Professor's death sparks discussion of academic mental health

Political scientist at Arizona State University thought to have taken his own life

April 25, 2017
Brain made up of rusting gears

Will Moore typically used his blog to comment on – in his words – “human rights, conflict, teaching, life as an aspie [someone with Asperger's syndrome] and whatever else strikes my fancy”. Earlier this month, however, the professor of political science at Arizona State University used it to share a suicide note.

A reader immediately alerted the authorities to the blog post, but it was too late. Professor Moore was already dead.

Friends and colleagues in political science struggled to make any sense of the news in their own blog posts. Several touched on the emotional toll that studying Professor Moore’s speciality, political violence, can take, even from a physically safe distance.

Steve Saideman, Paterson chair in international affairs at Carleton University, in Canada, described Professor Moore as a brilliant peer who was zany enough to have once attended the Burning Man music and art festival dressed as a Republican pollster. Sometimes harsh, Professor Moore “was fierce in his pursuit of understanding”, writes Professor Saideman. “His focus was mostly on the denial of human rights, a topic that could be stressful to study. His passion for justice carried over into how he acted within the profession. Will was very protective as he mentored several generations of students.”

Joshua Busby, associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin, writes that he didn’t know Moore well but that his death struck many international relations scholars “especially hard, as he was known to be a dedicated mentor to others, particularly junior scholars, in ways that go above and beyond just befriending and reading someone’s work. These sorts of tragic events remind us that the human condition is hard and that aspects of our profession can be unkind to our mental health.”

Christian Davenport, professor of political science at the University of Michigan and a close collaborator of Moore’s, said that there was some truth to the idea that one’s professional passions can hurt. But they can also heal, he said.

“The study of political conflict and violence does take a toll on the individuals that do it, but at the same time this pales in comparison to the toll it would take on those who were aware of what was taking place but did not address it,” he said. “My particular way of dealing with it has been to talk and later write about my experiences and, to a lesser extent, feelings.”

Beyond self-care, Professor Davenport said scholars need to practice some “communal care”. There isn’t enough of it, and “I will make sure that this is one of the positive things that emerges from this tragedy”, he added.

There is no research to suggest that professors have higher than average rates of suicide, and in fact most possess certain risk-reducing traits, such as high levels of education. And for those who aren't adjuncts, quality healthcare coverage typically includes mental health. But even when scholars aren’t dealing with potentially traumatic material, their lives are high stress. The carefree academic way of life (if it ever existed) has been replaced by new funding pressures, increased administrative work, the decline of the tenure track and a more corporate, consumer-driven model of education. And while student mental health issues have received much attention and destigmatisation in recent years, it’s unclear how much of that has translated to the professoriate, where there’s a premium on clarity of thought.

“Stigma with regard to mental health seems to be strong in the faculty community,” said Negar Shekarabi, coordinator for faculty and staff mental health care and respondent services at the University of California, Irvine. “The very specific pressures that faculty experience around work expectations and their ability to think, foster knowledge and ideas, and be academically productive, causes a particularly threatening vulnerability should they disclose that they have mental health issues.”

Many worry about losing their jobs, status or the confidence of their colleagues and students in their abilities if they're public about the challenges they face, she said. “This creates some additional silence around mental health concerns in the faculty population.”

Still, a number of individual faculty members have outed their mental health challenges. Kay Redfield Jamison, Dalio family professor in mood disorders at Johns Hopkins University, wrote about her struggles with bipolar disorder in her 1995 book An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness. More recently, Peter Railton, Gregory S. Kavka distinguished university professor and Arthur F. Thurnau professor of philosophy at Michigan, revealed his struggles with depression in a major 2015 lecture, to much praise.

Santa Ono, now president of the University of British Columbia, last year shared that he’d twice attempted suicide as a young man. John W. Belcher, Class of '22 professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, also shared his experiences with depression in the student newspaper, in 2013, after an undergraduate wrote a piece about similar challenges.

“There is a stigma attached to having been clinically depressed and being on antidepressants (as I am),” Belcher wrote. “That stigma is undeserved, and many people who should embrace such treatment instead avoid it. The more open people like [the student] and I are about our experiences in dealing with depression, the more acceptance of those treatments there will be.”

Belcher said of his disclosure, “I would do it again in a heartbeat. It makes a tremendous difference to students when they see you can deal with this sort of thing, recover from it, and not be ‘permanently broken’, as a student once said to me.”

He’s experienced no negative repercussions from his admission, either, but he said that as a senior faculty member nearing the end of his career, it involved minimal risk. In general, he said, “I don’t think there’s particularly less stigma surrounding faculty mental health these days”.

Professor Railton, of Michigan, also said this week that he’s been “deeply moved by the number of younger people in this country and abroad who have written to me to say that my talk was helpful to them in contending with their own difficulties, or in understanding the difficulties of others.”

However, he said, these are “complicated times”, in that “I myself am far enough along in my career that I have been able to accept the wonderful support many colleagues have shown, without having to worry excessively about other effects”. More junior faculty members “unfortunately do not have this luxury”, however, “and academic life is deeply tied up with how others view one's mind. There's much more to be done.”

Asked whether academic culture was moving more toward acceptance of mental health issues, Ms Shekarabi said yes – at least in her own “little corner of the world”. Ms Shekarabi’s coordinator position is relatively new. The idea is that having someone on campus to talk to before navigating other resources will lead to increased use of services, she said.

Ms Shekarabi’s office is also tasked with identifying the need for and developing mental health training for professors, “not just from the perspective of what to be aware of in their students, but how to recognise and respond to distress in their colleagues, how to manage their own mental health concerns, and how to create a more inclusive environment in their departments and schools”.

Margaret Price, associate professor of English and director of disability studies at Ohio State University, and Stephanie L. Kerschbaum, associate professor of English at the University of Delaware and coordinator of its faculty development programme, recently published a resource guide and set of suggestions for practice on promoting supportive academic environments for faculty members with mental illnesses. Based on a survey of 323 self-identified professors with mental health histories, the report takes the view that mental illness is not a problem to be “fixed”.

Rather, it says, “efforts to improve campus climate should be directed primarily toward environments and attitudes”, over individual people. “Most importantly, we advocate going beyond the notion of passively ‘supporting’ mental health through compartmentalised campus counselling and wellness services.”

The report encourages everyone on campus, especially those in leadership roles, to increase “access” via effective policies for inclusivity, and against stigma and harassment; supportive structures for hiring, performance review and promotion; and a proactive, centrally located service infrastructure, among other recommendations.

Professor Kerschbaum said that disclosure narratives provide an important function in acknowledging that disability exists within academe. They also provide affirmation, she said, but it’s important to note what people are comfortable sharing and leaving out, and who’s talking.

“Willingness to disclose is often tied to institutional status, employment stability, gender and even academic discipline, as some fields are more accepting or hospitable while others remain hostile,” she said.

Faculty mental health issues often stay hidden because there are far fewer professors than, say, students, who have “critical mass” enough to generate movement toward disclosure. Faculty members also have trouble accessing services, she said, since campuses rarely have “a single recognisable space where faculty with disabilities negotiate accommodations and access”.

This is an edited version of a story that first appeared on Inside Higher Ed.

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