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Academics are at a higher risk of developing mental health problems than people in many other professions. Something similar happens to students, all of whom, due a number of cultural and social factors, have seen their risk for mental health problems rise.
Being diagnosed with a mental disorder was a surprise. As a man in my mid-30s with some success under my belt, such a diagnosis seemed to go against every notion that I had about my identity. I had built it based on the assumption of a certain degree of invincibility, only to see it shattered.
The problems started following a traumatic and violent experience, followed by an inability to sleep, coupled with paranoid and self-destructive ideas. Still, I convinced myself that I would be able to walk the difficulties off. Of course, I was wrong, and before long, the symptoms had worsened. I was irritable all the time, and I had trouble concentrating, learning new things and even being able to retain some of the knowledge that I had already acquired. That was truly the tipping point for me, as it hit the very core of who I thought I was and affected my ability to teach.
After being diagnosed with PTSD, aggravated by a burnout and depression, I spoke with the chair of my department and explained the situation in as much detail as I could. I explained what my limitations were and what I hoped would be the path out of my predicament. I asked for support, understanding and, most of all, empathy. I wanted to get better in order to be the academic I thought I was.
Still, I got mixed messages from the very beginning, with the chair telling me not worry while, at the same time, chastising me for the difficulties that my ailment would create for him. Faced with the problem that I would not be able to prepare an exam for a course, for example, he very publicly asked one of my colleagues, “Can you do this exam? He has PTSD.” That non sequitur of a request would be the first of many humiliations that I had to experience after my diagnosis, down to having a professor ask me during a performance review about my symptoms and why they were a problem. (After all, she explained, she also had trouble sleeping sometimes.)
One of the biggest difficulties of the academic world is that we are expected to be bulletproof. We are the intellectual elites in our respective fields (or at least that is what the brochures say), and thus our brains cannot possibly have problems. That was the perception that I encountered among colleagues, all whom quite openly told me that my problem was one of attitude, not health.
Despite the pleas from my doctor, I wanted to continue working until the semester was over. I hoped to minimize the burden that my absence would cause others. I still had a couple of classes to teach, theses to read and defenses to attend to.
Then, one day, after I got home from what had started as a normal workday, I had a seizure. I lost consciousness, I lost track of time and, most important, I became unable to function. My first concern, as stupid as it might seem in hindsight, was to contact the university to let them know that I would have to go on medical leave immediately. I explained my loss of consciousness and how I was quite concerned about what exactly was wrong with me.
It’s been a couple of months since that episode. I have received plenty of emails and text messages about work but not a single message asking about my health. I even received requests to do “just this one thing” (despite my automatic reply stating that I’m on medical leave), including on the same day that, desperate to finally fall asleep, I decided to mix vodka and tranquilizers, only to wake up 16 hours later.
I understand the logic. We are supposed to be intellectual giants, and therefore it is unthinkable that we would be affected by something as mundane as a mental problem. Mental disorders are, after all, supposed to happen to “other” people. People often perceive them as moral failings -- symptoms not of a health problem, but rather of a character flaw in the sufferer. That explains why, for example, people will often delay seeking medical help for a mental health problem, afraid of how their peers might react if they find out that they have such a diagnosis.
I experienced that myself when, shortly after I had explained my diagnosis, I overheard the chair of my department lamenting the fact that I was hired. According to the chair, I was sick, and that fact alone demonstrated that I just wasn’t good enough. When I discussed his comments with the university doctor in charge of approving my medical leave, his advice was that it would now be up to me to “demonstrate” to my peers that I was actually good enough for my position. The onus to break the stigma, therefore, was on me.
Speaking with other academics who have experienced similar situations, I learned that, sadly, mine is not unique. On the contrary, the lack of understanding, being criticized and made to feel guilty for being sick, as well as the occasional substance abuse, were all common denominators. That is no surprise, as addiction thrives when social bonds break, when you lose your ability to feel useful, to have a purpose. When you lose, in this case, status as a useful cog in the academic machinery, and instead are portrayed as a burden.
Unlike other ailments, mental health problems create for the sufferer what some experts have called “invisible injuries” that are treated in a way that others perceive as not “real.” Unlike surgery or other forms of traditional physical health care, psychological and psychiatric counseling are seen as mere conversations. That is why someone going on a medical leave caused by an accident or by a surgical procedure seems less “offensive” to his peers, as there is clear proof of what exactly is wrong with him.
The problem affects all workers who go on leave and whose injuries do not possess the visibility required by their peers, as they must constantly struggle for legitimacy. Similarly, a person who returns from a leave for mental health issues (or, as Sue Klebold prefers to call them, “brain health” issues) is covered in invisible scars. He looks the same, he talks the same and, therefore, only confirms what others already assumed: there was never any disease to speak of.
Mental disorders are one of those things that only feel real once they are happening to you. Safe in the knowledge that our minds are free from ailments, we sometimes see weakness in those who suffer them. That ignorance, paradoxical in an academic world that prides itself as being a stronghold of knowledge, is the key to this problem.
No matter what changes are adopted to lower the stress that affects academics, the truth is that there will always be those who, for a number of reasons, will suffer a mental health problem during their career. It is precisely in those moments that the academic world must make a change in its approach. By removing the stigma associated with mental disorders, and no longer seeing them as character flaws of the sufferer, we can ensure that victims come forward and seek treatment sooner, free from the fear of being harshly judged by their peers.
By respecting and understanding those who suffer mental health problems, and providing them the tools to feel that their journey toward recovery is not a solitary one, we can accelerate their recovery and improve our workplaces. And, in the process, we can create the kind of environment where, when disaster strikes us, we feel comfortable enough to ask for help.