My time at Oxford has been filled with the usual Scholar activities: Studies, friendships, community service, cycling through the countryside, and drinking an embarrassing amount of coffee. Despite these overwhelmingly positive experiences, my time here has also included significant struggles with mental health. As I’ve spoken with friends and colleagues across universities, professions, and generations, I have realised these struggles are not unique and are worthy of open, honest discussion in our professional communities.
Before coming to Oxford, I’d experienced times of intense focus, enthusiasm, and energy followed by periods of exhaustion, sadness, and lethargy. These fluctuations in energy felt normal, and the highs were key to driving my intense involvement with community initiatives and research. However, my move to Oxford intensified these shifts in moods, making them more difficult to manage as the months passed. By mid-November of my second year, I found myself staring blankly at my doctor, who was referring me to a psychiatrist for Bipolar II Affective Disorder. Yikes.
Obviously, upon receiving my diagnosis, I did what every rational person does when faced with a pressing health issue.
I Googled it. A lot. Maniacally, even.
Unsurprisingly, my search results left me feeling pessimistic about my future as an academic and leader with bipolar disorder. Within my personal and professional spheres, conversations about mental well-being are in vogue, and many are willing to publish and speak about mental health in the abstract. However, examples of academics and professionals who manage mental illness and find success are, dare I say it, depressingly rare. Within professional and academic spaces, we appear, at least upon first glance, to be non-existent. I was crushed. After all, when jokes about a certain world leader’s “bipolar” personality abound, even among my Oxford and Rhodes classmates, what did it mean for my ability to live, work, and thrive with mental illness? Did I even belong here?
Luckily, by the end of November, I was connected with Stephanie Dangel (Pennsylvania & University 1984). Stephanie is the Executive Director of the Innovation Practice Institute at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, a documentary film-maker, former clerk for the Supreme Court of the United States, and mother of three. Coincidentally, she is also bipolar. What an incredible representation of a full life with mental illness! Our friendship and conversations about managing life, work and mental health have helped me come to terms with my diagnosis and reach a place of delightful stability and focus. Stephanie’s representation and mentorship have been invaluable in reminding me that I (and we) do, in fact, belong here.
However, in the months since my diagnosis, I’ve listened to numerous stories from other high-achieving students struggling with mental illness. It’s clear that dealing with the symptoms of mental illness is only one of many hurdles students must clear to find balance and success following diagnosis. Navigating stigma and the risks of disclosure is incredibly difficult for students and early-career professionals, and prevents us from seeking help. Further, fears about discrimination keep us from disclosing our diagnoses, which prevents representation of mental illness from materialising in professional spaces. Of course, barriers to care and representation are made worse through other layers of oppression, including race, gender, class, ability, and sexuality. These factors are particularly objectionable to ignore, given the role of structural trauma in the development of many mental illnesses. In the end, academics and professionals are left with poor representations of mental illness in our spheres and inadvertently uphold oppressive, mental health-damaging social norms around care and disclosure. Beyond the obvious negative impacts for those affected by mental illness, this stigma leaves us all worse-off, with publications, conferences, and committees with ever-more conversations about mental illness that only feature abstract, unfortunate, homogeneous, “others".
Drawing upon these themes, Stephanie and I recently spoke about mental illness, the changing environment of disclosure, managing work-life balance, and the importance of privileged, established professionals “coming out” with their mental health stories. We invite you to join the party.
CJ: What was your experience with mental health at Oxford?
S: My time before Oxford, like a lot of Scholars I suspect, was incredibly over-scheduled. I directed my mania in a positive way between studies and sports and community service. I kept myself on a very rigorous schedule. When I came to Oxford, I decided to relax, and I went to the other extreme. The lack of structure was hard. I let my studies lapse, I got myself involved in two very dysfunctional relationships, and I found myself drinking more than I ever had before.
CJ: [Laughs] I feel like that’s a pretty common Oxford experience! Were there conversations among Oxford students about mental health?
S: No. I did eventually seek out a therapist because I felt like I was losing control of my life. It was something I had to do on my own, and it wasn’t talked about. No one was really talking about mental health at all.
CJ: You were diagnosed much later. Can you talk about that?
S: After Oxford, I returned to directing my mania into my school and then my work life. But when I had children, it became more difficult to hide my illness. I had twins when I was forty, and six months later, I started having horrible panic attacks. It was constant, irrational fear. I was put on an anti-anxiety medicine, which helped for a while, but eventually, the anti-anxiety medication pushed me into a deep depression. I found it difficult to get out of bed, and when I did, I was short with my kids, snapping in a way that wasn’t at all productive. I couldn’t continue living that way. I had been in therapy and taking medication for ten years, but it wasn’t until a relative of mine was diagnosed bipolar, that I realised I shared the same symptoms. I went back to my therapist and psychiatric nurse and said, “I think I’m bipolar”.
