The words “thriving” and “mental illness” are not usually associated, but mental illness is not an inevitable barrier to academic success. As a postdoctoral fellow with bipolar disorder, I am intimately familiar with the challenge of completing a Ph.D. while living with a mental health disability.
My Mental Health Journey
I arrived to graduate school enthusiastic and excited to learn. Unfortunately, I was woefully unprepared to support my mental health. Although I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder twice in the past, I had refused to accept the diagnosis due to the stigma associated with the illness. Therefore, I did not have a treatment plan in place, which quickly became problematic. In addition to the stress of moving across the country and starting a new Ph.D. program, I was diagnosed with a rare neurological condition that threatened my vision. This combination of factors led to a severe depressive episode followed by a manic episode which resulted in hospitalization and a medical leave. During my medical leave, I finally accepted my bipolar diagnosis and received the medical treatment that I desperately needed.
Still, even with medication, I occasionally struggled with mental health once I returned to my graduate program. Medication for bipolar disorder lengthens the time between episodes but cannot entirely prevent episodes. At the end of my third year in the program, I suffered from a mood episode that led my advisor to resign. They stated that I was incapable of completing the program, even though I was actually ahead of schedule in reaching program milestones. I was heartbroken, but there was nothing that I could do to change their mind. Luckily, I found two faculty members who were willing to co-advise me and who understood my mental health challenges. With their support, I successfully finished the program and am now working as a postdoctoral fellow.
Advice for Graduate Students
In my experience, there are steps that students with mental illness can take to help them succeed in their studies. Individuals with mental health disorders have unique perspectives and lived experiences that are valuable to their academic institutions. Thus, it is crucial that we support students in navigating graduate school with mental illness so that we do not lose important voices.
Undoubtedly, there are factors that affect student success which are outside of a student’s control (e.g., institutional policies around mental health), but here I focus on actions that are within the student’s control. Rather than focusing on systematic issues that exist at the institutional level — although these are very real and worthy of discussion — I want to focus on what we as individuals can do now to help ourselves. My goal is to empower other students by sharing the lessons that I learned during my Ph.D., the knowledge that I wish I had known when starting my Ph.D. journey.
- The right advisor matters more than the right school. I have spoken to many potential graduate students who want to go to a specific school because of its location or prestige or the reputation of a particular department. However, when talking to prospective students (regardless of their mental health status), I strongly caution against this attitude. In my experience, the quality of advisor can make or break a student’s graduate experience. This is especially true for students with a mental health disability. Finding an academic advisor who understands your disability and how it impacts you as a student will drastically increase your likelihood of finishing your degree. For me, it took a few years, but I was eventually lucky enough to find advisors who were unwaveringly accepting of me and supportive of my academic endeavors. They offered both practical support and emotional support. For example, when a new medication made writing difficulty, they suggested that I use a dictation software, which was immensely helpful. They also constantly reminded me that people with mental illness can succeed in academia. This change in advisors made a huge difference in both my happiness and productivity as a graduate student. If you end up in an unhealthy advisor-advisee relationship, then I suggest changing advisors if at all possible. If changing advisors is not possible, then try to find additional faculty besides your advisor who can serve as mentors.
- If possible, have a support team in place before you arrive. Moving is stressful for everyone. Moving is often even more stressful for people with mental illness. A brand-new environment combined with changes to one’s daily routine can be disruptive and difficult if you struggle with mental health issues. In addition to a new physical environment, you will probably need to adjust to a new health care plan. Most students with a mental illness will need to find a new therapist and/or psychiatrist when they move somewhere new to begin their graduate degree. Depending upon where you go, you may face long waiting lists. If possible, call before you move and ask to be put on a therapist’s/doctor’s waiting list. Also, if you take medication, be sure to bring extra medication with you when you move. Keep in mind that it may take several months before you have access to new prescriptions, and you want to be prepared. The last thing you want is to begin your graduate school journey without your necessary medication. If all of this seems stressful or overwhelming, then consider asking a family member, friend, or your current medical team to help. If I had put together a treatment plan before I arrived at graduate school, then I might have been able to avoid a medical leave.
- Student Disability Services (SDS) is your friend. I made the mistake of waiting several years before seeking disability accommodations. Like many graduate students, I did not realize that graduate students could receive accommodations; I believed that accommodations were limited to undergraduate students. However, this is not the case. All students at an educational institution are eligible for disability accommodations, including graduate students. The specific accommodations a student receives are tailored to their diagnosis and needs. For example, I received different accommodations for teaching, research, and coursework. Some of my accommodations included conducting research from home when I felt unwell and recording meetings during mood episodes (which are often accompanied by forgetfulness). However, it is essential to understand that accommodations are flexible and malleable. Accommodations can be updated each semester as your schedule and obligations change.
- Practice self-compassion. I started a mindfulness meditation practice while in graduate school, which I found tremendously helpful. However, even if meditation is not for you, I promise that self-compassion is. I highly recommend the book Self-Compassion by Kristin Neff. This book was life changing for me. As academics, we are practically trained to be hard on ourselves. We constantly receive critical feedback, and this criticism can easily become ingrained in our inner self-talk. When you add a mental health disability to the mix, it can be a recipe for disaster. By practicing self-compassion, we can learn to treat ourselves the way we would treat a good friend. Learning to be a friend to myself and to be kind to myself when I made mistakes (which is an inevitable part of graduate training), helped me get through some of my darkest times in graduate school.
- Learn to advocate for yourself. The biggest lesson I learned in graduate school was that I need to advocate for myself. When I faced unintentional discrimination, I had to gently but confidently explain my legal rights to people who had a lot more power than I did. This was scary! It takes courage to communicate your needs clearly and assertively, but it is a skill worth developing. Early on, I recommend spending some time familiarizing yourself with your university’s policies around mental health and accommodations. Also, a rudimentary understanding of disability law will come in handy more often than you suspect. For example, if you live in the United States, The Americans with Disabilities Act is relevant, and if you live in the United Kingdom, The Equality Act is relevant. Most other countries have similar laws protecting individuals with disabilities. Lastly, remember that no one knows you better than you know yourself. If you feel like something is not working for you, then you have the right to say so. You always deserve to be treated with dignity and respect; do not settle for less.
Completing a graduate degree is challenging for all students. After all, if it were easy, everyone would do it. But, for individuals with a mental illness, completing a graduate degree can feel like an insurmountable task. However, it is possible. Individuals with mental illness may be underrepresented within academia, but we do exist. Never forget that you deserve to be where you are. You submitted the same application as everyone else, went through the same review process, and are completing the same milestones. Do not let anyone convince you otherwise — and some may try! I promise that you belong. If a graduate degree is what you truly want, then you can achieve it.
Ashley Ransom completed her Ph.D. in developmental psychology at Cornell University and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto. Her research examines early emotional development and how children acquire new information from others. In addition to her research, she is passionate about mental health advocacy and aims to use her experiences with bipolar disorder to help and to educate others.