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 (http://www.nami.org).
- 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.