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Inside Higher Ed

Growing concerns over the mental health of college students have overshadowed the fact that faculty members face comparable psychological strain, including serious mental illness. Indeed, faculty would be better equipped to promote student well-being if our employers supported us in prioritizing our own mental health. But professors like me must instead cope quietly, afraid that revealing our discrepant status as psychiatrically “disordered” will discredit us.

Before the global pandemic, ivory tower bells rang over rising rates of student anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation while little, if any, attention was paid to the faculty. It was as if anyone capable of earning a Ph.D. and acquiring a tenure-track position was impervious to psychological struggles. Meanwhile, the requisite work for overall excellence stretched us so thin that we sacrificed our mental health for the paltry payoffs of academic prestige.

The pandemic made matters worse for students and faculty members alike. When higher education went online in spring 2020, college and university leaders implored faculty to accommodate students so they would not fail or drop out, all the while taking our well-being for granted. Then enrollments fell and they insisted many of us return to campus, signaling that our legitimate fears of getting sick or even dying mattered less than making sure our students were happy and thriving. Being treated as dispensable was demoralizing and contributed to rising resignation rates among academic faculty.

As a faculty member still in academia, I can no longer stay silent about what it is like to work in a field surrounded by people who are highly educated yet suffocated by stigma. I was taught to hide my true self in college when an adviser crossed out all mentions of my mental illness and inpatient treatment with red ink in the essay I wrote to earn a graduate fellowship.

In 2000, five years after I earned a Ph.D., my colleagues found out about my mental health history when I needed them to cover for me during a brief hospitalization. The next year, I earned tenure and eventually was promoted to full professor.

I have long believed that I am more privileged than oppressed, despite dropping out of college as an undergraduate and spending 14 months in a mental hospital to overcome a serious mental illness. It took me 30 years to finally identify as a member of a protected class when a supervisor lost their temper and publicly shamed me for having mental health “issues.”

Although I was shocked and dismayed, I decided not to stew about it. Instead, I stood up for myself and began a study of successful working professionals diagnosed with mental illness. I have since interviewed more than 50 individuals, including academic faculty members across the United States in the humanities and social and natural sciences. Like me, they have persevered and excelled professionally while privately coping with diagnoses like borderline personality and bipolar disorders, depression, and social anxiety.

Distinguished professors with impressive publication records and federal research funding portfolios shared stories of how poorly they were treated when mental illness interrupted their careers. Emily is an example. (I’ve used pseudonyms throughout this piece whenever sharing the story of someone I’ve interviewed.) She once took a leave to recover from depression and suicidal ideation only to find that her administrative faculty position was eliminated during her absence. Convinced her colleagues were on a “campaign to undermine” her, Emily complained to her institution’s HR professionals, who advised her that “some battles are better not fought.” She let it go, went on the job market and secured a tenured position at a more prestigious university.

Bruce, a physician and health-care scholar, took sick leave to receive treatment for depression with psychosis. When he returned to work, his employer required letters from his psychiatrist to confirm he was fit to practice, which was “really degrading.” Years later, once Bruce’s clinical skills and scholarly record were firmly established, he started sharing his story publicly. Even then, a colleague said to his face that had he known his diagnosis, he “would not hire you.”

These incidents of discrimination toward academic faculty members on the basis of mental illness preceded the pandemic, a macro-level stressor that catalyzed an epidemic of loneliness in our society. The mental health effects of social isolation became common knowledge because so many of us experienced them, yet the ongoing risk of COVID-19 infection loomed larger.

One day, during a brainstorming session of department chairs led by our dean, I jokingly asked if a pandemic-induced social anxiety disorder would qualify as cause for a remote work accommodation. Everyone laughed uproariously at my remark, which was out of context in a conversation about compromised immune systems. Perhaps I touched a nerve, because in retrospect, it was no laughing matter.

Months later, after recovering from a COVID-19 infection, I was so stricken with anxiety that I went to my dean in tears, begging for a reprieve from administrative responsibilities to restore my well-being. The time off did wonders, allowing me to unwind, settle myself and launch Borderpolars —a project about people with the seemingly improbable dual diagnosis of borderline personality and bipolar.

According to my research, people who meet criteria for both disorders tend to be economically and socially disadvantaged, with frightful histories of child abuse and trauma exposure in adulthood. Nonetheless, some have still managed to reach the upper echelons of higher education.

In 2023, I interviewed Jane, a self-identified borderpolar who, like me, was a professor and head of an academic department during the pandemic. As middle managers, we were sandwiched between the administration, who set the policies we had to enforce, and the faculty, staff and students who lived their consequences.

Unlike me, Jane had never had intensive inpatient treatment, and the pandemic was more than she could bear. When in-person learning was reintroduced at her institution, there was so much “friction and conflict” that Jane realized she just couldn’t do it anymore, so she took family and medical leave. Taking it upon herself to find the help she needed, Jane located a facility far away from the institution that employed her.

The treatment helped tremendously, and Jane felt fortunate for the “incredible” care she received from compassionate professionals who helped her address a lifetime of traumatic experiences. The concentrated time “reset” her, yet it did not restore her readiness to re-enter higher education.

Rather, Jane realized she could not have a “life worth living” in academia. “Academic life just consumes you!” she exclaimed. “I excelled at my research, I excelled at my service,” she went on, “but all I was doing was working.” Resigning her tenured full professorship, Jane took a job in which she could be “way more judicious about providing free labor” and “just do my 40 hours and be done!”

While listening to the relief in Jane’s voice, I worried about the price I pay for excelling in academia and continually having the nagging feeling that, no matter what I produce, it is never enough. I realized that I internalize mental illness stigma, devalue my own achievements and care too much about excelling in other people’s eyes—and not enough about simply being well.

These habits of mind are hard to break, especially when higher education does little to counteract them. The system still serves the prototypical heterosexual white man with presumably perfect mental health whose wife provides for all his needs outside the academy. Yet faculty members are increasingly diverse, with complex needs both in and outside work.

Institutions of higher education suffer when exemplary faculty like Jane become burned out and embittered and see no option other than to leave the ivory tower. They also benefit at our expense when faculty members like Bruce, Emily and me stick around and silently endure the hidden injuries of imposed and internalized stigma.

Instead of taking us for granted, leaders in higher education should consider calls for cultural and organizational transformation in academia that supports everyone’s well-being, including faculty with serious mental illnesses. For example, the Okanagan Charter, an international framework for health promotion in higher education, challenges colleges and universities to “embed health into all aspects of campus culture” and “lead health promotion action and collaboration locally and globally.” Furthermore, the Wellbeing in Higher Education Network, a coalition of universities and organizations from around the world, promotes the integration of inner well-being with social change education.

College and university leaders need to make more efforts along those lines for the benefit of all the people who study and work at their institutions and, ultimately, for the betterment of the institution itself. When academic faculty members feel safe to speak freely and honestly about our psychological vulnerabilities, students will see us embody the bright hope that they, too, may live up to their full potential. Then we can be whole humans in higher education together.

Marta Elliott is a Foundation Professor of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Reno.

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