“Up” on a pedestal: mental illness and grad school, or mania and research

My mother was diagnosed with bipolar disorder shortly after I was born, and shortly after her grandfather, who she loved deeply, suddenly died.  As an adult, I can make sense of it:  I can reason that the combined effects of grief and pregnancy on her body did something to bring to light an illness that had been latent; but when she told me when I was a child, I thought maybe if I hadn’t come along, my mom wouldn’t be sick.

Bipolar disorder is highly heritable, and both of my parents have diagnoses.  I’ve known this for most of my life and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t scare me.

It has taken years for me to push back against all of the ableist rhetoric that society has shoved into me.  The thought that depression was something I could just push through if I tried harder.  The idea that if I went on medication I would lose myself, I would change.  The notion that if I went to therapy I was weak.  That I couldn’t seek services because then it would be official, I’d be crazy, and what’s worse than that?

And frankly it’s all utter bullshit—but it took years to deprogram.

So here’s where I am now:  I’m a first year grad student in science.  I’ve been diagnosed with depression, but not with bipolar disorder.  Since I got my first diagnosis a few years back I’ve been upfront about my family history and incredibly vigilant about my moods.  I note anything that feels like being “up”, or manic, for too long, I note if I am sleeping less, and I tell my doctors.  We’ve found a medication that keeps me stable and lets me live a pretty damn wonderful life.  I’m very aware that I may display more serious manic symptoms in the future, and if that happens I’ll go straight to a doctor to talk about treatment.

And here’s what prompted this writing:  I am starting to see ways in which grad school promotes my sick brain over my healthy self.

I don’t think I have to explain too much that grad school is tough.  The first part of this quarter has been especially brutal to me, though:  I’m taking two very demanding classes, serving as a teaching assistant for a giant undergrad class, and trying to get started in my new lab.  I’m also in a new city and don’t quite have my mental health care structured yet—I started laying groundwork in the fall, but couldn’t find a way to make time in the beginning of this quarter to finish sorting it out.

And then my meds ran out.

It was more trouble than usual to get them refilled—the prescription I’d gotten months sooner wasn’t in the system anymore, the prescribing doctor was out of town, I couldn’t pick up the meds on weekends—so I ended up without medication for a longer stretch than I liked.  During this time I noted that I didn’t feel too down.  I was still able to get my work done and I was grateful for that.

There was one Friday night I was in lab late.  I’d set up an experiment so that I would start imaging around ten, since my busy class schedule didn’t really allow for other times during the week, and I wanted my weekend to myself.  So I went to lab and got started, but a few things didn’t work along the way.  Something was wrong with the lamp on the microscope, but a postdoc came and helped me fix it.  She expressed surprise that I was in and told me I must be so dedicated, so hard working!  After imaging my first batch I realized that the auto-focus wasn’t working.  Some troubleshooting revealed that my sample just wasn’t compatible, and so I had to take the hundred or so images I could normally automate, manually.

I remember after taking about 50 images I was thinking wow, I can’t believe I’m not upset about this!  But this is totally fine!  At least there was a work-around, and I can still get my data!

And I looked at the clock, and it was around 1 am.

And I remembered that the night before I hadn’t really slept—more napped—and got up early to finish a class assignment.

So here I was awake for about 21 hours, on just 3 hours of sleep, taking images and feeling mighty fine.  Cue alarm bells.

This isn’t a story about a scientist who let her mental health go and kept living on three hours of sleep a night.  I went home and slept well into the next afternoon, and made up for it again the next day with even more sleep.  I was back on my meds a few days later and in my doctor’s office to talk through this with her a few days after that.  That night of feeling “up” was all I needed to realize that the pressures of school were doing something I didn’t like to my brain and pushed me to be better about my health.

I’m writing this, though, because of the kind thing the postdoc said to me as she helped me with the microscope.  “You’re so dedicated.  You work so hard.”  I know she had only kind intentions.  But I can see my mental illness, up on a pedestal, offering me something that looks like an advantage.

People constantly “joke” about research being all consuming.  But reality is that researchers push themselves beyond hard sometimes.  I have colleagues who regularly spend over twelve hours a day in lab.  For some, I’m sure that really is a byproduct of passion or drive.  But for me, this can be a manifestation of my illness.  And having my illness, this tendency to get so hyper-focused and lost in a thing for so long, glorified—it feels disgusting.  It feels unsafe.

So how can we build a culture that is safer for our mental health?  What steps can we take to promote a culture of balance that keeps us happy and healthy while still producing top notch work?

29 thoughts on ““Up” on a pedestal: mental illness and grad school, or mania and research

  1. Oh god. I have NO idea how to build a culture that’s safer for mental health. Probably starting by being open about needing help is the first step. It’s hard to do that in any professional setting, let alone the tight-knit world of academia, but I feel we have to start fighting the taboo of talking about mental health. It’s been glorified over the years as the hallmark of genius, but really taxing our brains in any way can exhaust this valuable organ, and we should be able to talk about it before we’re pushed to the breaking point.

