Supporting grad students with mental health disabilities (opinion)

Neuroscientists and psychologists are moving toward a deeper appreciation of our inherent human neurodiversity. We are all differently abled. The majority are neurotypical—or statistically “normal”—while others are more statistically rare.

For one of us, Ashley, a graduate student with bipolar disorder, her brain falls into this “statistically rare” category. Although her particular neurodiversity may have advantages—bipolar disorder is associated with enhanced creativity—she faces challenges that the average graduate student does not. Bipolar disorder is characterized by discrete episodes of depression and mania that interfere with daily functioning.

One might think that graduate training would become impossible during these episodes, but Ashley has found the opposite to be true. Her academic work has kept her grounded and gives her purpose. With the help of her academic advisers Adam and Eve, the co-authors of this piece, she has developed strategies that allow her to work during mood episodes so that her progress toward a Ph.D. is unimpeded.

For students with a mental health disability, joining a Ph.D. program can feel like cheating fate and completing the program like a Sisyphean task. Yet students like Ashley bring distinct life experiences and perspectives to academic work, and that diversity should be valued and perhaps even celebrated. Student mental health is receiving increased attention, and while most universities look to student health centers to provide support, academic advisers are in the most influential position to help graduate students who have a mental health disability. Working together to produce meaningful and impactful work can be a gratifying experience for both adviser and advisee.

Here, we present five support strategies that academic advisers can use when working with graduate students with a mental health disability. These strategies are based on our collective experiences as a graduate student and academic advisers. Although it is important to support all students’ mental health, our focus is on students who live with a chronic mental health disorder. We hope our lived experiences can benefit other students and the faculty members who mentor them.

Utilize student disability services. Involving student disability services, or SDS, early on is valuable to both students and faculty. Even if an adviser and advisee have a thriving collaboration, obtaining official accommodations protects everyone involved.

In our experience, faculty can feel pressured by SDS. Some faculty feel like the request for accommodations is a reflection of their mentorship and that they are being cast as unsupportive. In reality, this is about the student’s needs rather than any mentor shortcomings. Others worry they will lose their autonomy in how to best guide their trainee to be successful when a student is given accommodations. In reality, SDS helps students and faculty compromise and work together to navigate the difficult but rewarding journey of obtaining a graduate degree while juggling a disability.

Accommodations are not set in stone. They can be updated periodically as a student’s needs change. Through student disability services, students can access academic support that mitigates some of the difficulties of working with a mental health disability.

Educate yourself about mental health. “Mental health” is a broad term, and mental illnesses vary in their severity and impact on graduate training. A student with schizoaffective disorder encounters different obstacles than a student with generalized anxiety disorder. If a student discloses their diagnosis, consider learning about their specific disorder. Long hours of research are not necessary; a little knowledge goes a long way toward understanding a student’s lived experience.

Mental illnesses are commonly stereotyped (e.g., the person in a tinfoil hat), and most are misunderstood (e.g., bipolar disorder inaccurately equated with mood swings). Many of us have been depressed or anxious at some point, but the majority of people will never experience a psychotic or dissociative episode. By understanding your student’s mental health disorder, you can better understand their struggles and support them most effectively. The National Alliance for Mental Illness is a great resource for this purpose.

Ask. If a student is struggling with their mental health, simply ask, “How can I support you?” This question is dispassionate and direct. Some faculty members are disinclined to address mental health issues for fear of embarrassing students, but that attitude is problematic because it perpetuates the idea that mental illness is shameful.

There’s no need for a long and difficult conversation, and the goal is not to serve as a therapist. Rather, the goal is to gather information while also demonstrating compassion. Everyone is different. What is useful to one student may not be useful to another, and what is useful at one point in time may be less useful later on. Some students are hesitant to actively seek an adviser’s support. By broaching the subject, an adviser gives students the chance to communicate their needs in a safe space. Even if a student says there’s nothing to do, the simple act of asking is a highly supportive one.

Focus on the work. An adviser’s primary focus should be on supporting a student’s scholarship, which can lead to a successful and fulfilling career. Although it may sound counterintuitive, academic work can be a welcome reprieve from mental health symptoms for some students. It can provide structure and meaning for students who are facing difficulties in other areas of their life.

Thus, helping a student make progress on a project by, for instance, giving extra feedback is an excellent way to provide assistance during a mental health episode. A student’s scholarship does not have to be a stressor. Rather, it can be an antidote to hopelessness and give them direction and a sense of accomplishment. By supporting a student’s academic progress, you are also supporting their mental health. In fact, the greatest gift an adviser can give a student is to teach them to find joy in their work.

Practice flexibility. The best way to support students with a mental health disability is to practice flexibility. This differs from student disability services accommodations, which are a set of guidelines for specific situations, such as when a student misses a class because they are feeling unwell. Flexibility is a mind-set that grants students with a mental health disability increased freedom in where and how desired outcomes are accomplished.

For example, a student who suffers from schizophrenia may find it difficult to work on campus when experiencing mental health symptoms. The ability to work from home, where one’s symptoms are not on public display, may allow them to continue making progress. Similarly, a student in the middle of a depressive episode may find it easier to correspond via email rather than in face-to-face meetings.

This flexibility is not only essential during discrete mental health episodes but also in day-to-day matters. Some students with a mental health disability can experience symptoms on a daily basis. Students may need to structure their work schedule around their medication schedule to minimize side effects interfering with their work. Students and advisers have the same goal: they both want to produce high-quality scholarly work of impact. By practicing flexibility, advisers can increase a student’s likelihood of achieving that shared goal.

Academe increasingly celebrates diversity and inclusivity, but mental health often remains taboo. Why are we so afraid to acknowledge that not all brains work the same way? The brain that produces delusions and hallucinations can also be the one that inspires research ideas and creates art. Students in academe with a mental health disability are highly able but are in dire need of positive role models. There is a severe lack of academics who speak openly and publicly about their mental health. If you are a scholar who has experienced mental illness, consider sharing your own story. In doing so, you demonstrate that mental illness need not preclude a scholarly career.

Universities are in a distinct position to promote mental health diversity and inclusivity by providing a pathway to higher education. When graduate students with a mental health disability give up on academe, we lose irreplaceable voices. An adviser’s support may be the difference between a student finishing their degree and finding a lifetime of purpose-driven work versus dropping out. Most important, an adviser’s support allows students with a mental health disability the opportunity to share their diverse contributions to knowledge. Rather than a life defined by illness, individuals with a mental health disability can lead lives enriched by intellectual and creative pursuits that benefit us all.