Being an academic with mental health problems
My name is Sasja van der Vaart-Verschoof. I’m an academic archeologist who suffers from bipolar disorder and agoraphobic anxiety disorder, and today is the day I’m going to start openly talking about this.
I truly wish that this wasn’t even a thing – the talking about these health problems. I mean, these are medical conditions. Ones that I get treated for and generally manage well with. So why is saying this out loud – and online – so scary? Why does it feel like ‘I’m coming out’?
Because it is scary. Because once it’s ‘out there’, I have no control over the information and won’t be able to take it back. Now, I’m sure it is not going to come as a galloping shock to anyone that there is still a huge stigma around mental health problems in academia, as there is in general society. Which is why I, up till now, have avoided discussing my health. Not because I’m ashamed – because I am most definitely not, in fact I’m proud of how well I manage with such potentially debilitating conditions – but because life as an academic is hard enough without the prejudice and lack of understanding that many people still have towards mental health conditions.
When I was a student and PhD-candidate, I was afraid to openly discuss my mental health because I thought it would make people see me differently – as less capable or less resilient, perhaps even as unsuited to the rigors of academic life. But as I’ve said before, I want the Kid to grow up in a world where she can be unapologetically herself. I want her to live in a society where being open about one’s mental and physical health is no longer a thing that one needs to even think about, but something that is natural and accepted. While it may be naive to hope that I could help to make such world a reality, I have to try by speaking out in hopes of educating those who may not (yet) understand. To raise awareness and attempt to help normalize these things which are, in point of fact, normal.
I’d like to think that by now I have enough academic standing that I can be open about my health. My track record stands, and it can objectively be said that my resumé is not unimpressive. And in my opinion only more so because I managed to achieve it all while battling my own health.
This blog has been on my to-do list for a long time, and I am both excited and nervous about finally posting it. As with my #metoo blog, I have no illusions about any real-world effects it might have, but I feel strongly that this is a dialogue that needs to happen and that we all need to #useourvoice. While I’m still afraid that being open about my health may rob me of some future opportunity, I hope that I might contribute to a shift in academia – where you get to be a person first and never feel like you have to hide health problems. And if even one person finds this blog helpful, then I will count that as a win.
My mental health problems, like so many people, started as a teenager. The death of my cousin when I was 15 triggered my first major depressive episode, and it was at this time that my anxiety disorder (which wouldn’t be diagnosed till years later) started to manifest itself. I not only went into a deep depression, I became absolutely, irrationally convinced that if I were to leave my home, that someone I loved would die. Whenever I tried to leave the house, I would have panic attacks and become physically ill. It got so bad I literally could not leave my home and stopped going to school. It took me 6 months of therapy, antidepressants and an excruciating process of pushing myself ever further out of the house before I was able to go back to school and resume my life.
For years after I would go in and out of depressions and hypo-manic episodes, though I didn’t realize the latter were happening until much later. Unlike my first one, most of my subsequent depressive episodes have been high-functioning ones. I learned how to function – go to school/classes/work – while being horrifically depressed at the same time. I got so good at this, that a lot of the time most of my family and friends couldn’t even tell that I was so depressed that I honestly wanted to die. I couldn’t see a future for myself, because when you spend your life feeling so utterly worthless, it can start to feel like life just isn’t worth living. I cannot put into words how glad I am to have proved myself wrong.
When I am going through a depressive episode, I fully believe that no one cares about me or even likes me. I become convinced that all my friends and family just feel sorry for me, and that I am in fact so worthless that people pretend to like me. I become exhausted and lifeless. Everything, even simple things like taking a shower, putting on clean clothes or eating become a trial. Sometimes I can’t sleep when I’m depressed, both because the minute I stop moving I get ever more trapped in my negative thought-spiral, but also because I get the worst nightmares you could imagine. I have continuous anxiety dreams and nightmares of loved ones dying, or of loved ones finally admitting that they never liked me.
When I am hypo-manic, it is the best feeling in the world. I feel confident and beautiful, and have an unbelievable amount of energy. I feel utterly at ease in the world, and have no doubt that everyone adores me (to the point that I can become incredibly annoying). Things that normally are way out of my comfort zone, become the easiest in the world. I lose financial sense, and buy a ridiculous amount of stuff.
But the really weird part? Until I was in my 20s, I honestly believed that everyone felt this way, but that other people were just better at dealing with it (again feeding my inferiority complex).
Eye-opening moment: most people never feel like they want to die
I will never forget the eye-opening moment when I realized that the way I felt was wrong, and that most people never, ever experience this. While a student, I remember consoling a friend because one of her buddies had tried to commit suicide. My friend was naturally very upset, but also clearly extremely confused by the fact that anyone could ever feel so hopeless that they would attempt suicide. It blew my mind that there were people who had never wanted to stop living.
