Mental illness: shedding light on the darkness

Be open about your health, an academic advises. It could be the surest way to get the workplace support you need

March 12, 2015

Many in academia with mental illness are suffering in silence. But if you don’t disclose your condition, your university cannot help you

Like many people, I didn’t disclose my history of mental illness on a job application for my first lecturing post.

It was a calculated decision. I’d been fired from a non-academic role after experiencing distress on the job. Following my five-minute meltdown, I was seen as a liability and managers lost confidence in me. I’d been in remission for some years, and I wasn’t about to make myself vulnerable again in my application to work at a university. Or so I thought.

At first, the tactic worked a treat. My papers were hurried through human resources and I started the new job just two weeks later.

At the beginning, I was far too busy decorating my ivory tower with flowers and ridiculous cat pictures to notice any problems. But support was sparse, even in my first week. I wasn’t even shown around and I didn’t know the names of 90 per cent of staff in my department.

The head of department had been through my lectures and lesson plans on the first day, but I had no teacher training. So as the students began flooding in at the start of term, the stress started to flood me too. Sadly, for many of those who are experiencing mental ill health – at any one time, this is one in six of us – stress can exacerbate symptoms. And first lectures can be terrifying. My colleagues seemed overworked and too busy to stop and donate a few pearls of wisdom to the newbie. I’d been thrown in at the deep end, which wasn’t ideal – mental illness or not.

Nonetheless, I managed to keep my head above water for a while. It was eight weeks before I began to notice warning signs. I’d lost a stone, and there had been a few complaints from students.

Mental illness isn’t difficult to prove. Stigma, on the other hand, is. As an avid campaigner, I’d taken part in quite a few media interviews about my psychosis to raise awareness. Some of this was online. The dean found out I had a mental illness at the start of my twelfth week. I was pulled out of a lesson and taken to an emergency meeting where I was instantly dismissed for gross misconduct. The flowers and cat pictures had to be removed on the spot and I was escorted off campus.

I soon found out that a senior member of staff had taken their own life just a few months earlier because, an inquest heard, of the way they were treated at work. Sometime later a colleague and lecturer got in touch on LinkedIn to let me know that she, too, had been on the receiving end of some “weird and unpleasant” behaviour. All this made me rather glad that I had left.

But fast forward a few years and I’ve made a comeback to the lecture theatre at a different university. This time, though, I have taken a different approach. I have been entirely open about my mental illness from the outset. And I am reaping the benefits. Instead of receiving complaints and marching orders, I feel welcome and supported.

It reminds me of something an American academic with a mental illness once told me. She doesn’t ask for “reasonable adjustments” – indeed, she isn’t sure what they are – but she’s open about her condition and colleagues help her at work. She thinks that’s just because they like her.

The Equality Challenge Unit’s Equality in Higher Education: Statistical Report 2012 report showed that many people in academia with mental illness were suffering in silence, perhaps for fear of appearing weak. According to the 2014 report, only 0.2 per cent of the academic workforce had a declared mental illness. But if you don’t disclose your condition, your university cannot help you.

In the department where I lecture now, my schizophrenia is seen as a strength. I’m a person with psychosis who can bring insight and diversity to a higher education institution.

My experience has taught me to be more open about my condition, short of shouting about it. After all, if a job application were to be rejected on the grounds of my illness, it’s probably not the sort of place I’d want to work.

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