• November 25, 2014

Mental Illness in Academe

My students filled the room. They were interested and eager, unusually so, given that they were second- and third-year law students for whom the fear and trembling that came with the first year had long since faded. The course was "Advanced Mental Health Law." The day's topic: Billie Boggs. A street person who lived over a hot air vent in midtown Manhattan, she threw food at people who wanted to help her and chased them across the street. Her rantings and ravings seemed crazy to most of the students, and we were discussing whether she should be sent to a psychiatric hospital.

I heard myself speak, surprising myself by the steady sound of my voice as I tried to restore my attention to the group before me: "What if Billie Boggs were your sister—would you put her in a psychiatric hospital then?" Up shot the hands.

Concentrate. These are your students. You have an obligation to them. Canceling class would be admitting defeat. But there are explosions in my head. They're testing nuclear devices on my brain. They're very little and they can get inside. They are powerful.

I pulled myself together, enough to point to a young woman who spoke often in class. "I couldn't let my sister live like that," she said from across the classroom, which held the students in curved rows, like a giant palm before me. "I know my sister. That wouldn't be her. There's one and only one of her—and that's the one before she got sick."

Is she trying to kill me? No, she's a student. But what about the others? The voices inside my head, the explosions. What do they want? Are they trying to interdict me, to hit me with the Kramer device? I went to the store and they said "interdiction." Interdiction, introduction, exposition, explosion. Voicemail is the issue.

I knew not to say those thoughts out loud. Not because they were crazy thoughts—they were every bit as real as the students sitting right in front of me—but I kept silent because others would think them crazy. People would think me as deranged as Billie Boggs.

But I'm not crazy. I simply have greater access to the truth.

"Good," I replied. "But why isn't it the case that your sister has two selves, the sick one you see now and the healthy one you've known all your life? Why should you get to pick which is real? Shouldn't your sister make that choice?" Up shot more hands.

My brain is on fire! My head is going to explode right here, right in front of my class!

"But isn't health always preferred to illness?" a bright-eyed young man countered. "We should prefer the healthy self."

Mercifully, the class ended. A law-school dean spotted me as I walked back to my office. He said I looked as if I were in pain. "Just a lot on my mind," I heard myself reply as I continued quickly down the hall. Keys out, door open, door shut. I crumpled into my chair and buried my face in my hands.

That was in September of 1991, and it was one of my worst such incidents. Ten years before, in my mid-20s, during my third psychiatric hospitalization, I had been given the diagnosis "chronic paranoid schizophrenia with acute exacerbation." My prognosis? "Grave." I was, in other words, expected to be unable to live independently, let alone work. At best I would be in a board-and-care, holding a minimum-wage job—perhaps flipping burgers—when my symptoms had become less severe.

That has not turned out to be my life. I am the Orrin B. Evans professor of law, psychology, and psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at the University of Southern California's law school; adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego's medical school; and an assistant faculty member at the New Center for Psychoanalysis, where I am also a research clinical associate.

My schizophrenia has not gone away. I still become psychotic, as happened in class that day in 1991. Today my symptoms, while not as severe, still recur and I struggle to stay in the world, so to speak, doing my work. I have written about my illness in a memoir and much of the narrative takes place after I had accepted a tenure-track appointment at USC.

Barring a medical breakthrough of Nobel-Prize-winning proportions, I will never fully recover from schizophrenia. I will remain on antipsychotic medication and in talk therapy for the rest of my life. Yet I have learned to manage my illness. How? Do I have any words of advice for others who have a serious mental illness and are on the tenure track?

The first question you must ask yourself is whether to tell your chair and dean. I can think of arguments both in favor of that, and against.

One of the pluses would be the psychological benefits of not having a secret and being able to be open. More practically you might be able to get extra support, or formal accommodations under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). You would serve as a model for other academics in your department and your students.

There are, of course, real pitfalls to telling, too. There is a tremendous stigma, still, around mental illness. People may believe, consciously or not, that you are unreliable or even dangerous, and they may fear you. They may think you can't do the work or your scholarship isn't good, even if it is very good. That may not be intentional on their part but can nonetheless have a big impact on your work life and your prospects for tenure.

