The Cost of Mental Illness: Stigma & Bullying in Academia

A few years ago I was very ill. I was depressed. It’s hard to admit it even now, but I was suicidal. It took a lot of time to get well again. First, my GP tried playing around with my drugs, putting me on a higher dose of one, taking me off it when it didn’t work, and then trying me on another. When that didn’t help, she referred me to a psychiatrist. I had to wait to see him. He put me on a different regime of drugs, and as he upped the dose I finally began to see some colour and to find my way back into a world where I wanted to live.

Working with my GP and then the psychiatrist was a lengthy process, and it was a time during which I was not fit or well enough to be at my job in a university. I was written off for month after month. Colleagues bore the brunt of my absence and I was grateful to them. Arrangements were made for temporary cover and a new colleague was brought in on a fixed-term contract to replace me. My teaching and administration were covered. Luckily, my research was in a phase where I was meant to be writing and the only loser was me.

This all sounds very supportive, but I was in for a shock when I came back to work. It was made abundantly clear that I had lost the confidence of my line management. Up to the point at which I was signed off sick I had performed well in my role. My annual reviews were positive affairs highlighting the contribution that I made to the work of my unit. I felt valued and appreciated. But that all changed when I came back from sick leave. I was tarnished: I was perceived as a malingerer taking time out at the university’s expense. I was told that the bottom line was the unit’s budget, and that it didn’t balance because of me. Mental illness had no place in this university workplace. It was an unprofitable inconvenience.

There began a period of what I now with hindsight see as bullying. It didn’t seem to matter what I said or did, but it was wrong and I was continually called to account. I was commissioned to undertake a very small piece of work for another unit in the university. It didn’t take much time, an afternoon at most, and was exactly the kind of collaborative work that most universities are crying out for. I was threatened with being disciplined for undertaking this project. Had anyone else in the unit been asked to do this work it would have been lauded as a great example of good practice and innovative working. I started a course, entirely in my own time and for my own professional development, and was called to account for that. Every suggestion I made about new initiatives or new directions was dismissed. I felt completely de-skilled and robbed of the professional pride I have always taken in my work. It was very damaging for my hard-fought for recovery. Stigma cast a very long shadow over my professional life.

My story has a happy ending. I got a new job and was able to resign with dignity. My psychiatrist discharged me around this time and in his letter he specifically said that he thought my new job would be very positive for my mental health. He’s been proven correct: the move has been terrific for me. But the long shadow of my previous employer continues to haunt me. I’m constantly on edge that I’ll dip again and lose the support of my new colleagues. After all, I’ve been there before.