dichotomy, I was first diagnosed as a high functioning depressive. Two years later, a second opinion revealed the true nature of my illness, and I started a completely different treatment regimen.

Reading qtchimie’s post on Tenure, She Wrote, I was impressed with the author’s self-knowledge about mental health. Not only did they notice when they slipped into a dangerous phase of staying up late and working without regard for the time, but they immediately committed to self-care by making sure to catch up on sleep and then visit a doctor to try and manage their symptoms.

I wasn’t even half that aware. I’d had one previous depressive episode when I was finishing my PhD. Though I never felt quite the same afterwards, I told myself to just push on, that things would improve if only I just got this one more thing done. I was the extreme opposite of self-aware: I had no idea that burning the mental candle at both ends would eventually cause my mind to implode. I’m far more self-aware now – in fact, my life revolves around constant internal assessment about how I’m feeling and how I’m managing everyday events. But it’s sort of like the proverbial closing of the barn door after the horse has already bolted.

I know there are people with bipolar working in the academy – the author of the Tenure, She Wrote post is living proof of that, as is the well-known Kay Redfield Jamison, author of An Unquiet Mind. But I can’t go back. Because I pressed on for so long in a hypomanic state, and was then misdiagnosed for two years, the resulting cognitive decline (yes, mental illness can cause changes in your ability to think) is too significant to allow me to return to academia. The oddest thing? Math and stats have become so troublesome that I can hardly calculate a 15% tip when we go out for lunch, and my memory is somewhat sieve-like, but writing has become much easier (yay!).

So why tell you my story? Because you can make sure you have a different – dare I say better – outcome. As an academic with a mental health issue – whether you’re an undergrad, grad student, or faculty member – you can choose to be constantly aware of your mental state, and to adjust your life (including work habits!) as necessary to maintain an even keel. You can take the courageous step of letting people around you know that you’re managing an illness, and that you have to take specific steps to ensure that you stay healthy. You can choose people – friends, colleagues, staff – who you’d like to help and support you, so you don’t have to do it alone. Like the woman who wrote the first blog post I linked to above, you can be candid about the challenges you face and the best way you’ve found to deal with them.

Don’t be like me.

I ignored my mental state, forged on despite the warning signs, and only gave in when things became far too difficult to handle. I didn’t recognize – let alone talk to anyone about – my personal challenges until it was too late. Instead of linking my mental health to my academic life, I consistently made poor choices that fed my illness instead of recognizing it, and ended up venturing out past the point of no return.

I’ve learned to live what has become a quiet, ordinary life. I have a fairly consistent daily schedule that incorporates having to sleep a lot, I rarely travel, and I put most of my limited energy into my dogs, my garden, and writing. I’ll never juggle so many balls again – not only because I can’t, but because if I could that would mean the hypomania was back. I take my medication, and I speak up about mental health. Because if one person can find a better way forward because of my story, then it’s all worthwhile.

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20 thoughts on “Managing Your Mental Health in Academia

  1. Don’t be like my friend. Published in Nature Communications before he finished PhD. Star of the academy. Best researcher they have ever seen. Jumped off a bridge at 31.

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  3. Dear Sarah:

    I previously wrote a long personal message to share how nice it is to see mental health afflicted faculty, but after further thoughts with evidence from recent twitter messages I realized this post was only meant for faculty and have deleted that message.
    Unfortunately, this doesn’t apply to me, even if I have the exact same prognosis as you, since I am a Bachelors graduate who just had terrible timing and was never even given a chance in academia. Fun fact, passion is supplementary, it’s all about timing, my fellow trainees. For timing, working around the clock gives the highest probability of success.
    I completely understand you can only write on behalf of your own perspectives and I will nonetheless thank you for trying to help others.

