Neuroscientists and psychologists are moving toward a deeper appreciation of our inherent human neurodiversity. We all have different abilities. The majority are neurotypical – or statistically “normal” – while others are statistically rarer.
For one of us, Ashley, a graduate student with bipolar disorder, her brain falls into this “statistically rare” category. While her particular neurodiversity may have benefits—bipolar disorder is associated with heightened creativity—she faces challenges that the average graduate student doesn’t. Bipolar disorder is characterized by mild episodes of depression and mania that interfere with daily functioning.
You’d think graduate training would become impossible during these episodes, but Ashley discovered otherwise. His academic work has kept him grounded and gives him purpose. With the help of her academic advisors Adam and Eve, the co-authors of this piece, she has developed strategies that allow her to work through mood episodes so that her progression to a doctorate. is unimpeded.
For students with a mental health disability, join a Ph.D. program can feel like tricking fate and completing the program like a Sisyphean task. Yet students like Ashley bring distinct life experiences and perspectives to academic work, and this diversity should be valued and perhaps even celebrated. Student mental health is receiving increased attention, and although most universities look to student health centers for support, academic advisors are in the most influential position to help graduate students who have a mental health disorder. Working together to produce meaningful and impactful work can be a rewarding experience for both counselor and counselee.
Here we present five support strategies that academic advisors can use when working with graduate students with mental health issues. These strategies are based on our collective experiences as a graduate student and academic advisors. While it is important to support the mental health of all students, we focus on students who are living with a chronic mental health issue. We hope that our lived experiences can benefit other students and the faculty members who mentor them.
Use services for students with disabilities. Involving Services for Students with Disabilities, or SDS, early on is valuable for students and Faculty. Although a counselor and counselor have a thriving collaboration, securing formal housing protects everyone involved.
In our experience, teachers can feel pressured by SDS. Some professors feel that the request for accommodation reflects their mentorship and that they are viewed as unsupportive. In reality, it is about the needs of the student rather than the shortcomings of the mentor. Others fear losing their autonomy as to how best to guide their intern to success when a student receives an accommodation. In reality, SDS helps students and faculty compromise and work together to navigate the difficult but rewarding journey of earning a graduate degree while juggling disability.
The accommodations are not set in stone. They may be updated periodically as a student’s changing needs change. Through Services for Students with Disabilities, students can access academic support that alleviates some of the challenges of working with an intellectual disability.
Learn about mental health. “Mental health” is a broad term, and mental illnesses vary in 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 asking 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 often stereotyped (eg, the person wearing a tinfoil hat) and most are misunderstood (eg, bipolar disorder mistakenly 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 issue, you can better understand their challenges and support them more effectively. the National Alliance on Mental Illness is an excellent resource for this purpose.
Interrogate. If a student has mental health issues, simply ask, “How can I help you?” This question is unbiased and direct. Some faculty members are reluctant to address mental health issues for fear of embarrassing students, but this attitude is problematic because it perpetuates the idea that mental illness is shameful.
There is 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 showing compassion. Everyone is different. What is useful to one student may not be to another, and what is useful now may not be so later. Some students are reluctant to actively seek the support of an advisor. By bringing up the subject, a counselor gives students the chance to communicate their needs in a safe space. Even if a student says there is nothing to do, just asking is very encouraging.
Focus on work. The primary goal of an advisor should be to support a student’s scholarship, which can lead to a successful and fulfilling career. Although it may seem counterintuitive, college work can be a welcome respite from mental health symptoms for some students. It can provide structure and meaning for students who are struggling in other areas of their lives.
Thus, helping a student progress on a project, for example by giving them additional feedback, is a great way to provide support during an episode of mental health. A student’s scholarship doesn’t have to be a stressor. On the contrary, it can be an antidote to despair 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 a counselor can give a student is to teach them to find joy in their work.
Practice flexibility. The best way to support students with mental health issues is to practice flexibility. This differs from Disability Services accommodations, which are a set of guidelines for specific situations, such as when a student misses class because they are not feeling well. Flexibility is a mindset that grants students with a mental health disorder greater freedom in where and how desired outcomes are achieved.
For example, a student who suffers from schizophrenia may find it difficult to work on campus when exhibiting mental health symptoms. The ability to work from home, where their symptoms are not on public display, may allow them to continue to progress. Likewise, a student in the midst 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 low-key mental health episodes, but also in day-to-day business. Some students with a mental health disorder may 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 advisors have the same goal: they both want to produce high-quality, impactful scientific work. By practicing flexibility, counselors can increase the likelihood that a student will achieve this common goal.
Academia increasingly celebrates diversity and inclusiveness, but mental health often remains taboo. Why are we so afraid to recognize that not all brains work the same? The brain that produces delusions and hallucinations can also be the one that inspires research ideas and creates art. University students with mental health disabilities are very capable, but urgently need positive role models. There is a severe lack of academics speaking openly and publicly about their mental health. If you are an academic who has experienced mental illness, consider sharing your own story. By doing so, you demonstrate that mental illness need not preclude an academic career.
Universities are in a distinct position to promote diversity and inclusivity in mental health by providing a pathway to higher education. When graduate students with mental health issues drop out of academia, we lose irreplaceable voices. The support of a counselor can be the difference between a student completing their degree and finding a life of goal-oriented work versus dropping out. Most importantly, the support of a counselor allows students with mental health issues to share their diverse contributions to knowledge. Rather than a life defined by illness, people with mental disabilities can lead lives enriched by intellectual and creative pursuits that benefit everyone.