After being together for a couple years, the now-Husband as well as a number of close friends helped me to find the strength to get properly diagnosed. At this point we knew that something wasn’t right with me. I would go in and out of periods where my mood would change completely, to the point where I almost seemed like a different person.
During an extremely dark period, a friend invited me to come stay with him for a few days in England to get some space and recuperate from everything in my life (I was in the process of losing several loved ones). I was deeply depressed, and this trip was just what I needed. I curled up in a giant blanket on their couch while my friend and his roommate fed me coffee and delicious food. While there, I got to chatting with his roommate who was amazingly open about his own battles with mental health and his bipolar disorder. And damn if it wasn’t exactly how I had felt for the last 10 years.
I started keeping a journal, and writing down how I felt while depressed helped me realize I needed professional help. Because every time I would ‘come out’ of a depressive episode I’d lose perspective and would think to myself ‘it wasn’t that bad. I don’t need help’. But reading the things I thought about myself while depressed with a clear head helped bring into focus that I really did need help.
When I got back to the Netherlands, I started seeing a psychiatrist and received my diagnosis of Bipolar 2, which is the ‘milder’ version of this illness. They started me on a mood stabilizer, and after a while added an antidepressant. I also received treatment that focused on teaching me how to recognize the signs of my mood changes, and what I could do to try and manage them.
How I manage my health
It has taken many years of therapy and just the right combination of medications and life-style changes for me to be able to not only function, but happily live my extremely full-filling life. I take a mood stabilizer, which not only helps me stay more in the ‘middle’ range of my mood swings but also helps me sleep and reduces my nightmares. The antidepressant helps combat my depressive episodes, and when needed we can raise the dose just a smidge to help get me out of particularly bad depressions.
Through therapy and the help of friends I have learned behavioral tricks to manage my moods better, and mostly manage to stay level with only small dips and highs. But it takes discipline and hard work on my part, as well as my wonderfully supportive circle of friends and family. I also had to learn a very important fact:
Mental health problems ARE health problems.
OK, so this is an important one, and one I struggled to learn (and sometimes still have to be reminded of): Having mental health conditions makes you ill – it does not mean in any way that you are less-than.
I know that in the performance-driven world of academia that it can feel that way, but there really is a distinction between not having the intellectual capacity to be an academic and having health conditions that make it more difficult. Which is why it is so important that we talk about these issues and raise awareness. Because there are ways that we can make the life of people struggling with their mental health easier. But only if we create an environment where everyone feels safe talking about their health and their needs.
Something that my psychiatrist was fond of saying when I was being too hard on myself, or unwilling to deal with my health, that always helped me was:
you would never expect someone with a broken leg to walk up stairs as fast as you can, so why do you expect yourself to be able to do everything in the same way as someone who does not have your illness?
Mental health in academia
Now I’m sure everyone knows that academia is a high-pressure and performance-driven world which can test the mental health of even the healthiest and most resilient individual. I’m afraid this is just a fact of life, even if it is a wildly unhealthy one. We all seem to be caught in this vicious cycle of feeling like if you’re ‘lucky’ enough to have a job in academia, then you need to always work at a 150%, which often leads to crashes and burn-outs – even for those who don’t have health problems.
Yet it is something that most people don’t really talk about – I assume because it feels like ‘showing weakness’. The problem being that not talking about how hard it is to survive in academia and the strain that this puts on a person can feed both one’s own imposter syndrome and that of those around you. Even though literally everyone I have ever discussed this with suffers from some degree of imposter syndrome at times – including professors at the top of their field!
Having to constantly work extremely hard and ‘perform’ at the very highest of your ability is extremely draining, and I’ve seen many an academic start to loose empathy as a result. Even individuals who are kind and caring by nature can turn unintentionally harsh for the simple reason that they are over-extended and exhausted. While being treated with (unintended) harshness is never fun, when you’re someone like me with an invisible illness that makes you far more susceptible to external pressures and opinions, this can really affect you and make you question yourself and your capabilities.
To be healthy, you have to learn how to balance the need to constantly ‘perform’ and the needs of your brain and body. Because you’re no use to anyone – not yourself, your friends, your family or even academia – if you work yourself to the point where you break. Despite ‘everything that is wrong with me’, I see myself as one of the lucky who has managed to find ways of being both happy and healthy while still performing (relatively well) as an academic. Interestingly enough, a lot of the tricks I’ve learned to manage my health serve me extremely well in my work life. And just in case it could help someone reading this, I would like to share some of the things that help me in my life as an academic with mental health problems.
It’s just a job
When you’re in the whirlwind of academia, it is very easy to forget that being an academic is just a job. And that just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should do it. So even if you are capable of being an academic, if it doesn’t bring you joy, why would you do it? I for one, to my great surprise, seem to get the most joy out of combining academic research projects with my commercial editing jobs and museum work, rather than being a ‘pure’ academic – and in my opinion that in no way makes me an inferior researcher.
