The “Third Resource”: Managing Mental Illness in Academe

Mark Grimsley, November 2017

Finding resources that work for you takes time. Tobi Gaulke, Upstairs/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0About one in five Americans has some form of mental illness, and this sobering figure includes academics at least as much as the general population. But mental illness is an invisible disability, and within our profession there remains an unintentional conspiracy to keep it that way. For example, most colleges and universities have affirmative action policies that include people in certain underrepresented groups: women, minorities, veterans, and persons with disabilities. Theoretically, this means that if a candidate for a faculty position or a slot in a graduate program were to report in their application that they had a mental illness, we would take particular interest in hiring or admitting them, since mental illness is a recognized disability under the Americans with Disabilities Act. In practice, few applicants acknowledge any such thing, and they are almost certainly wise to keep this information private. The paramount reason for this is surely the well-founded fear of being stigmatized, but it also has to do with basic assumptions about the business we’re in. In academia the “life of the mind” is central. But what if a person’s mind operates atypically?

This is a question with which I am closely acquainted. Three decades ago, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, an abnormality in the brain chemistry that artificially elevates or lowers one’s mood. Bipolar disorder is not a one-size-fits-all diagnosis. For some, it’s characterized by frequent oscillations between manic “highs” and depressive “lows.” For me, the primary manifestation is “depression,” a misleadingly mild word for a condition so overpowering, painful, and unyielding that it can—and too often does—drive people to suicide. In Darkness Visible, William Styron’s 1990 memoir of his own struggle with depression, the novelist described the illness as “a howling tempest in the brain.” He was right. Other forms of mental disability are just as painful.

It would be nice to suppose that academics regard mental disabilities with greater empathy and understanding than others. That isn’t the case. Many academics perpetuate the stigma of mental illness or are simply ignorant, regarding clinical depression as just an episode of the blues—“You’ll get over it”—or dismissing Social Anxiety Disorder as a term that merely pathologizes butterflies in the belly: during a PhD exam, for example, or a conference presentation.

Perhaps most seriously, we frame academic life in terms that presuppose a neurotypical brain and, consciously or unconsciously, regard people with mental disabilities as incapable of the work our profession demands. Does someone with Social Anxiety Disorder have any business in the classroom? Does an individual whose clinical depressions exact significant cost in productivity deserve extra time on the tenure clock? What about someone with Asperger’s syndrome who has an imperfect grasp of social cues or trouble speaking up with the enthusiasm and quickness we commonly consider a measure of intellect?

It would be nice to suppose that academics regard mental disabilities with greater empathy than others. That isn’t the case.

In Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life (2010), Margaret Price examines the ways in which the academy excludes people with mental disabilities from academic discourse. “A sharp rhetorical divide exists between those who are allowed in and those who are not,” she writes. “The fondly regarded ‘absent-minded’ or ‘quirky’ professor is a noticeable figure, but less noticeable is the student with severe depression who drops out of school; the adjunct with autism who never manages to navigate a tenure-track job interview successfully; or the independent scholar whose written works are widely cited but who cannot adhere to the social requirements of teaching in the classroom.”

Price also offers far-reaching suggestions about revisiting our assumptions and reconfiguring our community to include those whose minds operate in a different way. But in the meantime, we must deal with individuals like me who are already in higher education. That’s no small challenge. The National Institute of Mental Health uses a statistic abbreviated as DALY, short for Disability-Adjusted Life Years, to represent the total number of years lost to illness, disability, or premature death within a given population. Of the 10 leading categories of disease/disorders in the United States, mental and behavioral disorders rank third (first if other neurological disorders are added). This is disturbing from a humanitarian standpoint, but it also suggests the amount of productivity lost to academics—and by extension their institutions.

A few years ago, I had occasion to go through my entire personnel file. It was unexpectedly illuminating. For roughly the first decade of my career, my annual letters of evaluation were festooned with “atta boys,” primarily for an impressive level of publication. After that, the compliments fell off, eventually replaced by increasingly pointed questions about when my next book would surface. I had two realizations.

First, the change in tone corresponded with the years immediately after my last book emerged from the production pipeline. If I traced things back to the point where the book (and two edited volumes) had entered the pipeline, that point closely aligned with the moment when I had faced up to having bipolar disorder and begun to take medication to control it. The medication did little to counter the depressive lows but it largely eradicated the creative highs. And although it is grossly simplistic to regard this as the sole explanation for the falloff, it would be foolish to ignore the extent to which the depressions ravaged my productivity.

Second, the file struck me forcefully as the portrait of a wasting asset. My condition wasn’t just making me miserable. It was adversely affecting my institution. And yet beyond those annual evaluations, my institution had done nothing about it.

Well, what could it do? I have since discovered that I can ask to have my classes scheduled in the afternoon (when the depressions tend to be less acute) and get grading support at a lower threshold of student enrollment than is usually the case. I have also learned that my university has a procedure for evaluating the needs of faculty members with mental disabilities and making other accommodations as appropriate. But those accommodations have mainly to do with teaching. What could the university do to help me get back my publication game?

My personnel file struck me as the portrait of a wasting asset. My condition was adversely affecting my institution.

Here we run up against the presupposition that the profession comprises persons with neurotypical minds. I’ve said that my institution had done nothing about my situation. In an important respect, that’s patently false. It had furnished me with two resources—time and money—which for most faculty suffice to spur the undertaking and completion of major projects. I had come to recognize, however, that my most urgent need was a third resource: external accountability. Among academics, this is largely an unwelcome, if not alien, concept. Our assumption is that an academic’s motivation ought to come from within, that we should be self-starters and self-sustainers. At the outset of my career, a colleague informed me that most PhDs do not publish their dissertations, and of those who do, most don’t publish a second book. The subtext was disdain, based upon the presumption that most PhDs could not produce in the absence of supervision by their adviser.

It isn’t hard to grasp that depression erodes the internal motivation we commonly regard as a hallmark of successful scholars. In my case, however, I’ve discovered that external accountability generally allows me to perform adequately even when I’m in the throes of depression. But when I’ve reached out to secure that kind of accountability, I have had two kinds of experience. The first is sheer incomprehension: Why on earth would you want this? The second—and, happily, this is more frequently the case—is a generous willingness to assist. But on both sides, this assistance proves difficult to sustain. From my helper’s point of view, it’s hard to combine empathy for someone who has a mental disability with the implacable insistence that is basic to holding someone accountable. From my point of view, it’s difficult to exorcise a sense of shame and embarrassment. Difficult does not mean impossible, but it does mean a high degree of investment on both sides, a willingness to contend with setbacks, and a resolve to stick with the process. Ultimately, it involves resistance to the dominant academic culture and the creation, in microcosm, of a different kind of intellectual community.

Accountability was thus the “third resource” most useful to me. Others undoubtedly would find a different third resource of greatest benefit. The point I am making is that those with mental disabilities aren’t likely to find a third resource unless they can identify it, communicate the need to their institution, and work with their institution to create the resource and bring it effectively to bear. It’s burdensome to have a mental disability, but that in no way absolves one of the responsibility to manage it. That’s the individual component, and it’s vital. But it’s equally vital for the institution to create the conditions in which academics will have confidence that if they communicate their need, the response will not be indifference or condemnation. And it’s imperative for all of us to revisit our assumptions, examined and unexamined, about the culture in which we have invested so much of our lives. It’s not just a matter of gaining enlightenment. It’s a matter of getting the job done.

Mark Grimsley is an associate professor at Ohio State University. In 2008–10 he was a visiting professor at the US Army War College. He is the recipient of three teaching awards, including the Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award, Ohio State’s highest award for teaching excellence.

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