    • I want to talk about it openly–I want to be out there as an example of a successful/rising young scientist who also has mental illness–but it’s terrifying! I’ve worked in 6 different labs at this point and have only had this frank conversation with one PI, and that one was because it was at a point where grappling with my health was actually taking a really serious toll on my productivity and I felt I had to disclose to give context to why my work was suffering. I’m willing to make myself available to talk to my peers who may be struggling in similar ways, or to students or folks I might mentor, but having this conversation with a boss is still scary.

      • And I guess what I want–what would be ideal–is a culture where there was an explicit venue for seeking support. Like if someone in my department’s administration explicitly made clear that they were willing to support people struggling with mental health. If my advisor took a clear stance, and so on.

        • That’s a really good point; it would be very helpful to build in avenues of support within the institution. A group of students and I are working on that over here, trying to directly request better avenues to obtaining mental health through our institution, through the administration. But it’s easier to tell deans (or peers) what the student body’s needs are than it is to tell a PI what an individual student’s needs are.

  2. Loved your post. This resonated with me tremendously. I have hypomania, and while this often makes me feel very satisfied and switched on with my daily career activities, it also potentially sends a bad message because I *need* a higher level of generative activity to feel my best. It was easy to get caught in the trap of thinking all of that activity had to be directed towards my scholarship, and for a long time I did.

    I’ve been focusing during the last couple of years on finding a balance between different outlets, and learning a lot about what it means for me to sustain good mental health as a scholar with hypomania. I’ve had a lot of help along the way from my department chair and various colleagues, which is probably the most important thing to point out since this should occur in far more instances than it actually does. My partner, a fellow academic who lives with biopolar disorder, has also been a tremendous source of support and insight.

    A key realization for me has been the fact that my scholarship gets more sophisticated when I devote time to non-scholarly activities that engage my brain in different ways. Playing guitar, singing, and attending concerts are all favorite hobbies of mine that enhance my creativity and efficiency in research. I’ve learned over time that working *more* does not necessarily mean working *better*, so in a way I’ve been able to channel my drive for strong work products into mindfulness about balance between different activities I love. In this regard, it also helps that I have several colleagues who are musicians, which creates a bridge between my hobbies outside of the office and those inside it.

    • Yes yes yes!!! Balance is so so important, and thank you so much for stating that in such a beautiful way. I have a lot of creative outlets (sewing, knitting, drawing, and on!), and when I have time to devote to those, I feel like a much more satisfied, whole person. Thank you for your comments 🙂

  3. I have bipolar and my father did too. My bipolar disorder didn’t emerge until age 37 when I had a baby and became manic and hypergraphic (extreme, compulsive writing). I was diagnosed with bipolar, peripartum onset, or postpartum bipolar disorder.

    I wish someone told me before I had a child that “childbirth is perhaps the most important and most potent trigger of bipolar disorder” (Dr. Verinder Sharma, one of the top perinatal psychiatrists and researchers in the world.)

    I share this with you in case someday you have a child and want to be informed, not to scare you!!!
    Take care & good luck!

    • I appreciate this–it adds some context to my mom’s onset (though I find it surprising that it appeared with me, her second child–guess she got lucky the first time around!), and definitely gives me important information if I decide to have a family later in life.

      • Oh good, I’m glad to hear that you found my comment useful! Your mom might have had it start to emerge with the first child, by the way. It’s just good to be on the lookout no matter what. Take care & thanks for writing!

  4. Thank you for this super important post! I have a wonderful advisee who has bipolar disorder and has been struggling quite for the past few months. I would greatly appreciate any tips or words of wisdom on what an adviser can do to help when a student is struggling with bipolar disorder. I supervise her thesis and her research assistant, so luckily, I am able to help quite a bit, but I do not have bipolar disorder, so I know I’m likely not doing everything “right” and would love some suggestions.

    • First, I think you’re absolutely fabulous for being so supportive of your student–to the extent of asking folks on the internet for more advice! Thank you for being a lovely advisor. That said, I can’t really tell you what your student needs! I think your desire to be supportive is probably a huge relief for her, and it could be as simple as letting her know, “I’m witnessing your struggle and want to know if there’s anything I can to do to help you.” I’d imagine this could take different forms, be it modifying the way you interact/how regularly you meet, or acting as an advocate in seeking services from the school (assuming you’re at a university?) or any other specific things your advisee might be having trouble with.

  5. I know that feeling of panic that strikes when you recognize a mood swing. Having bipolar disorder myself, I understand completely. As far as creating an environment safer for mental health…I wish there was a way. I’m currently attending university and working and the stresses of it trigger mood swings constantly. It’s life, though, and you can’t put it on pause so people with mental illness have to roll with it – and the truth is, it’s not fair, but no one is going to let up because very few people are educated on what mental illness actually is. Society refuses to establish a balance because everyone wants more, more, more. There isn’t a break for people with mental illness simply because no understands it. That’s the unfortunate reality. It’s going to take a huge movement to change that.