My own tack was not to tell, except for my closest friends on the faculty. Even that limited disclosure served me well when I became ill—there were people I could turn to. And so a colleague, Ed, helped get me home and connected with my psychiatrist after my experience teaching class while psychotic. But I didn't want my situation to be known broadly. I work on a wonderful faculty, so it would most likely have worked out well anyway. But I didn't want to risk it.

I feel somewhat bad suggesting that not telling is the better course. Recall the scene in the movie Milk, when Harvey Milk, running for city council, says words to the effect of "I am running for government as a gay man, and I am proud." Having schizophrenia is not something I am proud of, but I am less ashamed than I used to be. Yet am I, in effect, telling people with mental illness to hide—to not be proud? Perhaps the message should be that, given the immense stigma, hiding is the prudent course but one should recognize there is no shame in having a mental illness.

Beyond that question, what steps can academics with mental illnesses take to make life easier for themselves? Some are steps that everyone with mental illness should take. First, learn about the illness you have—the typical signs, symptoms, and course. Many excellent sources are available. You may want to start with the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-IV-TR. Psychiatric textbooks, e.g., Kaplan and Sadock's, can be helpful. I have also discovered excellent lay accounts of mental illness.

Second, understand how your illness affects you. What are your triggers? What are your early warning signs? What can you do to minimize your symptoms when they worsen—e.g., call your therapist, increase your medication, listen to music, exercise? Try to devise some techniques for your own situation. Some colleagues and I are studying how a group of high-functioning people with schizophrenia manage their symptoms. You are in the best position to determine what works for you.

Put a good treatment team in place. You need a therapist you can trust and can turn to in times of difficulty. Does he or she respond if you call in crisis? The same is true of a psychopharmacologist. Make friends and family members part of your team.

Sometimes your team can see early warning signs before you can. For instance, my closest friend, Steve, and my husband, Will, often identify when I am slipping. Will says I become quieter in a particular way that signals all is not well. It's a blessing to have such people in your life. Seek them out.

Structure your professional life in a way that works for you. Schedule your courses carefully. If your meds make you tired in the morning, try not to teach morning classes. Try to choose courses that you like to teach—you will do a better job and feel less stressed.

Two other things have been important to me professionally. First, I work hard. I go in seven days a week because I know I may have down times. (I also love what I do, so working is not a chore.)

Second, I try to maintain a professional demeanor. How does a person who becomes out of touch with reality do that? My approach has always been to ask myself, even in those moments where I think I have a special insight on the truth, whether others will think my beliefs are crazy. When I recognize that they will, I simply don't express my views, because I don't want to be thought crazy. My motivation to appear sane leads me to self-censor. If I am so tortured by my beliefs that I know I will not be able to keep quiet, I withdraw—I simply go home.

To circle back to the issue of disclosure and accommodations, many of the things you can do to help navigate the tenure process are things you can arrange without formally disclosing your illness.

For instance, scheduling courses is something that I imagine most departments would want to accommodate to the extent they are able. True, in an unfriendly department, you may need to invoke the ADA. If you need more time on the tenure clock, and your department is not well-disposed to offer it, the ADA might also come to your rescue.

All of that said, the balance of factors for and against telling may change once you do get tenure. Being open about your illness at that point exposes you to less risk and may have the advantages mentioned earlier—e.g. not having a secret, being able to serve as a role model for others in academe.

We also need to put a face on mental illness. Being open about one's own illness will probably do more good than all the laws we can pass.

My own "outing" of myself was a bit of a risk, but has turned out well. I am glad and relieved I no longer have to hide. And my story seems to be meaningful to people—it has helped people understand mental illness more and perhaps has led to a decrease in the stigma. I was lucky in that my law school accommodated my teaching needs without my having to invoke the ADA. My colleagues are supportive, and I no longer feel ashamed about needing their help.

The suggestions I have made here are all straightforward. There is, unfortunately, little engagement with the issue of mental illness and academic employment. I began a campus support group for professors with mental-health issues; one person showed up for the meeting. I don't know whether people fear confidentiality won't be maintained, are too busy, or, as professors, tend to "fly solo." In any case, the effort failed.

