Mental illness: I keep mine hidden

People are right to believe that revealing mental health problems at work will do more harm than good, says an academic living with depression

April 16, 2015

Universities must be prepared to be therapeutic communities if they are to understand mental health issues and support all their staff

In a recent article in Times Higher Education (“Light on the darkness”, Opinion, 12 March 2015), an anonymous academic wrote about the importance and benefits of employees disclosing any mental illness to their employer.

I am not convinced, and I am not alone in this. Research conducted by YouGov on behalf of Mind, the mental health charity, has found that 92 per cent of the British public believe that admitting to a mental illness would damage their career, while a survey by the Equality Challenge Unit found that some 38 per cent of higher education staff with a mental health problem had not told their colleagues.

The University and College Union has acknowledged the stigmatisation of mental health in higher education and recommends that employees should not feel pressured into disclosing mental health issues, describing the decision as “a personal and individual one”. The reality is that higher education workplaces are institutionally ill-equipped to respond to their needs.

I was formally diagnosed with depression in 2009, two years after I was hired as a full-time lecturer. I have chosen not to disclose the diagnosis, and for many years I have hidden the symptoms. They are masked, veiled, denied by me – because being depressed is incompatible with the identity of an academic.

It is an exhausting and alienating task to come to work. To disguise my illness, I try my best to be the very opposite of what depressed people are. I become the funniest, the smiliest and the most supportive colleague at work. At times, the performance succeeds and I feel a fleeting sense of being invincible. However, this feeling quickly dissipates and I am left feeling utterly alone, dark and lost. A colleague once said to me that she thought I was the most positive person she had ever met and that everyone enjoyed working with me. I couldn’t say anything to her in that moment. But if I was to speak my truth, it would have been to tell her that I was probably the darkest and saddest of her colleagues. That darkness frightens the hell out of me – so I keep it to myself.

For those choosing to disclose their illness, the best-case scenario is that colleagues will see you as emotionally weak. More often than not, if you declare your illness, it will not be acknowledged. Powerful discourses deem depression to be nothing but a lack of internal resources, a failure to take opportunities, or enforced alienation in response to, or as a symptom of, the marketisation of the academy.

As a female academic with depression, I am sure that my experience is quite different from a man’s. The stereotype of the hysterical, screaming, emotionally unstable woman rears its head. Being from an immigrant background adds a further layer of difference. There are fears of being an outcast in your own community if word gets out. This, coupled with the lack of therapeutic communities at work and the outsourcing of counselling support for staff to third-party, for-profit, efficiency-led “assistance packages” all means that it is becoming increasingly impossible to “come out” as depressed.

But I am trying to get better. I have been in therapy for six years and I started taking antidepressants a few years ago. I did this not because I want to perform better at work, but because I want to give life a chance. That hope is the only thing that keeps me from falling back into that dark and desperate pit.

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, recently described higher education institutions as “academic, not therapeutic, communities”. Setting up a false boundary between academic and therapeutic organisations serves to further entrench a binary divide between workers and the unwell.

Academic institutions must be prepared to be therapeutic communities if they are committed to understanding mental health issues and supporting all their members of staff. Furthermore, the sector must realise that the boundary between illness and wellness is not conveniently separate and fixed, but often blurred. While universities remain closed to such possibilities, the opportunities for openness are severely limited.

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Reader's comments (2)

This is a great article! I find it a privilege to do interesting research and have the freedom of academic life but it can be lonely as a contract researcher with no demands to be in the office, no obvious peer group and the expectation that workers will make their own professional networks. My colleagues are gifted, ambitious, driven young academics, some of whom may need more support than they get and many end up feeling that they can't cope, at fault and failures. Academic life is especially driven and anomic now and academics need support and a more open, cooperative environment than is available in many institutions, in order to fulfil their potential.
I kept mine hidden from everybody, including my wife, for over 25 years. I lost 2 jobs because of it. I suffered terribly with anxiety and depression since I was 13 and have blogged a bit about it here http://controlyourmindset.com/1 I lost my best years. It was only last year I finally got a hold on my issues.....I was 49.

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