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From Academia to Activism: Why Grad-School Made Me Speak Out

By: Sophie Prosolek

When I started grad-school I was full of optimism. I was 21 years old and I had just graduated with a strong first class honours from a good university; I skipped the MSc, easily securing a place straight onto a prestigious PhD programme where I was to spend 4 years studying the scientific art of molecular biology. However, behind a thin veil of success I was locked in a constant battle with (then undiagnosed) bipolar(II) disorder.

Back then, I was unaware of academia’s ‘mental health crisis’ and didn’t fully appreciate the double edged sword that bipolar disorder could be. Over the course of my (ongoing) PhD, I’ve realised that the pressures of academia often stop students speaking out about matters of mental health. I have decided to ‘come out’ as bipolar in order to increase awareness, promote inclusivity, and encourage others who might be thinking of an academic career.

Here’s my personal story from academia to activism:

I started my PhD in October 2015. Of course I expected grad school to be tough, but I started my new degree with a healthy confidence and I really enjoyed my work. I tried hard to put my past ‘meltdowns’ behind me and was determined to be the personification of functionality in my new role. Other students would say “have you had your first year breakdown yet?”. But I was coasting on a wave of wellbeing and never really took this comment seriously, “I’m not going to breakdown”, I thought, “not anymore”. To be honest I think there was a part of me that was pleased to be working in a sector where other people had regular breadowns too. “For once I’m normal” I thought, and that gave me a strange sense of confidence.

It wasn’t until I did have my first year breakdown that I realised how much of a problem mental illness was within academia. It was Autumn 2016, I had been back and forth on two consecutive conferences, taken on countless extracurricular activities and found myself living alone for the first time in 4 years. I had a breakdown - my first year breakdown.

I’d been able to keep my episodes under wraps during my undergraduate degree, but now for the first time I actually had to show some consistency with my line manager keeping a watchful eye on my productivity. In other words, for the first time in my life people noticed there was really something wrong.

My colleagues noticed that something was wrong, but they brushed it off. They brushed it off because a PhD is tough and “everyone has a first year breakdown”; maybe I just wasn’t cut out to be a doctor? But I knew it was nothing to do with my PhD, I knew this had been happening since I was a child. Nonetheless my capability came under question and for a short time it looked like I would have to resign from my PhD studies. That’s when I decided to ‘come out’ as bipolar.

Sharing the fact that I’d been diagnosed with bipolar wasn’t easy, but I needed to ‘come out’ in order for my breakdown to be understood as part of my condition, not part of my studies. I needed to ‘come out’ so that I wasn’t just another statistic of poor grad student mental health, but more importantly so that people realised bipolar isn’t barrier, that I can be as capable as anyone else with the correct understanding and support.  

I started speaking openly about my condition online, hoping that someone would come forward with an understanding of what I was going through. Despite academia’s ‘mental health crisis’ being widely reported in the media, very few people seemed willing to talk about bipolar disorder. Whilst researching some facts and figures I stumbled across the RAND report, a systematic review which outlines the prevalence of mental health in academia. I was shocked, but not surprised, to read that depression is almost 3 x more prevalent amongst academics than the general population. Interestingly, bipolar was reported to occur no more frequently (about 4%) than in the general population. This explained a lot; it explained why everyone had assumed my episode was work related, because the challenge of bipolar is dwarfed by the challenge of work-related mental ill health.    

Since speaking openly about my mental health I’ve received some really positive feedback. On several occasions colleagues have confided in me confidentially about their own personal battles with both mental and physical illness, and it feels really great to know I’m someone approachable to talk to. Not only does this remind me that I did the right thing in sharing my story, it reminds me that not everyone is ready to ‘come out’ yet. So for now, I will keep raising awareness for those friends and allies who still wish to remain anonymous.

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