I hope that this article will help start a much-needed conversation about mental illness in higher education. (Indeed, it might be worthwhile to start an online support group for professors with mental illness. If you are interested, please contact me.)

Perhaps most important: Seek help when you need it. Mental illness is a no-fault disease like any other, such as cancer or diabetes. Help is available, but you need to ask for it. Don't let the threat of stigma deter you. You shouldn't have to suffer.

And you shouldn't allow mental illness to stand in the way of the wonderful contributions you are poised to make to your students and to your field.

Elyn R. Saks is a professor of law, psychology, and psychiatry and the behavioral sciences at the University of Southern California's law school. She is the author of a memoir, "The Center Cannot Hold: My Journey Through Madness" (Hyperion, 2007).

Comments

1. knca4338 - November 25, 2009 at 02:25 am

Thanks so much for sharing your valuable perspective. We need more awareness and support for mental illnesses in all realms of society, including academia.

2. rab1960 - November 25, 2009 at 08:00 am

Thank you for your article. It is all sadly familiar. My daughter has suffered in much the same manner although she has not been near so successful as you. But, with medication, her condition is controlled. Now, we fear that her daughter may have similiar problems. Thankfully, I now have a wonderful wife (not her mother) who has helped us with this problem in so many ways.

3. johnmot - November 25, 2009 at 08:27 am

Thank you for your piece. I will be participating in some Lawyer Assistance Program presentations about dealing with mental illness and substance abuse in our professions (including teaching as lawyers) and think this would be a great article to share. I will contact you directly about permissions. The story would be a great help to myself and to many of my colleagues.

4. ianative - November 25, 2009 at 09:10 am

Thank you for this brave and thoughtful piece. I struggle with chronic depression and find that academe is probably one of the best places for me, because of its relative flexibility (compared to many other workplace environments). However, I'm still not quite ready to be "out." I agree that coming forward would probably be a good thing, but it also presents more risk than I'm ready for. I really admire you!

5. megangrayce - November 25, 2009 at 10:17 am

I very much appreciate your article and walking the reader through an actual experience you probably have had many times. I suffer from chronic mental health issues, although not to the severity that you do. But nonetheless, they do have an affect on my ability to work at times. I do not feel safe in disclosing any of it to my academic employer. I often hear comments in the work place about people who "are depressed or whatever" are just weak and need to toughen up. I have attempted to get consideration for my "general health issues" in scheduling of courses and my duties as a program chair without much success. In fact, I have found the responses to be hostile. We need more people like you to come out into the open and speak up so that more of us in the shadows can also come out, without resorting to ADA or legal action, which I know in the end will be used against me one way or the other, because I don't work in an institution with tenure (proprietary college). Thank you.

6. velvis - November 25, 2009 at 10:19 am

This was beautiful.

Too many people don't understand what it takes to be successful and ill. And too many of the ill don't understand that they can stop the world, get off if it for a while, and then come back. It's not easy and can cause professional difficulties but that's better than causing the illness to esclate because it's been ignored.

I applaud you and your work.

I hope that others can learn to be successful not in spite of their illness but because of it.

7. rehabprof - November 25, 2009 at 01:16 pm

Excellent article and the question of disclosing a disability to other factory or students is one that will have to be made by each individual weighing the pros and cons of that decision. In a tenure-track position there is stigma present that can unconsciously sway how others view your information or teaching style. I believe this is the case with any person within nonvisible disability. Although I do not have a mental illness I have a severe neurological impairment that can affect both my writing and speech at times. Since I know that the aphasia will occur at some time during the lectures I do self disclose to the class. When it does occur I usually explain what happened and why. It does not take away from the lecture but can be aggravating. I only had one instance in 15 years in which totally disrupted a lecture but the next class we were able to turn it into a real-life teaching moment. Unfortunately my students are far more accepting of the disability than my colleagues. Although I disclosed the disability when I was hired at the University and the accommodations that I use for writing and teaching this does not automatically make persons accepting of it. Last year my chair sat in my class and suddenly my brain would not allow me to verbalize some words. As always I was able to work around this but the next day my chair gave me a medical terminology book and stated I needed to learn how to say the words. I explained that after 15 years of teaching this class I know all the words but the aphasia sometimes stops certain words and I will go over the words again in the next class. Looking at her as she gave me the book again it was clear, she saw that as an excuse. All the awareness training in the world does not help if the person is not willing to learn about the disability. Persons with disabilities are the largest minority class in a world. Although we have had numerous acts of legislation such as 504 and the ADA this does not help us if persons without disabilities are not willing to listen. I applaud you for disclosing your experience with mental illness and your debate on how you disclose.

