Mental Health Redux

About a year ago I disclosed my depression to the interwebs. It seems timely to revisit the topic.

On the whole, telling people about my depression was a positive experience. My colleagues were very supportive. I made new friends as people reached out to have lunch and talk about mental health, science fiction, and cooking. I didn’t hear any official reaction, but through the grapevine came rumbles of my blog post triggering discussions in various student support groups throughout the university.

Despite my positive experiences, disclosure isn’t the right move for everyone. I am so lucky to be surrounded by nice people. But someone else may not be in such a safe place. I am also at a point in my career where I can remain successful even if some people choose not to work with me because of my mental health issues, or my public stance on those issues. I may have lost research opportunities because of my previous post, and this one won’t help. I’m OK with that; I’ve got enough to do, and I need to say “No” a lot more.

One thing I didn’t anticipate was the number of people who wanted to talk to me about their mental health. I listened attentively, encouraged them to seek professional help, and worked my butt off trying not to get attached to their outcomes. I have a much greater appreciation for the work of therapists and counselors now. After every meeting I wonder about what I said, what should I have said, did I do enough? I’ll still say yes every time I’m asked.

Creating an environment of access

One of the recommendations for improving mental health in Academia is to create a “culture of access”. There are several components to this, but one piece is organizing events that discuss mental disabilities as an expected and important area of faculty and student support. So when the Natural Resources Diversity Initiative invited me to lead a discussion on mental health during fall semester, I thought it was great idea. I was feeling so much better, and it seemed doable. It turned out great, but the week before I was an anxious wreck. Normally when I speak in public I am an expert in the topic. My only qualification was personal experience.

I asked for suggestions on Twitter – that turned out to be a mixed benefit. On the one hand, lots of supportive replies to just tell my story, and it’ll be great. On the other were outright critical replies telling me to turn it over to a mental health professional, or worrying that graduate student complaints would dilute the lived experience of genuinely ill people. I left Twitter alone for the better part of a month after that.

The thing is, we’ve had presentations from “the proper authorities.” This was my colleagues saying “we want even more discussion!” I reached out to our university Counseling and Psychological Services about this discussion and got no reply – they are swamped. And at the meeting a few genuinely ill people spoke up and shared their experience. People get it. This isn’t about graduate student whining. This is about realizing that mental health is as important as physical health. I adapted some material I found on the CAPS website to a “myth or fact” activity. I told my story, did the exercise, and let the discussion flow after that. It went really well.

During the discussion one of my colleagues asked a great question to which I had no answer. Paraphrased, “What do we do when a student suffers depression, and is unable to complete the work required by the funding agency?” I’ve since realized the question itself reflects the stigma attached to mental health. The answer is, the same thing you’d do if the student was diagnosed with cancer,or became pregnant! Mental disability isn’t any different from a physical illness or condition that leaves a student unable to complete the work. In fact, with proper support and treatment, a mentally ill student may well be able to complete the work. The “proper support” is where mental health professionals play a key role.

There is a lot of work left to do on improving the environment at UNL and academia generally. I will keep trying to do my part.


Last summer a colleague was diagnosed with cancer. Joe Dauer and I took over the Intro ecology course to allow our colleague to focus on healing and recovery. I was doing well and it seemed like a doable thing, co-teaching ecology and organizing the ecology lab at the same time. I was super-excited to teach with Joe, one of the educational research faculty at UNL. I expected to learn a lot. I wasn’t disappointed! It was an awesome experience. Unfortunately it was also a little too much.

I’d also agreed to organize the ecology lab for the spring semester on top of my regular teaching. It was a good idea, really. We need to bring the fall and spring versions into greater alignment, and having me take over the spring semester as well would facilitate that. I was self-aware enough to recognize that a second semester of double teaching would do me in, so I had started working with John, my boss, to delegate and transfer some other responsibilities. I made it through the fall semester, but once grades were in, the pressure came off, and my mood slipped day by day.

The random crying jags struck about four days after I turned in my grades. On a whim, I stopped in to see John and update him on my plans for the spring semester. What I didn’t plan on was bursting into tears in his office. I left with strict orders that I would not be teaching ecology lab or doing several other things this spring.

I arranged an emergency visit with my counselor. It was only five minutes into the conversation when he asked if I would check myself in to the psychiatric ward at our local hospital. That really drove home how bad I was. More discussion of that option revealed I wasn’t actively suicidal, so not needed, but ouch. That was a wake up call for sure.

Next stop, back to my GP to see about medication. I sat there, twitching1, rubbing my hands together anxiously, barely holding back tears while describing the situation to the nurse. My GP took one look and started me on a low dose of an atypical anti-psychotic2. Remarkably, that shut off the depression symptoms like flipping a switch. Unfortunately I was tired and foggy all the time. I started working with a psychiatrist to review and evaluate all my medication, hopeful that an effective combination with few side effects can be found. I was really tired of the merry-go-round.

One clear positive note in all this: counselling helps. One of the questions to diagnose depression is something to the effect of “Do you have thoughts of worthlessness?” When the nurses asked me this, I had to stop and think. I was amazed to realize the answer was no, none. Not one. That’s the counselling. Unreasonable sadness, check. Suicidal ideation, check. But I don’t think I’m worthless. Medication plus counseling. It just works.

Current State and the Future

I’m experiencing some fairly immediate improvements from a couple of medication changes. But I’ve often had short term gains followed by long term mediocrity, so the jury is still out. The changes are based on a genetic test which I’ll write about elsewhere. But I’m kind of excited.

My counselor reminds me often that thoughts create reality. A friend reminded me that words are thoughts pinned in space-time by sound or text. I want to create a reality of health, so here’s what that looks like. My “quietly confident”3 mind generates new ideas and readily produces clear descriptions of those ideas. I get through an 8 hour day with energy and motivation to spare. I use that excess energy to spend quality time with friends and family, and on activities that refresh me. I have the willpower to exercise daily. I manage my time effectively, helping others, but also making time to do the things that advance my interests.

Wellness is a process. I’m struggling now, but on an upward path. I’ve surrounded myself with living things4, and my family is close at hand. I am hopeful5.

  1. These are sharp, sudden spasms of a majority of muscles in my upper body. They are particularly likely when I bump into something or someone touches me, but happened all the time. Involuntary twitching is normal right before sleep, or occasionally when awake, but frequent twitches are a sign something is off.

  2. My GP took pains to point out that I wasn’t psychotic!

  3. This phrase comes from the Headspace app I use for mindfulness meditation.

  4. Mushrooms, yeast, and lactic acid bacteria are alive! Our windows block too much light to grow plants indoors. I plan to start some outdoor herb planters as the weather warms up. And there is always this critter.

  5. Kelly Helm-Smith and Peter Allman read early drafts of this post and it is immeasurably better as a result.

Andrew Tyre
Professor of Wildlife Ecology
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