Recovering from the brink: a tale of the two-body problem

Today’s Guest Post was contributed by Family First Research Professor.

Our story is familiar. My husband and I completed our postdocs and went on the job market together. We carefully identified universities with opportunities for us both, applied, and waited.

I had the good fortune to be recruited and choose between offers for assistant professorships at R1 universities. My husband didn’t get a single interview. I started on tenure track, while my husband applied for unemployment. The process triggered minor panic attacks for me. My husband became crippled by severe depression.

Over the past year, I have faced two challenges as a new assistant professor: building up my lab and supporting my husband’s recovery. Somehow, the latter makes the race to tenure seem like a piece of cake, or at least substantially less important.

As with any severe disease, depression upset all aspects of our lives. At the office, I have been distracted by concerns about my husband’s safety. As the primary caretaker, I have been frequently out of the office shuttling between doctor appointments. Financially, we have been saddled with thousands of dollars in medical bills not covered by insurance. Personally, it tested our relationship. Altogether, I have been too emotionally drained to pursue research at full capacity.

On advice of friends and family, I remained silent at work. No one talks about depression at my institution – well, unless it’s a research topic. Also, it’s scary to contemplate tackling the stigma of mental illness with new colleagues and collaborators.

Yet, I am certain we are not alone. The Guardian has featured multiple articles discussing the rise of mental illness in academia. For us, the pressure to produce, constant criticism of peer review, and pitting my husband against me in the job search bred severe mental illness.

As my first step to recover productivity, I had to admit that there was a problem. I finally opened up to my department chair, but only when my husband was coming close to stabilizing. My biggest regret is that I didn’t do it sooner. It’s easy to forget our department has invested in our success and wants to provide resources to make that happen. In this regard, my chair has gone above and beyond in providing support and approving a flexible schedule. He has also actively sought out resources at the University to support both my husband and myself.

In starting the journey to my husband’s recovery I have learned a number of lessons and resources that I wish I knew about a year ago. I list what I have learned below, but this list is by no means comprehensive. Please feel free to add your own lessons and resources to the comments section. I only hope this post can give hope and serve as a resource to help the many others in the academia who are suffers or caregivers of loved ones with severe mental illness.

  • Be patient. Many mental illnesses can be treated, but it’s a slow process. It often takes a while to identify the right doctor, tune the medications, and then stabilize. There may still be episodes after stabilization, but hopefully shorter, less frequent, and less intense. It’s also normal to be frustrated and angry, so be patient with yourself if you don’t handle each episode with grace. With proper treatment, the partner and relationship you love can return!
  • Shop around for doctors. Just because someone has a good reputation in the community does not mean they are a good fit for you. If something seems wrong, do not be afraid to shop around. The medications prescribed to handle mental illnesses work very differently for different people. They may be mismanaged or overprescribed both by primary care doctors and psychiatrists who think they have seen it all and do not listen to the patient.
  • Seek professional help for yourself as the caregiver. It’s like on an airplane, you must put on your own mask before you can help anyone around you. We found a fantastic couples therapist who educated us both about depression, provided techniques for calming my husband’s episodes, and advice to manage my own stress. It was an incredibly difficult process, but far more effective for us than any individual therapy. As a result, we were able to reconnect after my husband’s stabilization and sustain a happy marriage.
  • Talk about the problem. I was able to care for my husband more effectively with friends and family to support me in the process. Establishing confidants at work earlier in the process would have greatly helped me manage my stress and guilt about reduced productivity.
  • Remember, you are not alone. NAMI offers local support groups for families affected by mental illness (
  • Seek out resources at your institution. Many universities offer confidential counseling services to support faculty during difficult life events through Faculty and Staff Assistance Programs (FSAP / FASAP). Due to poor publication of the program at my institution, I only learned FSAP services after the worst was done and we had built our network of doctors. Had I known, it would have saved substantial medical costs and helped speed up building our network of doctors.

8 thoughts on “Recovering from the brink: a tale of the two-body problem

  1. Thanks so much for opening up about this. I’m glad you have a supportive chair and are getting the help you both need. Good luck to both you and your husband- I hope your recoveries continue!

  2. Yes, brave of you to open up and good luck to the both of you. You lucked out in your chair, too, but I think you know that. However, I’m not sure why you say “pitting my husband against me in the job search bred severe mental illness.” No one really pitted your husband against you, it was just a potentially very difficult situation which it seems your husband was not able to cope with. Not sure what can be done about that. How much worse would it have been if neither of you had gotten an offer?

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  4. Thanks for writing about this important topic. My husband suffers from depression as well (although from your description, a milder form than your husband’s). Nonetheless, it can be so very difficult, and take a heavy toll in many obvious and not-so-obvious ways. I agree with all of your points.
    I would especially second your recommendation to find counselors/doctors that are the right fit for you. It can feel so incredibly daunting and taxing to shop around for mental health providers, but it really is worth the extra weeks or months it will take to get the right fit. And you don’t have to have any particular reason for finding another person other than a gut sense of not feeling completely at ease.

    Thank you again, and best wishes as you continue to navigate this difficult disease with your partner.

  5. It sounds like you are getting amazing help and that is truly wonderful. You and your partner are also brave in not letting the stigma of mental illness or frustration with the environmental stressors divert you from identifying the illness. My partner and I moved across the country last August due to a similar situation but I fear that he has identified the source of his anxiety, frustration, and unhappiness as me rather than depression due to the situation. Not that I haven’t played a part in these stressors but I wish there was a way to help people identify the illness rather than focus on the factors that contributed.

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