Academic life and mental illness is not a smooth ride but it can be done

Kate, a lecturer at GoldsmithsI'm a university lecturer at Goldsmiths and during Mental Health Awareness week I'm sitting on a staff/student panel, an event organised by our Disability Team, discussing the challenges of mental health issues and university life. The reasons I feel able to contribute to this?

First, I'm Senior Tutor in my department, which means I deal with the day-to-day welfare of our undergraduate students, and this often includes mental health issues.

Second, I have bipolar disorder and have plenty of personal experience as a mental health service user.

Third, my husband also has bipolar disorder, and he's an undergraduate student (at a different university) so I know first-hand what it's like supporting and caring for someone with a mental illness and the issues that they face in Higher Education.

I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2005

I was first diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2005 when I was finishing my PhD. I'd been in the grip of a particularly bad bout of depression - the hopeless, despairing sort where I wanted to die because it was easier than living. Bit by bit, with the help of friends and SSRIs, I crawled back to functioning daily life.

Then it all got weird in a why-am-I-seeing-things-that-aren't-there kind of way and BAM! Ever heard a carpet talking? You're not missing much. Next thing I was hiding under a table in a dark room, trying to get away from the sensory overload, until my friends hauled me to a doctor who saw immediately that I was having a psychotic episode and gave me an urgent referral for psychiatric assessment.

I have, on occasion, faced stigma and intolerance

I have been lucky; I responded well to medication. I got through pregnancy and the birth of my child without post-puerperal psychosis, although the postnatal anxiety and OCD wasn't a barrel of laughs. I am currently stable and off mood stabilizers with the agreement of my psychiatrist, and a low dose of antidepressants keeps the intrusive thoughts at bay.

My bipolar disorder has gone from being a haunting presence to something I keep an eye on. I've stopped questioning where my personality ends and where the illness starts – something that took quite a while to accept. I've done things when manic that I am embarrassed about now. I'm regretful that I've put friends and loved ones through the emotional wringer. I have, on occasion, faced stigma and intolerance. However, I also firmly believe that talking openly about mental illness is hugely important and the more we talk about it, the more accepted it will be.

Academic life is both a blessing and a curse

Academic life and mental illness is not a smooth ride but it can be done. My husband is now in his second year of his degree after two previous attempts at undergraduate studies prior to his diagnosis left him burnt out and on antipsychotics.

This time round he has support in place. There are reasonable adjustments for his assessments, he has Disabled Student Allowance to fund further support, and his lecturers and fellow students are understanding about his condition. Although he finds it hard at times (and at the moment, at exam time, stress has triggered a mixed episode), it is his openness and willingness to talk about his condition that has made much of this possible. He is succeeding against the odds, and I am so proud of him.

For me, academic life is both a blessing and a curse. When I'm hypomanic my productivity is astounding and my research flows. A little higher and I pace the office floor all day, writing pages of elaborate schemes that will never be completed. When I am low, I feel the suffering of the world around me and I'm thankful for the flexible hours that allow me to organise my time as it best suits. I have often felt apologetic for my lack of consistency but I know I can do my job and I can do it well - I just need a little more time or a different way of working.

The best advice I can offer is "tell someone"

For my students, I hope that I can offer not just advice and adjustments but empathy and understanding. I know what it's like to hang on to normality by the fingertips. I know how it feels to watch someone I love labour through the simplest of tasks when ill.

There are times when coping seems so exhaustingly difficult but you still have to put one weary foot in front of the other and keep going. I've both struggled and soared through the university system with a brain that doesn't always do what I want it to. Despite that, I also know that it's possible, and that a life often turned upside down by mental health problems needn't be a barrier to using your mind. Help is there. We want to see people succeed. From my own experience, the best advice I can offer anyone facing mental health problems is “tell someone”.

Goldsmiths' Student Union signed the Time to Change organisational pledge. Find out what mental health awareness activities they pledged to carry out.

What do you think about the issues raised in this blog?

Share your views with us on Twitter >>

Or sign our pledge wall to show your support and find out how talking tackles mental health discrimination.


Comments

Bi-polar affective disorder

It is fantastic that people are able to live a full and active life with this disorder. My self found that I did not have the support. Therefore a bad divorce followed and bad dismisal from work and also because of other problems am unable to work. Well done for telling your story. At last people are comming out of their shells which is where most of us hide.

