Portrait of Faculty Mental Health

New study of faculty members with mental health issues finds they disclose conditions selectively to trusted colleagues but are less trusting of and have worse reactions from staff members whose job it is to help them.

June 8, 2017
 
Margaret Price

Margaret Price, associate professor of English and disability studies at Ohio State University, taught for years before one conversation with the right person got her a crucial accommodation for her cognitive processing and memory issues.

“I thought I just had to tough it out. … Getting an accommodation for my particular mental issues had literally not occurred to me,” Price said of the time before her campus coordinator for the Americans With Disabilities Act arranged for a communication assistant to sit in on her classes and help.

Price’s experience is somewhat representative of those of other faculty members struggling with mental illness, according to a new study she co-authored. The paper finds that many professors confide “unofficially” in select colleagues but don’t inform their institutions to ask for help -- both out of a sense of professional risk and lack of awareness about where to turn. (Note: Price had previously written publicly about her mental health diagnoses, such as post-traumatic stress disorder, including for Inside Higher Ed. Ironically, though, she said, she hadn’t sought help from her university.)

“Disclosure of Mental Disability by College and University Faculty: The Negotiation of Accommodations, Supports and Barriers” says it’s the first-ever cross-institutional survey of its kind and seeks to fill a major gap in the research on faculty members with mental disabilities. Desk rejected by several different journals as too out of the box before being accepted by Disability Studies Quarterly, the study sheds light on how far faculty members have come in terms of seeking out support for mental disabilities, and how far institutions still need to go in terms of promoting and offering related accommodations.

Price and her co-authors recruited some 267 participants who self-identified as having mental disabilities, mental illnesses or mental health histories. The researchers posted on Listservs across disciplines and reached out to human resources and disabilities offices on a number of campuses, along with professional organizations.

One major finding is that 70 percent of respondents had no or limited familiarity with accommodations they can seek in working conditions, and 87 percent didn’t use them at all.

Given the stigma that still attends mental illness in many corners of academe, a surprisingly large share of respondents -- 62 percent -- did say they’d disclosed their condition to someone on campus. Half of those disclosed to colleagues, and 21 percent said they’ve informed their department chairs.

Some 20 percent had even shared their diagnoses or experiences with students. Just 6 percent disclosed to a dean or provost, while an even smaller share (4 percent) disclosed to an office of disability services.

In most cases, respondents said their disclosure experiences were helpful. “For all groups to whom faculty members reported disclosing, the trend was toward more positive effects of disclosure,” reads the study -- with the exception of those who reported to human resources, although these were few, possibly in anticipation of negative experiences. Those who disclosed to students strongly skewed positive.

The study doesn’t claim to be representative of academe as a whole; it didn’t attempt to identify how many faculty members have mental illnesses, women were overrepresented in the sample (70 percent) and faculty members of color were underrepresented, at 7 percent, though the authors did make a concerted effort to reach out to historically black colleges and universities.

Price says further intersectional research involving these groups is needed, along with research involving LGBTQ faculty. Two-thirds of the sample were on the tenure track or tenured, while 16 percent of respondents reported being on contracts of less than one year. Most were at graduate-level institutions.

Still, results paint a significant portrait of faculty mental health. The most common primary diagnoses reported were depression (47 percent), followed by anxiety (38 percent), bipolar disorder (8 percent) and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (5 percent).

Stigma and Disclosure, Awareness and Accommodation

All participants were asked, "How familiar are you with accommodations that you may be entitled to under the law?" Almost half said they were "not familiar at all," and about 25 percent said they were "slightly familiar." Seven percent were "extremely familiar" with accommodations to which they were entitled, and just 13 percent said they’d asked for such supports.

Of those who’d never requested accommodations, 50 percent said they didn’t need them. Some 33 percent were not aware they were available, and 31 percent said it wasn’t anyone else’s “business.” About one-quarter worried asking for services would affect tenure or promotion decisions, and 22 percent worried how people would respond or behave toward them going forward.

Open-ended responses suggested a common fear of stigma upon disclosure. “Fear of losing [a]ll credibility,” someone said, while another wrote, “I do not think that the risk of serious reprisal is high, but I have seen a colleague with a serious mental health issue subjected to constant gossip, originating with administrators, and I believe such would seriously damage my ability to work.” Another respondent pointed out it was very different to talk about being stressed with colleagues than to reveal a diagnosis.

Those who hadn’t told anyone on campus said they’d avoided it due to feeling “that it's not other people's business” (62 percent) or that "it's not relevant to my work” (51 percent). Many others worried about negative professional outcomes.

Stigma and privacy came up again and again. Someone wrote in an open-ended section, for example, “I also have two other disabilities that are visible, so often use those as rationales for any accommodations I need for mental health issues (e.g., instead of saying, ‘I had a bad night sleeping because of anxiety,’ I would say, ‘I was up all night with my health condition’). People at work know about the other disabilities and I talk about them freely.”

Following disclosure, respondents said, their strongest support came from spouses and significant others. Colleagues and chairs were less often described as supportive. Professional organizations, on-campus mental health services, staff members and supervisors were seen as least supportive.

To promote awareness of services, the study says, institutions can establish “clear lines of communication about accommodations that are available. In some cases, this may mean creating a consistent policy where none existed before. Responses to our survey suggest that channels for providing accommodation for faculty members tend to be confusing and are often handled on a case-by-case basis, rather than operating according to consistent guidelines.”

Of perceived risks associated with disclosure, authors say that when “the attitude toward mental disability is uncertain or unclear, faculty members may be more conservative with regard to sharing their mental disabilities with others.” Wider attention to such issues among faculty -- “that is, systemic attention to making workplaces more accessible for mental disabilities" -- is therefore, “a necessary step toward reducing the stigma associated with such disabilities.”

Mark Salzer, one of Price’s co-authors and chair of rehabilitation sciences at Temple University, said he didn’t know of any institution that had yet taken a systemic approach to mental disability and access for faculty members. Professors’ lack of disclosure for all kinds of reasons -- the academy’s premium on being a "rational" thinker, for example, or the fact that mental illnesses may be episodic -- probably perpetuates the problem and vice versa, he said. But institutions must accommodate faculty members because it’s required by law and should do so because it can only lead to better teaching, he added.

Salzer said that institutions have gotten very good at accommodating some physical disabilities but remain “completely stumped by psychiatric ones.” Accommodations don’t have to be complicated, though, he said. Faculty members who teach eight courses per year might request to teach three each in the fall and spring and two more over the summer instead of teaching four and four during the regular academic year. Or they might request classes between certain hours of the day.

Even if deciding to disclose is still a challenge, as is accessing services, Salzer said he was “pleased” if not surprised that the survey showed most eventual decisions to share had been positive.

Price has been writing about and studying disability, including her own, since 2011. Since that time, she said, echoing Salzer's comments and her recent findings, stigma surrounding mental illness has subsided but institutional supports remain a challenge. She advised institutions to begin simply by informing all faculty members -- those with mental illnesses and those without -- of a central office or person charged with responding, and to grow from there.

A third co-author, Stephanie Kerschbaum, an associate professor of English at the University of Delaware, recently published with Price a resource guide for institutions on faculty mental health. It’s informed by data gleaned in the survey. The pair is also working on a qualitative interview-based study of professors’ experiences with mental health and disclosure. (Amber O'Shea, a research scientist at Temple, is the new study's fourth author.)

So far, Price said, interviewees' experiences are very mixed, and academe as whole must do better. “Many institutions are doing well,” but only because “there’s a dedicated individual or group.”

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