    Good Luck,
    Krishna

    • Hi Krishna – actually the post was meant for anyone in academia (undergrad, grad, faculty) who is dealing with MH problems. The post I refer to at Tenure, She Wrote, for example, was written by a grad student. The Twitter conversation you mention was about something completely different, as it focused on how to help students avoid falling into the overwork trap. Overwork can be a contributor to MH issues, but isn’t the whole story. I hope you’ll read this post again in this new light.

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  5. Thanks for sharing this, Sarah. I enjoyed working with you in the academic world, but from what I’ve seen you are far more productive outside than inside, as am I. 🙂

    • Thanks Bob. I certainly wouldn’t say I’m more productive (far from it lol!), but I am doing things that work better for me. I’m less of a square peg in a round hole. 🙂

  6. Hi Sarah, thanks for writing this. It is so familiar, though I was not in academia, I worked for First Nations and the same fundraising pressures exist as well as the First Nations social conditions that carry a heavy emotional weight. To do my part I used to get up at 3:30 am to go to work. Starting when my son was seven months old (he was 10 in 2014) I would leave him to travel for work.

    I had a breakdown March 2014 and like you I did not believe that working so hard would be harmful, I was always so tough and resilient I thought, and the feeling of accomplishments so satisfying (though I realize now what a non success I was for my small family). My husband had been telling me for years that I would not be able to do anything if I kept up working like that. I did not listen and I cracked. I had strange numbness over my whole body and panic attacks. Previously my symptoms were only mental, a couple periods of short term winter depression, masked by tons of coffee and an ‘I can do it’ attitude. When I first broke down, I could barely walk with the fatigue and used to lie on my office floor hoping that I was not dying because the numbness sensations were so weird. I quit work because I simply could not do it not because I recognized I had been working too hard, I thought perhaps I had MS.

    When I was diagnosed variously by different professionals as having conversion disorder, adrenal fatigue, or anxiety disorder, I listened, initially with disbelief but finally I realized I had brought it on myself. It took about a year to recover and a big part of it was the emotional disconnecting from my working identity, I will never be as resilient, however I am so much happier and life is richer (though not financially;)). We just had twins five months ago, and I finally feel like my purpose is clear and I spent so much time avoiding it and working against it. A simple life to support a healthy legacy.

    These type of scenarios for women are very common, my counsellor and naturopath see it all the time. I hope your message can prevent this happening to others. For me though I fell like I had to fall of the cliff to enjoy soaring through life (oh and going paleo helped a lot too). Others though, like mentioned above, hit the ground.

    • Hi Gwen – congrats on your twins! When I interviewed you for the CSP post I think you still just had 1 or 2 kids.

      Thanks for sharing your story. I suspect you may be right in that a lot of women take on too much out of a feeling of responsibility, then crash under the strain. But it’s probably also likely that men have the same issues, it’s just less socially acceptable for them to admit to those issues.

      I’m glad to hear you’re doing better. What your story (and many others) tells me is that we have to move beyond being defined by our work. We will all be in terrible shape (mentally & physically) if we don’t recognize our innate need to be well-rounded human beings rather than working automatons.

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  8. A related phenomenon is the fact that the prospects of a ‘proper’ job as a scientist/philosopher/economist academic, a ‘job in field’, are increasingly distant. Here in Australia we don’t have the Darwinian ‘tenure-track’ of the US, but the mean age of first tenured appointment in academia is now 37. That’s a long time to be busting your arse post-PhD, hoping that you might finally get off the post-doc merry-go-round and have a proper job. To me, it’s a psychosis, a dangerous and evil phantasm for many people. Colleagues who have jumped off that carousel have often found that their new job (a) has sensible hours, (b) has sensible expectations of performance, and (c) has tenure and a pension plan. But persuading them to make the change is like deprogramming someone who has been in a cult.

    • Many people have likened academia to a cult, which is an interesting perspective. Like many people out there, I agree that we need to show PhD students that there are many alternate career paths that don’t necessarily include academia – and that aren’t ‘second rate’ just because they’re not academic!

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