8. johntoradze - November 25, 2009 at 01:54 pm

A good article. I am debating about sending it to a brilliant fired adjunct who is schizophrenic. I won't identify him publicly without his permission, but he gained some notoriety for a time for certain inventions. I think the biggest difference between you, Elyn, and him, is that you understand that when you have delusions that is what they are. He is still unable to consider that as a possibility. At a certain point, people around him stopped trying to show him that his hallucinations weren't real.

I agree that people have incorrect ideas about mental illness, particularly schizophrenia, which unfortunately gets fed by successful insanity defenses for crimes (many of them false defenses I think.) I will also note that mental illness is not one thing, and there are mentally ill people who truly are dangerous. I have been helping the spouse of one such recently, an antisocial, sadist narcissist with a criminal record of attacking randomly chosen women because they are pretty. Since he is probably the most skilled liar I have ever run across (only determinable by finding hard evidence) very few people would believe what he really is. What used to be called sociopathy and psychopathy can also occur in a brilliant person. Those types of mental illness really are dangerous, and of all the categories in the DSM, they are the least likely to be treatable.

I am thinkin now of someone who is academically quite accomplished who has a serious brain injury from teenage years. I am one of the few people who knows about it, and I have recommended against telling anyone until (or if) this person manages to rise to prominence. It may be an even greater taboo in academia to admit to being brain damaged. But this person has managed to use the severe aphasia as an advantage, developing an ability to take things in and figure them out. I reminded her the other day that Feynman publicly attributed his genius to poor memory in his later years, something he had never admitted to when young.

9. amhrain - November 25, 2009 at 02:19 pm

The burden of having such an illness and remaining (at least relatively)silent about it is difficult, not simply because of the secrecy it entails, but also because those who are in a position to judge us usually have no idea how difficult it is at times for us to function at even the most basic level. They do not understand that even small accomplishments feel like climbing Everest several times over.

There is a unfeelingness in our society about both physical and mental illness; we are supposed to operate at superhuman levels even it kills us--literally. There is no such thing in the working world as the concept of "each according to his means." One would like to hope that academia would be more enlightened about such matteres, but, alas, I have seldom found this to be the case. Like you, Elyn, I have confined my confidants to a select few.

Having just earned my Ph.D., I do not yet have a job, and I worry that either my depression--not to mention my chronic fatigue syndrome--will somehow "show," or that even if I get a job I may have difficulty fulfilling all the demands made of untenured faculty.

I hope and pray that a time will come when Americans will truly not be discriminated against because of illness or disability--both physical and mental; but I fear that day will be long in coming. Contributions like yours, however, will help, and we who share your struggles applaud your honesty and courage.

10. ilevine - November 25, 2009 at 03:11 pm

Thanks for sharing your compelling insights and experience. There are so many individuals who struggle with similar issues, and who choose or need to remain silent.

Your message is equally important, too, for those whose lives haven't yet been touched by mental illnesses. Until it strikes home, it's even harder to understand.

There is still so much stigma, discrimination, and misunderstanding associated with no-fault brain disorders. Your candor and ability to write about mental illnesses will help pave the way for a better future.