BiPolar

I agree with everything you said, I too am in a very similar position. You are not alone. Had my diagnosis come earlier and had I had supportive friends, family and friends at the time then I too would not be unemployed now.

This is incredibly insightful !

Thank you for writing this! I'm an undergrad in my second year, going in to my third, and I too, have mental health problems. Depression and I think currently undiagnosed PTSD. I do quite well academically (usually!), but sometimes not so personally. I'm also a single mum, so there's the added stresses of that. It's wonderful to see a lecturer being so candid and honest, something that I'd like to see more of at University. Our lecturers are wonderful, but sometimes it's a scary place talking about mental health, especially to other students. It's wonderful to see such personal and sensitive material written in a forthright and insightful way.

Im presently struggling

Im presently struggling through university with mental health difficulties that I've had since a child, at present university is really tough cause of deadlines and appointments for my mental health that I have to fit in in between - one problem I have is that I find it uncomfortable talking to anyone about it, I try to talk to my university tutors but at the same time I end up thinking that im after attention cause I feel I need to talk to them cause I feel I don't have anyone else but its so hard so I try to deal with everything on my own, I end up thinking that im wasting their time and im getting paranoid cause I don't know what they really think of me, its awkward, I end up thinking that maybe people think im making out that things are worse than they are

Hi there, I feel exactly the

Hi there, I feel exactly the same way as you, and I'm sorry you feel this way. I managed to tell a tutor who I really trust and I feel he understands but then I feel I am taking advantage of his kindness and think he must think I'm exaggerating. But I'm not and you're probably not. These are real feelings we are experiencing and they are difficult. Try and tell someone you trust, or seek counselling through your gp surgery. Good luck with everything. This article is brilliant as well, kudos to the author. Thanks x

There is help out there

It's hard enough trying to cope with the problems experienced with mental health and it sounds as though this is made worse by the negative perceptions you then think others have about you. I know as a psychotherapist that people find it really hard to talk about how they are feeling. Have you thought about online or telephone counselling as it is very beneficial in terms of not having to get over the hurdle of sitting in front of someone, but rather, typing your words to them and having a typed response or talking to someone over the phone who you don't know and you cannot see? Talking to someone you don't know, who is not attached to you in any way takes away the awkwardness people feel about what people they know may think about them. At the Riverside we understand the difficulties people have in the talking element and the pressure they sometimes feel in meeting someone face to face, let alone trying to express the emotions are they feeling and the thoughts they may be having. In my experience I have found that many of my clients find online or telephone counselling very rewarding for all of these reasons and some within geographically possible distances have then changed to face to face counselling. There is help out there in many ways, it's not self indulgent, it's not a luxury or a treat, it's looking after you and keeping yourself well.

Empaty

I am an internaitonal student. I have been waiting for months to receive treatment from NHS I can fully understand what you think and feel. I have been dealing with it my own I often feel to isolate from the world so thats the way I can cope with it I am looking forewar to talk to someone soon when I receive treatment

I know exactly how you feel

I know exactly how you feel and I struggled for one year at uni before taking a break because I felt I couldn't do it. I went back and after a few months I dropped out. I really wish I had spoken to my tutors and continued. Try to talk to someone. you need their support to get through. You can do this. x

Hi Kate First i would like to

Hi Kate First i would like to say thank you as it has proved very difficult in finding academic staff who are willing to talk about their personal experiences within mental health. I am also sitting on the panel and look forward to meeting you tomorrow. Kind Regards Thomas Ankin Goldsmiths Disabled Students Officer

To the Anon 'presently struggling'

Please try and find it within yourself to discuss your problems with someone. If you don't feel you can chat to your tutor, try the university's student support centre. To my knowledge most universities have these systems in place. They will be trained to help. If I had not got help from such sources in my undergraduate days my experiences of bipolar disorder would undoubtedly have got the better of me. Because I did seek help I am still able to study and am nearly finished my PhD on, wait for it, bipolar disorder. The sadder part of my story is that I felt it safer for me to hide my disorder due to discrimination I had previously experienced at the hands of a psychiatrist at the Institute of Psychiatry who abandoned me as a prospective PhD once I revealed my diagnosis. If more people were as open as _kate_ then psychiatrist's like the one I mention would not find themselves in such positions, I hope.

