April 5: Disability

 ·   4 min read

Tassie Gniady hosted the third DH-WOGEM conversation on April 5th on physical and mental disability.

The participants in the DH-WoGeM conversation on physical and mental disability had a range of experiences with disability, including life experience as children of people with mental disabilities. Some had their disabilities documented, with their managers aware of their condition and provisions in place for taking additional FMLA leave as needed. Others had chosen to not go “on the record” with their disabilities, though in some cases they made use of university support resources. Others previously held a diagnosis, but had discontinued treatment and not experienced further mental health challenges.

All participants agreed that having a non-judgmental space to openly talk about these issues was helpful. The participants briefly recounted their personal histories and current experience with mental disabilities. Multiple participants’ stories spanned generations, highlighting the experience of being a child of someone with a mental disability, and navigating a parent’s challenges (e.g. struggles with suicidal thoughts and actions) into adulthood — or living through a parent’s suicide.

Multiple participants noted their concerns about how they come off to their colleagues while in a state of acute mental health challenges. Especially when chronic insomnia is part of the equation, some participants felt like they seem inarticulate, which can further exacerbate anxiety and depression. Participants were also concerned about the impact of their mental health on their collegiality — they reported being perceived as being defensive all the time, a consequence of baggage from previous unsupportive job situations. Trying extra hard to be friendly takes more energy from introverts, which can be hard to summon in situations of anxiety and insomnia. Multiple participants described interactions that had gone awry early on in relationships with people at work, with long-term downstream effects. Having a meeting while in an irritable state of mind can lead to complaints to one’s boss or higher up that are difficult to recover from. “I want to be a generous colleague, but I don’t know how to deal with this person,” one participant said of a colleague they had experienced multiple run-ins with. Another participant with a reputation for collegiality admitted to having a small “people who can go fuck themselves” list, with people who they refuse to have any dealings with.

Managing expectations was a challenge for most of the participants, who noted that overpromising at work is a risk factor for triggering a downward spiral of mental health.

Participants had mixed experiences disclosing their mental health challenges to others. One participant described telling their PhD advisor, whose only experience with mental health was with someone whose challenges were completely incapacitating. The participant felt that it forever changed their relationship with their advisor, and not for the better. They described the advisor calling hotel staff on one trip abroad with concerns that the participant had committed suicide, despite the participant never expressing suicidal ideation. The participant’s current boss, however, has been supportive, open-minded, and willing to read and learn, accommodate, and make space. All participants noted that, in general, mental disabilities are only discussed obliquely, when they are at all — even in extreme cases of senior faculty members working themselves to the point of a mental breakdown with long-term effects. Where it is increasingly accepted to call out “feminist, racist, classist oversights”, far fewer people even gesture towards calling out oversights related to mental health.

University support services for mental disabilities can be helpful, but their limitations also limit their impact. One participant mentioned that their student health plan only included 7 meetings with a therapist — but their struggles remained after those sessions, leading them to try CBT techniques on their own (like daily journaling to reflect on collegiality.)

Participants discussed the intersection of birth control and mental disabilities, noting the ways that hormonal birth control (and hormones generally, such as during an unintended pregnancy) can negatively impact mental health. One participant’s diagnosis of bipolar disorder was ultimately a response to how they reacted to the side effects of a hormonal birth control shot — issues that cleared up when the hormones subsided. Participants also talked about medications they’d taken for mental disabilities, the ways those drugs impacted their body, including weight gain, hair growth, etc., and the ways the effectiveness of those medications changed over time, necessitating stressful periods of looking for new medications that were more effective.

Mental disabilities impacted participants’ lives in various ways, from the kinds of choices they needed to make about the proximity of their homes to work (to avoid long and stressful commutes), to kinds of jobs they chose to pursue (e.g. non-viability of traditional tenure path). For some, writing is another activity that feeds into their anxiety, which further complicates taking an academic path.

The conversation didn’t have specific follow-up items, beyond holding another conversation in the fall.