I have a Doctorate, and I managed to get through it alive. For many this, I suppose, would be a metaphor; for those who do or have done a graduate degree with mental illness, it may be a literal fact – and for some, getting through alive does not happen. Our attention has been brought to this most recently by the recent article in The Guardian examining unhealthy attitudes toward mental illness in the academy, which relates the story of J. To determine the exact cause of a person’s suicide is impossible, but, as the author of this article notes, one of the contributing factors in J’s suicide was an academy that has in places fallen into overlooking mental illness and its complicated intersection with graduate school.
As someone who has OCD and depression, I do know what it is like to go through the academic steps needed to get a PhD as well as grapple with such issues, but I have not hitherto written about the intersections of mental illness and the academy in my life. This in part is because it has been mixed; where I have at times felt aware of a certain systemic coldness toward the issue, I have also managed to find individuals and mentors who care. But it is also because the deepest part of what I need to say concerns those things that can’t be handled systemically, the things that remain silent. They probably come out in public academic and administrative matters as quirks or character traits or peccadillos if one (as one is always inclined to do) can sufficiently mask the icebergs of mental illness lying below the iceberg tips that consist in these only subtle clues. But the icebergs are always below the surface with far more girth than we see.
What do I mean by this? What I mean is that beneath the term mental illness there is a complicated web of things that we don’t fully understand, and that affect us well beyond the surface issues that we are forced to deal with when we can no longer suppress them, and it is these we are unwilling to talk about in the academy – perhaps for good reason – because were we to see them clearly, they would terrify us.
Another way of putting this is that the way we deal with mental illness on campuses is by tricking ourselves into the belief that it is a small thing that can be cured very easily. I can understand this impulse – most of us who have experienced mental illness know viscerally the reasons for such a fear and such measures against it – but this really means we end up with a system that favors “treatable” cases and silently weeds out those affected in the most deep and complex ways, those who may not even know how to look for help. Yes, there are systems in place, but my own experience, when helping a friend once deal with a diversity service office regarding depression, is that such administrative offices want a plan rather than an inexplicable mental illness. They want timelines and charts and goals, exactly the sort of things students can’t do WHEN THEY ARE DEPRESSED. If students could fit neatly into this administrative model, they would not have nearly so much trouble working, which would mean they would not need diversity services in the first place. And then there are the signs. Cartoony signs, advertising that all you need to do is talk to someone and it will be better. It may be. It may not be. Both are possibilities, and because mental illness is as much a mystery as it is something we know about and control, this isn’t a promise one can make. My friend felt as if the signs were mocking her – promising something and then offering help that may be no help at all.
And yes, of course, it is assumed that things like diversity services are not there to take care of the root problem – that’s what doctors, psychologists, and psychiatrists are for. Except progress with these specialists varies. When we break bones, some breaks are more serious than others, and some require more drastic surgery or long term treatment. Having policies in place that assume someone can just get mental illness “fixed” ignores this fact – that each case, while having a number of general things in common with other cases, will also be unique according to environment, personality type, friendships, and the skill of the doctor etc. To further the comparison, it would be a lie to put up posters saying that, if you suffer from broken bones, all you need to do is see a doctor and that doctor will categorically fix it. It depends on the break. It depends on how much strength you have. It depends on what medicines you may or may not be allergic too. And you may never fully recover. You might get somewhat better, but you might always walk with a limp.
Then what should we do? I suggest we should do what universities have always been good at doing when not infected by utilitarianism, whether modern or ancient – stand in the presence of complexity and allow it to be complex where it is complex, silent where it is silent, simple where it is simple, and articulated where it is articulated. Don’t come up with a theory to try to “contain” the problem. Instead, let the problem be the thing you are looking at. Because this is one thing I have learned – about my own mental illness – from university, that is, from those gracious persons in the midst of a less caring system willing to teach me what academics is really all about. It is not about having all the answers. It is about listening – and listening carefully – to the problems, whether these are pieces of literature, scientific equations, historical data, or – yes – mental illness. The academy has driven home for me the absolute necessity of being quick to listen and slow to speak. It has not “fixed” my mental illnesses, nor is it its business to do so. But it has taught me some things about them. And most curiously, the places I have learned these things are not from promotional posters or services promoting awareness and implemented into the system. Rather, I have learned these things because various people at the university taught me how to listen. I can only – for my own sake and that of fellow sufferers – wish that those in charge of access and diversity etc. would learn a similar lesson. We have become so used to shouting that we have forgotten how to shut up and listen – and when we pause for a brief moment and claim that we have heard everything there is to hear, we overlook things because we have not been patient; we have not given it enough time.
Is it difficult to do academics with a mental illness? Yes. But I suggest the problem isn’t so much academics as what the academy has become – indeed, if there is a place in society where complexity (of mental and other varieties) can and should be acknowledged and not forced into prepackaged boxes, the university is where it should be. But we have lost our sense of mystery, of standing in awful silence before the complexity of the thing, whatever that thing might be – and with it we have lost our sense of compassion and love.