Thank you

I am about to embark on a full time research degree (MPhil with a transfer to PhD). I have been deliberating over my decision to go for this for the last 18 months since completing my degree, which was traumatic to say the least. I also have a mood disorder, plus several other mental health problems, which made the university environment particularly challenging. I have printed out your blog post and stuck it to my wall where I can see it as I study, I'm sure it will give me the motivation to not give up when it seems too difficult. Thank you.

Work, mental health and support

An insightful article. It highlights the fact that people can cope with everyday life in fast paced and sometimes demanding job roles as long there is the right support avaliable to them. I agree what has been highlighted in the article, it is important to talk to someone, it doesn't have to be a family member, it can be a friend, someone who has experience of MH problems, someone you trust to support you and someone you can rely on to get you through the hard times, its easy to lose insight when you low or high and this is where support and talking really does help. I went through university on a string of highs and lows, passing many exams through mad revision and good fortune. It was a year after uni that things started to get bad and after 2 suicide attempts I was too diagnosed with BP (bipolar disorder), I manage a job with medication and health and support of my friends and a mental health team. it can be done with help and the right support and hopefully the stigma of mental health problems can be reduced in time.

Thank you for this. I'm 17

Thank you for this. I'm 17 and have been stressing about how my life is going to end up, especially with facing adulthood and uni which the thought has got me overwhelmed. It's relieving seeing this.

studying and depression

Your journey makes me feel that I am not the only one who is struggling with server depression and studying a full time degree. I often feel like packing in the studies as i can't focuse or concentrate. I often feel so alone. I'm studying from home! My insomnia also affects my work and I hate it. I have struggled with depression for years and have finally accepted it is part of who I am.

Inspiring!

This story is fantastic. I am currently studying to become a mental health nurse and I suffer from bouts of severe depression. Unfortunately the staff at the university are not as helpful. They are aware of my problems and have gone on to make me feel completely excluded from the course. Stories like this allow me to hope that I can get through this course and go on to later help others with their illnesses.

Teaching and Bipolar

Does your bipolar disorder interfere with your in-class teaching? CDS

Thanks

Kate, I love this blog, I too have recently been diagnosed as Bi Polar after 10 years of various different diagnosis. I love your candidness here and as for the question " ever heard a carpet talking?" no i haven't but after trialing one particular medication I did once hold a good half hour conversation with an elephant at 5 in the morning. Can still remember it now as clear as day. Of course there was no elephant it was quite a small room on the first floor so the logistics mean it could never have happened, but your openness during your blog as well as adding in humor I think is a great way to help others. I've recently started a degree at university started last Sept but had a rough old end of year when a manic episode got a bit out of hand, got referred to the mental health team and then finally got diagnosed as Bi Polar in June this year. The big part for me is short term memory , my end of year 1 exams I couldn't take as my short term memory recollection seems to have been removed, do you have any tips on how to revise with this? I've tried the picture techniques tried leaving post it's round the house with statutes and cases ( doing a law degree ) but that doesn't seem to have helped. Also after watching the Frank Bruno documentary on BBC3 last night it's left me wondering if there's any benefit to meeting up in one of the groups run by the NHS, have you ever been to one?. Anyway thanks again for your blog, don't worry If you don't get chance to answer the questions, I have google the font of all knowledge, so can always find the answers on there although it would be nice to hear from someone thats dealt with the issues

Reassuring.

I am mid way through my PhD (and struggling) and have begun questionning whether my bipolar would seriously hinder a career in academia. It's extremely reassuring to hear a success story and I thank you for sharing it.

Blog/depression/uni

Struggled 4 years uni. Best lecturers left. I found best support in peers and counselling service, mentor through DSA. Hope to finish and graduate later in year.

Bi-polar affective disorder

I think time to change being there helps losts of us voice our opinions especially on facebook keep it up it certainly helps me

What did you think of this blog? Tell us in the comments

Email updates

Keep up to date with all our news, information and events via email.

Media centre

Guidelines and contacts for all those who work in the media.

Resources

Download leaflets, posters, reports and guidance.

Need support?

If you need urgent support there are many places to go for help.