Wherefore a blog: Tackling mental health in academia

Mental illness—I have one.

And I am not ashamed.

I’ve lived with mental illness for the better part of a decade now. And as for academia? I, without exaggeration, eat, sleep and breathe it. (Well, maybe not eat it… though, I did once chew some notes out of frustration! But I digress…) So why now, all of a sudden, have I been moved to launch a blog concerning the collision of these worlds? As with many of our grander ideas, it began with a faint inkling: a firefly against the grey backdrop of the day’s doldrums………

…….Time to mark papers. Dammit! Still haven’t prepared for that class tomorrow. Maybe I should start a mental health blog… Heavens to Murgatroyd! Does Billy know what a comma is?!……….

Or, something like that, anyway… At any rate, vague ideas gathered as dust on a tumbleweed, but even still, nary a blog was…blogged.

Now, because I am a philosopher and so do nothing simply, my inciting incidences were two in number:

(1) teaching undergraduates for the first time

(2) a particularly nasty week of my own.

I’ll take each of these in turn.

1. Teaching Undergraduates

As a graduate student, I’ve experienced my fair share of clashes between my mental illness and my academic career. I’ve also witnessed friends and close peers experience similar such misadventures. Then, upon commencing my doctoral studies, I took on some all-important undergraduate teaching responsibilities. As an instructor—or “tutor”—at Cambridge, I see students in numbers of 1-10. To any teacher, this is nothing short of a blessing. And, while they may not always think so, it is also a blessing for those 1-10 students: no one can hide.

I was—naively—prepared to open eyes and minds to the scintillating annuls of philosophy. Instead, it was my eyes that were opened. Or, more appropriately, re-opened. Standing at the front of the classroom, fresh chalk at the ready, what I saw saddened me: my students were terrified. Terrified of failure.

Now, it is the exception to the rule when a student is forthcoming about the challenges they’re experiencing. Nevertheless, one of my students eventually, and shame-facedly, admitted to having difficulty keeping up.

“You have nothing to worry about,” I told them. “Your work is excellent!”

That was the wrong answer. Or, at least, only half of the right one.

“I understand,” I should have said. “I know how you feel,” I eventually did say.

What I see from the front of the classroom saddens me because I watch as too many of my students—my students—suffer silently, convinced that they are somehow to blame for their situation. Convinced that they are weak for facing a challenge beyond their control. Convinced that there is shame in revealing their troubles.

This blog is my attempt to reach out to more of those students—or, at least, more than I could from the front of a classroom alone.

“Have you heard of University Counselling Services?” I ask one of them.

“No.” I see it in their face: the hackles are already up. I don’t need help!

“They’re terrific,” I continue anyway. “They’ve helped me out a lot.”

2. My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day 

I said before there were two events that motivated the inauguration of this blog. This second of these is decidedly more personal. The week of April 1st was a week most trying. And if you were to have asked me why, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Our minds can be spectacularly opaque to us at times… But, one way or another, the week of April 1st was a no good, very bad week. And because I made the very biggest of mistakes, April 5th was a terrible day indeed.

My mistake?

I didn’t make a phone call.

You might be asking yourself what could possibly be so bad about that? Well, pace Austen, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that when we’re at our worst, we feel the most alone. And it is also a truth—though, regrettably, one less well acknowledged—that our worst decisions can often be avoided if only we would dare to see that we aren’t alone at all.

Thankfully, my decision was rather benign in its consequences. Still, it was one best avoided. And avoid it I did not.

But that’s not the worst of it.

The worst of it is I chose not to make that phone call. I was too ashamed to tell someone.

So, at last, we arrive at the second motivation for this project: this blog represents my promise never again to succumb to shame where shame is not due.

Mental illness—I have one.

And I am not ashamed.


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