CJ: How did the diagnosis [of bipolar disorder] change things for you?
S: Losing the manic side of my personality definitely means I’m not as professionally productive as I used to be, but I’m personally much happier. My children and my husband are also much happier, because I don’t have that manic, super-tense side of me. I do continue to do well in what I’m doing, but I am more in control of my life. Does it mean I’m a little less productive? Probably. But do I miss that side of my personality? No.
CJ: When I was diagnosed earlier this year, I thought, “Oh no! Who can I talk to who’s a successful professional and dealing with this?!”. Luckily I found you. Did you have anyone to talk to?
S: I had already been in therapy, so I had that outlet. My cousin had also been diagnosed as bipolar, so he became my go-to person. I knew he had come through it, and he continues to be really successful.
But I still find… I don’t hide [the bipolar diagnosis], but I don’t go out of the way to tell people at my work. I’ll discuss it if it comes up. My close friends know my situation, but beyond that I don’t publicly talk about it. I did share my diagnosis in a personal letter with my [Rhodes] classmates, but I got very few responses, so I have been hesitant to share my diagnosis publicly. But I am feeling more and more like I should. I’m surrounded by students now, many of whom I know struggle with some sort of mental health issue. I want them to know they’re not alone, and it can be treated.
CJ: Has your experience with mental illness given you a different perspective on life?
S: I think my struggles have certainly caused me to prioritise my personal life in a way I hadn’t before. Before my diagnosis, I was always hyper-scheduled, and the idea of relaxing on a vacation… I couldn’t do it! I even struggled to spend “fun” time with my family… I was always pushing for us to accomplish something. I can relax now, and I also think I can be creative, but I know how to channel it. I do a lot of writing, I’m helping to produce another documentary. But before, these things were all-consuming. Now I’m happy to work on them, but I don’t turn my life upside down for these projects.
CJ: [Laughs] This sounds like a good lesson for anyone, whether or not they’re bipolar!
S: [Laughs] Yes!
CJ: Through our friendship, you’ve given me advice on living with mental illness as a young professional and leader. Do you have any advice for other young Scholars or professionals?
S: Don’t wait for your life to be bordering on catastrophe to seek help. I think everyone could benefit from talking to a therapist. The sooner you talk about mental health issues, the better. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself. You know what you’re going through on a daily basis, so it’s important to be your own advocate. If you are struggling to be honest about it, really take the time to educate yourself and talk to other people who are going through it, so that you can help find the right help for yourself.
CJ: Anything else?
S: I think other Scholars need to be willing to share their stories. I have a feeling there are many, many people out there who are struggling with this and are afraid. If people who are as quote—unquote “successful” as we are become more willing to tell their stories, people who aren’t so “privileged” will know that they are not alone. I think until we are willing to be open about it, people are going to continue to suffer in silence.
CJ: I hope my generation faces less stigma around mental illness. But at the same time, as a young professional, it’s difficult to navigate wanting to present my story and be an advocate while also understanding that [disclosure] could hinder me professionally. That’s why it’s great to hear from people like you, who have lived lives fully, coming forward with your experiences.
S: Exactly, the only reason you and I were connected was because of that letter I sent to my class. Had I not sent that letter then, there’s no way we would have been connected.
CJ: Yes! I would have just been Googling all the grim things you find on the internet about being bipolar forever. Horrible! [Laughs]
S: Yes, and I think that people can also just share within their networks, saying, “Look, I don’t want this to be for public consumption, but if there are others struggling with this, please connect us.” My process of slowly coming out has been mostly waiting for someone else to struggle, and then telling my story. But even that can be beneficial.
CJ: Well, this is going to be very public! [Laughs]
S: Great, it’ll be our coming out party! [Laughs]
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Carley-Jane Stanton (Prairies & St Anne's 2016) is a DPhil candidate in Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. Her research explores mushroom foraging in wildfire-affected forests in western Canada. She writes on the tensions between economic opportunism and social practices following natural disasters, as well as on incorporating trauma and memory into understandings of post-disaster landscapes. When she isn't working, Carley-Jane can be found enjoying taxidermy at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, drinking coffee, encouraging fellow Scholars to volunteer through the Rhodes Social Impact Group, throwing pottery, and keeping a delightfully regular sleep schedule.