Best wishes,
Irene S. Levine, PhD
Professor of Psychiatry, NYU School of Medicine
Co-author, Schizophrenia for Dummies (Wiley)

11. cadelarge - November 26, 2009 at 06:46 am

When I read:"There is a tremendous stigma, still, around mental illness. People may believe, consciously or not, that you are unreliable or even dangerous, and they may fear you. They may think you can't do the work or your scholarship isn't good, even if it is very good.", I felt a sense of hope. This statement used to be conventional wisdom regarding African-Americans and women, among other stigma groups and we know we are making progress. We can make progress with the de-stigmatization of mental illness also.

As a fellow academic, local NAMI board member and caregiver of a mentally ill loved one, I again applaud your work and courage. We have used your book, The Center Cannot Hold, as the topic of one of our local Forums and it continues to be one of the most inspiring and highly rated Forum we have put on.

We are thankful for you on this Thanksgiving Day. :-)

12. bdbailey - November 26, 2009 at 09:20 am

A very touching an hopeful account. Any discussion of mental illness brings to mind my late brother. He was also schizophrenic. His onset was probably no later than his mid-teens, although he was not diagnosed until his mid-twenties (in the early 1970s). He was extremely disfunctional (although never dangerous) from an early age. For most of his adult life he was able to live alone, with a great deal of help from his siblings. He was never able to work. Over his lifetime, his original diagnosis of schizophrenia expanded to include panic attacks, major depression, OCD, etc. Drugs kept him relatively stable, but unable to function in any real way. Periodic crises usually led to adjustment in medication, or new meds. His physical health, due to inactivity was not much better. He lived this way until he died in his late 50s.

Dr. Saks, in spite of her illness, was blessed with a tremendous intellect, strong will, unusual insight, and I would guess -private medical care. Unfortunately, for every Dr. Saks there are thousands like my brother and Billie Boggs.

13. gadget - November 26, 2009 at 11:35 am

I work at an institution that lacks an Employee Assistance Program (EAP). So when I was in a position where I could have assisted an employee who was having mental health problems to be professionally evaluated and helped, I was not allowed to bring up the real reasons for their poor job performance. I was forced to document their poor job behavior preparatory to termination without ever being allowed to address the underlying issues, which would have given them a pathway to improving their job performance and preserving their employment or to retiring with dignity.

I cannot tell you how frustrated I was. To the list of issues, we must add cancer, epilepsy, substance abuse and alcoholism, and other cognitive impairments.

14. doctorkate - November 26, 2009 at 02:03 pm

I'm a psychiatrist in the South, and I truly applaud you for your disclosure. I think this passage said it all: "We also need to put a face on mental illness. Being open about one's own illness will probably do more good than all the laws we can pass."

The stigma that remains with mental illness is astonishing. If the general public knew who the mentally ill really were, or if they were aware at how many people they knew were "mentally ill," I think the public opinion would be so different. Someday, maybe.

And PS, I wish all of my patients could be so articulate about their struggles and about their illness! Thank you for being their voice.

15. novelle - November 26, 2009 at 03:13 pm

I joke that after I cycled through every diagnosis in the DSM IV, I thought I was healed, but instead I just recycled. I also joke that I only have one diagnosis, multiple personality, but that each personality has a diagnosis of its own, so it's really a delusion that I'm actually as sick as I appear.

I use these jokes in speeches I am psid to give on what it is like to live with mental illness. The truth is I have come very close to having nearly every single diagnosis in the DSM IV, including DID or MPD, and there are very few of them I could argue with as being wrong, including autism.

I am writing a book about it, making and selling crosses, running a dropshipping catalogue company, doing online call center work, working out the details of starting a blog and a website for ghostwriting, taking certification classes in copyediting, technical writing, and website design.

But I do all these things online so I can work around the clock when I can't sleep and take off for days when it is too much. I am also in a wheelchair with life threatening sleep apnea, which I have lost jobs over without the mental illness even being an issue. (The wheelchair often prevents me from getting to the bus stop and wheelchair transport can costs $200 a day.)

I belong to an online support groups for people with Asperger's and autism, attend conference call meetings for people in 12 step programs (I have been clean and sober from alcohol and drugs for 18 years today-now I am needing that level of recovery for my food addiction which is literally killing me.), belong to a highly suppoertive psychosocial clubhouse, and am well loved in my local church two blocks away even on days I sound like Elmer Fudd and say stupid things.

