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The failure to address mental health in academia until it's too late

The failure to address mental health in academia until it's too late

I was dismissed from my PhD program at the end of my second year. I fell way behind in work and wasn’t making sufficient progress. I wanted nothing more than to be able to write the papers but I physically couldn’t. Every time I mustered up the courage (and energy) to write, I fell apart. Over those two years, my then-husband and I separated and eventually divorced, my dog died, and my anxiety and depression came out to party. It took me about six months to find a combo of meds that made it possible for me to function again. I started to feel better but I couldn’t find the energy to chip away at the backlog of work. I knew I was on academic probation, so I kept in touch with the graduate college about which deadlines I needed to make to stay enrolled. Unfortunately, they’d made a paperwork error — they should have dismissed me the previous semester. So that meant I was getting immediately dismissed. I received that news just as I was starting to be able to write again. It wrecked me. In an instant, I had no healthcare, no income, and no “real” connection to what I’d spent the previous nine years devoting my life to. 

I took it all as well as I could. Everyone I decided to tell got a three-minute rehearsed speech about “why I wouldn’t be around anymore.” Half of the speech was me saying some version of “I did this to myself.” I constantly felt the need to back up into my “accountability corner.” I did that, at least in part, because I was so terrified of being labelled as “just another woman who couldn’t make it in academia.” I wanted to explain what I did wrong and I wanted to acknowledge that it was all my fault. I wasn’t going to be a victim– I was going to state the facts. There are so many messed up things about what I just said but academia has a curious way of shaping anxiety.  

In a lot of ways, I’m glad I reacted the way I did but I have started to wonder how my department would deal with another situation like this. I think I’m an excellent colleague and student (well… aside from the whole not-doing-my-work thing). I’d bend over backwards to help others. I always volunteered to do things the department needed done. I’d help my colleagues’ students if they came around looking for help. I was the grad student who’d meet the prospectives and tell them how great they’d be in our department. And as far as I can tell, and from what the profs told me, they loved having me around. So, if everyone “loved” me so much, why wasn’t there more of a response to my literal cries for help over those two years? (I thought I was quite loud about how disturbed I was.) I suppose that even in a warm department like mine, the attitude that grad students need to prove that they can survive is alive and well. The question I have now is that if I — a self-identifying golden child of the department (LOL)– was out at sea and left to drift away, what’s happening to the quieter students (who are fantastic philosophers and teachers) when their lives are in shambles? I don’t want them to hide in their own accountability corners. Taking full responsibility for bad stuff is often a really good way to dismiss or uphold structures that ought to be challenged and reformed. I don’t think the department failed me; I admit that I wasn’t always sure how they could help me. I’m just wondering if they would intervene earlier if they see a situation like mine playing out in the future. 

Being out of the department has been rough. I work 40+ hours a week and I’m on Medicaid. My specific health plan only grants psychiatric/psychology referrals to two people per month. I haven’t been lucky enough to get a referral which means I have been off my meds. That’s been really hard. But I’ve been catching up on the work and I’ll find out soon whether I’ll be allowed to rejoin the department. I want nothing more. I’m a good teacher and I’m a good philosopher! I didn’t decide that I was over philosophy. I just got steamrolled by life. 

Grad school is really tough and sharing the tough times can be really helpful. Hopefully, our solidarity helps us through it. 


This story was published on December 6, 2018, on PhDoing Life (available here), and has been republished here with permission.

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