Know & guard your limits
This is honestly the hardest to learn and one that takes daily practice: to know exactly where your limits are and to guard them vigilantly. In my experience there is great value in learning to say one very simple word: no.
As in general life, in academia there is usually a constant stream of people asking for your help – whether it’s working on a research project, writing a paper, giving a lecture or even things like ‘making a quick figure’ or ‘having a quick look at their paper’. And it is very easy to get in the habit of saying yes to everything, both because you want to be the best and you want to keep everyone around you happy and feeling friendly towards you. But I can’t tell you how often I’ve seen people drive themselves to, or even over, the brink doing this. And while everyone can be driven over their max capabilities, the problem for people like me is that we pay a much higher price for doing so. If I don’t vigilantly guard my mental health, I can find myself depressed and literally wanting to die. And neither I, my family nor my friends should have to deal with that because of my job.
Figure out what makes things easier for you
First off, I want to stress that there is nothing wrong with finding certain things difficult, scary or stressful. However, over the years I have figured out tricks and habits that help me do the things that my anxiety and mood swings made, and sometimes continue to make, very difficult. Often you can find ways of making things easier for you. I for example find crowds and new people anxiety-inducing (bit of challenge in a field where conferences are important), but have found that if I can get an idea about the physical space I’m visiting, or a stage where I will be speaking from, it makes it easier for me to do these things. It can also help to have a colleague or friend with you who knows about your health challenges and what to look out for/how to help you. And if you ever start to feel bad about needing that kind of help, remind yourself that you wouldn’t feel guilty asking them to carry your bag if you had a broken arm, so why feel bad about needing help with a mental health condition?
Know when to ask for help and do so, and when to step away
This is always the hardest things for me to do, but one that is also very important – knowing when to ask for help, and when to step away from a situation. Neither is easy. I personally hate having to ask for help, but it is a fact of life that I need help. I need help keeping my mood balanced. I need help overcoming my anxiety when I have to do something outside of my comfort zone. And even though I hate it, I quite simply need people to occasionally remind met that I am good at my job and a good person who is worth knowing, because every once in a while my brain will try and convince me otherwise. As such, it is crucial to my functioning as both a person and academic that I surround myself with people who understand this.
However, sometimes you can get trapped working with/for people who are harmful to your mental health – people who refuse to even try and understand or accommodate you. Whether through ignorance or an unwillingness to learn about how my brain works, I have on occasion had to ‘shut out’ individuals who were toxic to my health in order to protect myself. Sometimes this meant limiting my physical exposure to them, and when this isn’t possible I have had to learn to not let their behavior and the things they say affect me and my mental health. I have to remind myself that their opinions have no power over me, which while hard at first has gotten easier over time.
While I have always had the pleasure and privilege of working with supervisors and colleagues who (primarily) treated me as a person first and academic second, and whom I could share my mental health struggles with, there are unfortunately many young scholars who are not so lucky. If you have to deal with a supervisor who refuses to help you or accommodate your mental health needs, please remember that you can ask others for help or try and switch supervisors – even when you feel trapped in a situation. You always have the power to step away, and if your health requires it, I would always encourage you to do so. Like I said above, it’s just a job.
I have no idea whether there will be repercussions for my sharing this, but I choose to focus on the positive and hope that it may help someone who is struggling. I choose to believe that people will be kind to my sharing this, and that some may understand those in their life struggling with mental health issues better.
I’d like to finish off this blog with some random advice for those who may recognize themselves in my story:
- Always take your mental health seriously (that goes for everyone) and get professional help if you are struggling. Asking for help is truly one of the strongest and bravest things a person can do. Bearing in mind that finding a therapist can take a few tries. I’ve had good ones and bad ones, and a bad experience does not mean that therapy is bad. You just might not have found a care-provider that you click with.
- Medication can be a literal life-saver and always talk to your healthcare professional before taking/stopping with any medications.
- You don’t have to tell everyone your diagnosis. But if you trust someone, explaining how your brain works and what they can do to help can help you. For example, my friends know that when I’m in a low period that they need to be a bit more pro-active in our friendship. For example, texting me a bit more frequently or asking me out for a drink because I find it very difficult to reach out to people when I feel low.
- Realize that what works for you, might not help others with the same diagnosis.
And for those who have people in their life who are struggling with their mental health:
- Please take the mental health of those around you seriously. Telling someone who is depressed ‘to lighten up’ not only won’t help, it can do serious harm. If you want to help someone in your life who is struggling with depression and bipolar disorder, don’t only ask that person what you can do, but educate yourself on their illness. In some cases it can also help to talk to (their) healthcare provider for advice on how to help.
- It’s always good to help others, but you’re no good to anyone if you don’t take care of yourself first.
And please remember: having a mental health condition makes you sick, not less-than. It took me a long time to really grasp this. But I am not weak, I am ill. In fact, I am bloody strong for having achieved all I have while battling my own brain and body.
And so are you.