I joke that ADHD and manic depression are not as bad as they are cracked up to be--they have certainly brought me success. When people ask where I get the time to do it all, I say it's easy. I don't waste time watching TV because I don't own one. Plus I have so many personal care atendants hovering around helping me bathe, dress, and brush my teeth, I don't waste any time on taking care of the household. The presence and need to give direction to all those personal care attendants also prevent me from isolating or my mental health symptoms from getting as good a grip on my life as they used to.

I still have too many unattended hours in which I am too depressed and overwhelmed by either one of my mental or physical illnesses or all my work obligations that sometimes seem to cost more moeney than they bring in. But that;s when I accidentally run across an article like this that motiavtes me to keep trudging through, feel the grattitude that life could be worse and it's not, and remember all my friends with mental illness who need somebody to go public and crash the stigma. That scares the pants off me but I've got the guts to do it.

Articles like this help me do it with joy.

16. chron7 - November 26, 2009 at 06:24 pm

There are other perspectives. What happens when the person in question is out of control? What happens when no one manages that situation? This was my experience with a coworker who has a mental health problem.

17. bdbailey - November 27, 2009 at 08:12 am

This story is truly inspirational. I fear however, that those who are less sympathetic to the plight of the mentally ill will read stories like this and think; "See, they can function if they really want to."

18. deanette - November 27, 2009 at 03:02 pm

#7--interesting mis-speak: "Excellent article and the question of disclosing a disability to other factory or students"--factory for faculty. It feels that way, doesn't it?

19. motherwarrior - November 28, 2009 at 12:42 am

I appreciate your honesty and courage. People like you and Kay Redfield Jamison help to demystify and destigmatize mental illness. Speaking as one who has lived with several family members with mental illness, taking responsibility for your actions and setting up a network for help is paramount.
One of my family members who has serious responsibilities as a professional never accepted this challenge because he did not want to see himself as having an illness, presenting an array of problems for himself as well as others. Another family member, diagnosed as a child rather than an adult, accepts his illness and the need for feedback and guidance.
It is so much healthier and safer for all to have it in the open. But our culture is still medieval in its understanding of mental illness. Insurance parity is a step in the right direction. People like you make things like insurance parity possible. Thank you.

20. jmcn5195 - November 28, 2009 at 05:09 am

Thank you for your honesty. I also work in academia but on the administrative side. I work in Student Affairs. I am now 34 years old who has dealt with anxiety and depression since I was about 18. I was finally undiagnosed about 4 years ago when the hyperawareness, teeth-clenching, excessive underarm sweating and spending many weekends tucked away sleeping and hiding from the rest of the world.
I finally got on some medication and began seeing a therapist every week and it had really begun to help (very slowly, but surely). Unfortunately, now that I have moved to the United Arab Emirates (no, not the cosmopolitan Dubai), they are very dismissive and/or ignorant of mental illness. I have a very nice Muslim doctor who is prescribing me medication which does not help and I cannot get the U.S. medication which I had been taking because it is generally unavailable or the 1 time I found it it was obscenely expensive.
I live in one of more conservative northern Emirates and if anyone knows of a professional in this region who could be of assistance, I would greatly appreciate it. I have had bad days when, since I'm not correctly medicated, I want to just take the rest of the day off. I struggle with telling my boss who is very nice but as you stated in your piece, you never know what prejudices people may have. Thanks.

21. roncdeweijze - November 28, 2009 at 10:12 pm

I feel we should not only seek accommodation and assimilation for our illnesses, but also clarification from our (professional) environments and others. JH van den Berg, Dutch psychiatrist, wrote about 'sociosis' (1955). Recently (1) his ideas seek to be front and center again. Our derealizations and depersonalizations are NOT (only) neuronal NOR should (only) be treated neuronally. Society, not even academia, is not yet perfect and maybe precisely when we concern ourselves with those psychological and psychiatric questions, we are more prone to them and should be less surprised when they hit us.