    • I can concede that what you describe is reality in a lot of workplaces right now–but I want to see that change! You say that people aren’t educated on what mental illness actually is, and I can say–even when I worked in a center that *studied the biology of mental illnesses*–that that is absolutely true. I want to see more education and outreach around these issues in our workplaces, in our schools!

  6. my wake up calls take the form of working hard, working hard, working hard, and not realizing it until i have a night of sheer black out binge drinking so i have to take one day off hungover… and realize i need to slow down. this happens about every three months. alcoholism, maybe; likely; but idk

  7. My mental health problems are very different, but this really resonated with me. I struggle with disordered eating, and most of the symptoms of my problem (compulsively exercising and not eating) are things that people in our society are conditioned to treat as positive statements about my character. Having frank conversations with people has been pretty successful – something along the lines of, “Hey, I know these things are normally viewed as positive traits, but they’re emotionally complicated for me and I’d rather you not congratulate me for them.” But there aren’t very many people I feel comfortable talking to about this stuff. And I feel bad that my solution is basically to not talk about it, because that does nothing to improve the larger cultural problem.

    • I hear you.
      And I recognize that it can be hard to hold both the desire to keep yourself safe by avoiding talking about this sort of thing, and the desire to effect change by talking to people! It’s complex and hard, but I’m glad that you’re taking care of yourself.

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  9. This is an amazing post. I have bipolar disorder and I learned in grad school that the stress of working long, intense hours triggers mania which sounds great (more productive!) but leads to decreased concentration and horrible focus that can easily lead to mistakes and, of course, can end with me having delusions that nothing around me is real and questioning the fabric of time and space. Not good for productivity.

    One of the really hard things for me is wondering what my labmates think of my shorter-than-theirs hours. Do they think I’m lazy? Do they think I’m not dedicated? I don’t want to discuss my mental health with them due to the confusion about what bipolar really is and isn’t. It’s not just mood swings from day-to-day or hour-to-hour (even rapid cycling is more serious than what is thought of as “mood swings”). And when people know I have bipolar disorder they begin to watch me and speculate on what is and isn’t my disorder, which is helpful when people like my best friend can warn me that I’m getting manic or depressed but is not helpful when people who don’t know me or my illness well are judging me.

    For me, I know that if I work a 75-80 hr week I will end up manic. I know that if I work several weeks in a row at 50+ hours per week I will end up manic. But I work very efficiently when I’m at work and I don’t feel that my productivity is terrible compared to others – and if it is, I am not manic and that is a win.

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  11. By adding offhand comments that counter workaholicism? I have young kids and so my days are structured around childcare. I often come in to find my postdoc officemates in before me and I often leave before they do in the afternoon. I’ve taken to commenting, “don’t forget to go home tonight!” and “did you go home last night? You’re in the same place I saw you yesterday when I left. Oh, yes! You have a different shirt. Good thing.” and “Monday’s a holiday. Don’t work. Go do something fun.”

  12. Thank you for your post! I am a graduate student and just recently learned that with an anxiety disorder I am eligible for Americans with Disabilities Act accommodations. What accommodations are helpful for mental illness can be more difficult to pinpoint, but things like week hour limits, flexible hours, quiet time breaks, or longer testing periods are feasible options. People should know that mental illnesses DO fall under ADA depending on the severity. And you do not have to tell anyone what disability you fall under, only what accommodations you’ve been approved for. You may need to think creatively about reasonable accommodations though. This applies to jobs as well as students.

    • Thank you! I’ve actually just made the decision to reach out for accommodations regarding student housing. This is a totally new system for me, and I spent a long time being completely unaware that accommodations for me even existed! Depending on how it goes, my experience navigating this might turn into a post as well.

      As far as work accommodations–I’d never thought of these for myself, so thank you so much for naming some! Especially the idea for flexible hours. This is something I’ve generally assumed to be the norm in science, but my new advisor, who is balancing family, tends to have a very 9-to-5 schedule, so having the advocacy of the university could be really valuable for me if that creates conflict.

      Thanks for your comment!

  13. Great post. I suffered from disordered eating and then diagnosed anorexia from school through to University, worsening for a particularly awful relapse throughout revision for and the taking of my final exams. I achieved an award-winning First Class degree. The fear remains that the ‘hard-working’, ‘focused’ and ‘dedicated’ student that I am lauded for being are instances of the personality traits – the perfectionism and self-punishing drive for success – that perpetuate the anorexic voice. It remains that my highest grades, my honours and awards, have all been achieved when my mental illness was at its most damaging.

    Flippant congratulatory comments about how hard one is working, how many hours worked, etc. are equivalent, in my instance, to congratulating someone on weight lost, and how great one looks as a result. Awareness needs to be raised that these comments can be triggering, positively reinforcing potentially damaging behaviours. Instead we can question, ‘how are you feeling’, ‘are you taking care of yourself?’, allowing a discourse to be created that does not just focus on levels of achievement.

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  18. I love this and as a PhD student struggling with mental health way more than I ever have in my life, I am so interested in working towards somehow still rigorous and demanding but also mentally healthier and not destructive graduate programs. The “how,” I’m too mentally fried to have answer yet!

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