How I Made My Gut-Wrenching Decision to Reveal My Mental Illness

2015-10-14-1444789022-8975605-GlebMeditatinginClassroom.jpg

I'm at the top of my game, orchestrating a flowing and rich class discussion. Suddenly, I feel a wave of weakness spreading from my head into my chest and thighs. I tell the students to keep talking, while I find a seat. They are looking at me confused. I try to revive the discussion, but I'm even struggling to speak myself.

Mental illness among college students has been getting much-deserved media coverage. However, mental health challenges among faculty have not gotten the attention they deserve. The vast majority of publicity tends to respond to major incidents such as the February 2010 shooting deaths of three professors by a colleague.

Academic culture punishes professors who reveal their mental illness. This makes it much harder for those of us with mental illness to come out of the mental health closet and impairs our ability to get the help we need, threatening the kind of major breakdown that leads to shootings in extreme cases, or much more likely long-term depression and burnout.

Well, I want to come out and say I suffer from an adjustment disorder characterized by high anxiety, sudden fatigue, and panic attacks. If unchecked, the symptoms are very debilitating and really impair my ability to interact with the administration, my colleagues, and students.

The mental health condition I experience was very disturbing to me when I first discovered I developed this condition in fall 2014. Early in 2014, I co-founded a nonprofit with my wife, Agnes Vishnevkin, a nonprofit professional with an MBA. This nonprofit, Intentional Insights, draws on my own scholarship and that of others to popularize research-based strategies for improving our thinking, feeling, and behavior patterns.

Unfortunately, Agnes suffered a nervous breakdown in July 2014. I spent a great deal of efforts to help Agnes along her way to improvement. I lost count of the many nights we stayed up to 5 a.m., when I helped her talk through the issues she was experiencing, or simply held her as she sobbed in my arms.

With the double strain of a full-time academic job and caretaking for Agnes, by late October my own mental illness began to emerge. It's ironic how one's research and outreach, and one's everyday life, can come together in such times of crisis.

Fortunately, my knowledge of psychology and cognitive neuroscience and the content from Intentional Insights helped me develop research-informed coping strategies for these everyday teaching situations. I worked to develop the capacity to notice anxious thought patterns, and challenge them. I used mindfulness and meditation to learn to notice my sensory experiences and catch waves of fatigue before their full-scale onset. These coping skills proved a great solution for everyday challenges but still, as the semester concluded, I found myself close to burnout, tired to the bone.

Knowing the stigma against mental illness in the halls of academia, I had a great deal of anxiety about applying for a medical leave. Nonetheless, my desire to preserve my own mental health pushed me to apply. This was not an easy process at all, as a leave for mental illness is very unusual, and received much scrutiny. Still, I finally managed to get an unpaid medical leave.

Research indicates that the best way to combat stigma against non-visible markers of non-conformity is to come out of the closet. I hope that my coming out of the mental health closet will be a small blow in raising awareness about mental health and combating the stigma against mental illness in the halls of our educational institutions and our society more broadly.

Bio: Dr. Gleb Tsipursky is a social entrepreneur, writer, science popularizer, and scholar. He leads Intentional Insights, authored Find Your Purpose Using Science, and is a tenure-track professor at Ohio State. Support his writing on his Patreon page, and get in touch with him at gleb@intentionalinsights.org