Katie Rose Guest Pryal

Novelist and Essayist at Chronicle Vitae

On Faculty and Mental Illness

Full vitae mentalhealthhelp front

Image: iStock

Usually when I write on the subject of working in academe with a psychiatric disability, it’s about all the difficulties — of public disclosure, of seeking accommodations, of working when your brain isn’t. Often what I present seems like an uphill battle for faculty, staff, and graduate students.

Today, however, I come with some good news: Finally, a resource guide has been published that focuses specifically on how to deal with psychiatric disabilities in the academic workplace. The free guidePromoting Supportive Academic Environments for Faculty With Mental Illnesses — is the culmination of many years of research.

What follows is a Q&A (edited for clarity and brevity) with one of the guide’s authors, Margaret Price, an associate professor of English at Ohio State University. With the recent high-profile suicide of the beloved professor Will Moore at Arizona State University, and the prevalence of mental-health problems among graduate students and others in academe, this resource guide — if it’s put to good use by institutions — will be invaluable.

Who is the guide for?

Margaret Price: It’s written with an audience of higher-education administrators, staff, and faculty in mind. Since writing my (2013) book, Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life, I’m often asked to speak on the topic, "What would you recommend our campus do in order to be more welcoming for people with mental-health issues?" There are pretty good mental-health resources available for students, but before this guide was published, not really anything for faculty. That was our aim — to try to create a guide that offered data-driven recommendations for inclusion of faculty with mental disabilities.

One of the big challenges we faced was that we didn’t want to offer a blueprint or checklist that implied, "Here are the best practices, and if you do this X number of things, you’ll be finished and you’ll never need to think about mental-health inclusion again." The project of inclusion is more complicated than that. It’s more about long-term practices than a one-off event.

But at the same time, we understand that the audience we were trying to reach does want concrete recommendations that will lead to specific outcomes. So we had to try to strike a kind of balance between being very practical, but also making it clear that we can’t offer a sure-fire checklist.

What was the source of the data behind the guide’s recommendations?

Price: The guide was first imagined by Mark Salzer and Rick Baron at the Temple University Collaborative on Community Inclusion. The center’s purpose is to do research and distribute resources on how to include people with psychiatric disabilities in communities of all kinds — including the academic workplace. In 2012-13, Mark and I conducted a surveyof faculty members who self-identified as having mental-health histories and/or mental-health disabilities. We knew, through our research, that there was essentially no large-scale research investigating the experiences or needs of this group.

What really grabbed my attention — before we did the survey — was that there were a lot of anecdotal accounts from academics with mental disabilities. And a common refrain was that these faculty almost all seemed to feel that they were the only one out there. As recently as 2012, Rochelle Skogen in the Harvard Educational Review disclosed her mental illnessand stated that "mine is but one voice on a lonely landscape." She didn’t refer to any other first-person accounts of professors with mental illnesses, despite the fact that there were quite a few.

And then, three years after Skogen’s article, when Peter Railton (a professor at the University of Michigan) announced in a major speech to the American Philosophical Association that he had depression, it was similarly treated like a unique bombshell of information — something no one had done before. No one seemed to be drawing the lines between these repeated and ongoing individual disclosures.

One of the guide’s foundational principles is the notion of a "culture of access." Can you explain that concept a little more?

Price: We got the phrase from a 2014 article — "Creating a Culture of Access in Composition Studies" — that describes "an expectation that accessibility is a defining feature of our composing processes and our professional practices."

A culture of access for employees with psychiatric disabilities requires a culture of shared accountability for making that access a reality. The thing is, you can have the most thorough resource guide in the world, and you can dutifully implement every recommendation it makes, but unless the culture of your institution includes a sense of shared accountability — basically, of giving a crap about those you work with and share space with, of noticing when you might need to intervene, of when you need to take an extra moment to listen or care or try something new on another person’s behalf — then access just won’t work. Or, at least, it won’t work as well as it could if all the participants in the situation are sharing a sense of wanting to make it work together.

What prompted you to make this suggestion: "Ensure that information about how and where to obtain accommodations is readily available without faculty members having to ask?"

Price: That suggestion stemmed from one of the most distressing findings early in my research about disabled faculty — namely, that faculty are almost never given information about disability accommodations, but rather almost always have to hunt it down themselves. That issue came up over and over again in survey responses, and it’s also often referred to in first-person accounts by disabled faculty members.

It makes me very angry — especially if faculty members find themselves humiliated by having to ask about how to get help with seeking accommodations. There’s just no need for that. Moreover, if you as a faculty member have to ask more than one person, you are effectively being forced to disclose your disability over and over again.

As the guide mentions, many of its recommendations would help all faculty members, not just those with mental illness. Tell us more about that.

Price: At bottom, the recommendations — things like flexible scheduling, attention to what kind of environment people need in order to work well, clear expectations about accessibility, responsive chains of communication, accountable leadership — would benefit anyone. It’s not really rocket science; a lot of it is just what we think of as "an institution working well." The basic principle we espouse is the same one that underlies universal design: When an object, a space, or a system is well designed, it meets the needs of a wide range of participants, and it also responds to new needs that come up by shifting and adapting.

An example is our recommendation that a sheet of basic information should be available about every faculty member in case of an emergency — not just who to contact, and how, but also suggestions on how best to cover for the faculty member if he or she is unexpectedly absent from teaching or other duties. If a faculty member chooses, this sheet could also include more detailed information about physicians or counselors to contact, about who can pick up their kids at school, and so forth.

The key: If all faculty have a plan like that in place, everyone will benefit from being able to fill in more smoothly in cases of unexpected crisis and absence — and, meanwhile, mental illness is not tacitly assumed to be the only reason a faculty member might have a "crisis."

The guide reads: "Do not pinpoint ‘crises’ as always being driven by mental illness; something as simple as needing to miss work suddenly due to a sick child may cause a minor crisis for a faculty member, one that could be usefully addressed by this sheet." Our point is that adults have crises all the time. Having to miss work to help an elderly parent is, in its way, a small crisis. If it’s acknowledged that crises are inevitable, faculty and administrators will be better able to help each other, and the stigma surrounding absence due to mental illness will hopefully be lessened.

Join the Conversation

1 Comment

Log In or Sign Up to leave a comment.