(1) http://www.janushead.org/10-2/Mook.pdf

22. jkim4 - November 29, 2009 at 11:26 pm

This article made me tear up a bit. I am a twenty-four year old and was forced to take a two-year break in the middle of my undergraduate career because of the onset of Type II Bipolarism when I was a senior in college. As I fill out applications for graduate school, I wrestle with how to explain the gap in my resume, the withdrawals on my transcripts, and am filled with anxiety over potential interview questions that may force me to reveal the hospitalizations and my diagnosis. The stigma is real but your story gives me hope. I hope my generation can continue to find the courage to shed light on this issue. Thank you.

23. toomuchtime - November 30, 2009 at 03:30 am

#22 jkim4

Just to let you know you are not alone. I am a grad student with BP 1. If you are heading into grad school be sure to check out the Lilly Reintegration Scholarship.

http://www.reintegration.com/resources/scholarships/apply.asp

If anyone knows a student who suffers from a severe mental illness, specifically bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, financial help is available. This scholarship helps pay for tuition and books. I have had it for three years and it has made a huge difference in my stress level which makes a difference in my mental health.

Up to 1000 people compete yearly. That means there are a lot of people with a mental illness getting an education.

24. rthull - November 30, 2009 at 06:43 am

The late Professor of Philosophy and Logician at Yale and Pittsburgh, Alan Ross Anderson, told the story about a freshman logic class. As he entered the classroom the first day of the semester, just before Labor day, the several hundred freshmen were talking and laughing. About ten minutes into his lecture he had a grand mal seizure. The campus EMTs were called, and he was carted off on a stretcher. It was a stunning, sobering experience for the students. He recovered quickly and returned to the classroom on the Tuesday after his Thursday incident. The classroom was deathly silent. The tension was palpable. He knew he had to do something to relieve it. So, he said, "To take up where we left off..." and laid down on the floor! After a couple of seconds, the class burst into laughter and cheers!

You, like Dr. Anderson and Karen Armstrong (The Spiral Staircase: My Climb out of Darkness) do a wonderful service to us all by being open and articulate about your mental illness. I am enormously impressed by your courage and perseverance.

25. resistk - November 30, 2009 at 09:11 am

The story is beautiful and touching however having one wonder if unquestioning accomodation is fair to colleagues and students? Madness channeled can be genius while unfettered madness is simply disruptive and annoying.

26. justaninstructor - December 01, 2009 at 09:41 pm

Thanks so much for sharing. As a 35 year old professor, diagnosed at 23 and have been on and off medication since, I have wanted to write about my experiences. I admire the courage you have. I am fortunate too that teaching allows me the flexibility that I need; I teach online. There are days I can not even move out of bed but fortunately I have days where I get a weeks worth of work in one day.

As I think about leaving academia, for other reasons, I struggle with finding a new career that will work well with my illness. Thanks so much for your article!!!

27. seiu615 - December 04, 2009 at 12:13 pm

I'd like to add my thanks to all the others... I'm very sorry that the proposed health reform bill does not cover mental health. This country BADLY needs open discussion of this issue, and acceptance that mental illnesses are illnesses like any other (that can only come through disclosures such as yours, and discussion).

28. drlnielsen - December 06, 2009 at 04:56 pm

Thank you for this interesting discussion. Re comments 16 and 25 aboutunfettered madness and an out of control colleague, this seems like any colleague with a chronic illness whose illness temporarily prevents him or her from working effectiely. If the illness underlying the problem is recognized rather than ignored by the department administrators due to stigma, appropriate health leave could be suggested and arranged. The ADA guidelines do not assume that the employee has no responsibilities in addressing their illness, and accomodations are not unlimited.

Early in my tenure at a medical school, I discussed the attitudes towards mental health with my colleagues, who insisted that the a student or faculty member who disclosed a mental illness would not be stigmatized in any way. When, after about 2 years, my illness began to affect my performance, I disclosed it to the department chair and program dean. Sadly, the stigma was great and accomodations not forthcoming. The only agreeable solution was for me and the college to part ways. I guess that the implication is that like people's responses to race, what we profess and what we do are sometimes different.

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