U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Resources for Academics in Crisis

One of my classmates/colleagues in the PhD program died this week. It seems she took her life. She was a very loving person, and one of my first friends in grad school. She was a guest at my Thanksgiving table for a couple of years, and once or twice she came to lay out at the pool with me. She struggled with a lot of personal challenges, but she kept trying to find happiness and peace.

Grad school can be a shattering experience for even the most grounded, emotionally sanguine people. I have seen it, and I have been through it.  But it’s not just grad students contending with various kinds of precarity and pressure who struggle with mental and emotional health issues. We all have seen this, I’m sure, in the academy: the incredible strain and pressure that people labor under and constantly contend with — and not just among grad students or undergrads.  Up and down the ranks in higher education, people are struggling with significant mental health issues.

There are walking wounded among us, always. Sometimes we are those wounded, hiding our brokenness as best we can and hoping we can get it together or hold it together long enough to put it behind us. But sometimes it’s people we know, and maybe we even know they’re broken, but we don’t know how bad it is, or we don’t know how to make it better, or we are so burdened under the weight of our own struggles and pressures that we don’t feel able to offer any help or even know what help to offer. It hurts something awful to learn that someone in our midst has been hurting so badly that she felt she had to do this to make the pain stop.

I don’t know the details of my friend’s situation, and I would not discuss them here in any case.  But I do know that this time of year can be awfully hard for a lot people, and really rough for academics.  Fall semester is just one long season of deadlines — for grants, for jobs, for editors waiting on manuscripts, for tenure files, for students who need letters — and the end-of-semester teaching/grading workload is substantially greater in volume and extraordinarily compressed in time.  Those on the job market, interviewing or hoping to interview at one of the major national conferences, are facing intense pressure and long odds.  And all of this coincides with the stresses and demands of the holidays and the  end-of-year financial pressures that so many face.

It’s really rough for a lot of folks, and what makes it so much harder is the feeling that it’s not okay in academe to acknowledge just how rough things are.  That pressure to seem perfect, or nearly so, before one’s colleagues may be the most brutal pressure of all, because it cuts you off from people who can be a source of encouragement and support.

If you are struggling to hold it together, to keep your head above the water, to keep the darkness at bay, to live with whatever pain you live with — please know that you don’t have to face these things alone.

If you have been bearing a world of pain, and you have been waking up every morning and having to decide to keep living one more day, that doesn’t make you a failure.  It means you are a very brave person.  And you don’t have to brave by yourself.

If the people around you don’t understand or don’t know how to help, there are people who can.

Here are some sources of immediate support for you.

National Hopeline Network
1-800-SUICIDE (1-800-784-2433)

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline
1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)

Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN)
1-800-656-HOPE (1-800-656-4673)

The Trevor Project (LGBTQ)
1-866-4-U-TREVOR (1-866-488-7386)

Treatment Referral Hotline (Substance Abuse)

Crisis Text Line
Text “TWLOHA” to 741-741
A trained crisis counselor receives the text and responds quickly

I found these national resources at the website of “To Write Love on Her Arms,” one of the charities my friend’s family has designated for memorial donations.  TWLOA also provides links to local resources by state and city — you can search for those here.

Whoever you are reading this — an undergrad, a grad student, a full professor, or someone who has left the academy for whatever reason or was never in it to begin with — whoever you are, if you feel like you just can’t take any more pain, before you do anything else, please call one of these numbers.


7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this post: it’s really important, particularly because in some ways I think we normalize stress and pain in the academy. Unless you know someone well, it can be hard to know whether a person is struggling, and even if you do — often a person who is deeply depressed goes to great lengths to protect other people from the darkness they themselves feel.

  2. Thanks for this, LD. Academia is weird about mental health issues. On the one hand, I think academics discuss mental health plenty. It’s commonplace to hear people say that everyone in academia is neurotic or even to discuss issues like depression or bipolarity. But often these conversations are tinged with humor and irony. After all if _everyone_’s neurotic, what are _you_ complaining about? Our relative openness about mental health challenges is not necessarily met with a seriousness about them. And there’s often a frightening lack of compassion in academia for those who struggle with these issues, especially if it makes them “difficult” in some way as colleagues or employees. A terrible academic labor system in which there’s tremendous pressure for grad students to present themselves as perfect doesn’t help matters. Colleges and universities these days are belatedly awakening to the importance of providing for their undergraduates’ mental health. It’s long past time that they take grad student and faculty mental health as seriously.

  3. Thank you L.D.

    When teaching, I have had students who, from my lay person’s point of view, displayed symptoms of mental illness (in which case, it may or may not be related to any possible risk of suicide). I was not sure what to do: speak to the student? (how presumptuous of me!), inform one of the mental health counselors at our school? (and if I’m wrong?). On one occasion the behavior was so unsettling that I did not hesitate to inform the folks with some expertise on this matter about what I and the student’s classmates had witnessed. On yet another occasion I assumed the student was a bit immature and merely, and harmlessly, “acting out,” although I was often the (unsettling and puzzling) target of the behavior in question. Later, that student had a breakdown and was institutionally committed for a brief period. And I came to learn from the student’s father that there was a biographical history of mental illness although it was of an episodic nature and never as serious as the latest occurrence. In this case, I kicked myself for not having contacted someone earlier. Of course such matters fall within the scope of one’s judgment, there being nor formula or rule to be routinely employed (although there should be more or less a cluster of symptomatic criteria to aid one in making such judgments), but I suspect over the years I’ve become more willing to err on the side that is not afraid to be mistaken, one that finds me contacting mental health professionals if a student’s (or a colleague’s) behavior, by my lights, falls well outside the norm I’ve come to recognize during my time inhabiting this mortal frame. Unfortunately, I suspect the symptoms of severe depression are sometimes hard to notice from one’s vantage point as a teacher.

  4. Thanks to all for the kind and thoughtful comments — and thanks especially for widely sharing these resources. I hope they’ll be a help to somebody.

    I really need to find some links to some resources for people who are grieving the loss of someone to suicide. If anybody has some resources to share along those lines, I’d appreciate it if you would add them in the comments or send them to me via email / message, and I will pass them along to my friends. And I’ll look into them for myself. God knows bereavement is not new to me, but I’ve never lost a friend to suicide. This is, I am learning, a different kind of grief.

    Ideally, my department/program would recognize that when we lose a student, whatever the circumstances, there should be some sort of acknowledgment of the loss and a recognition that people might need help or support in coming to terms with it. No need to go into detail — just a simple email, “We are so sorry to learn of the death of one of our students. This is very sad news for all of us. Here are some things that might be helpful for all of us in this time,” etc., etc. I feel like that would be an appropriate administrative response. But instead the official response so far is just silence. So it seems that we grad students are on our own on this, to figure it out as best we can. From what I understand, that’s not all that atypical in academe — and that’s a real shame. For a bunch of humanists, we sure can seem to lose sight of what is most precious and most worthy of our care. My friend was precious, and those of us who are shocked and grieved and saddened by her passing are precious too. So we will just have to take care of each other and try to find a way to “do academe” differently.

    Anyway, thanks for reading with such kindness and for passing along this info to anyone who needs it.

  5. Facebook’s “memories” function just reminded me that I published this post a year ago today. Unfortunately, this will always be a timely reminder. Please pass this info along to anyone you know who may need it. And be as kind to yourself as you can.

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