Mental Disorder in Academia: Chicken or the Egg?

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By Meagan Vakiener
February 11, 2016

Abraham Lincoln, Ludwig van Beethoven, Michelangelo, Charles Dickens, Vincent van Gogh, Winston Churchill, Charles Darwin, and Isaac Newton. What do all these people have in common? Besides being some of the most imaginative and well-known individuals in their respective fields, some historians also agree that all of them suffered from what our society calls mental illness. The link between creativity and psychological disorders has long been noted in the scientific literature [1,2], but are creative people more likely to have psychological disorders or are individuals with mental illness more likely to be creative? Regardless of the direction of causality, this phenomenon is pronounced in academia with a reported 53% of academics in the UK having a psychological disorder, a rate double that of the general population [3].

            At this point, I had to stop writing to take benzodiazepines, a class of psychiatric drugs used to reduce anxiety. Today it was because I realized I had left my coffee machine on in my apartment and could not seem to shake the thought that I had caused a fire and would probably be homeless by the end of the day – even though it turns off automatically after two hours. Nausea began to settle in the pit of my stomach, my breaths grew short, and my heart beat so rapidly I clenched it instinctively. And now, fifteen minutes later, I’m prepared to start writing again. These panic attacks happen more frequently, at times for no apparent reason. To me they are just the newest addition to a suite of symptoms that have shaped who I am - the tip of a psychiatric iceberg that is, at times, my chemically out-of-kilter brain.

And now, a disclaimer: This is not a “woe-is-me-my-brain-is-broken” piece, nor is it a triumphant story about how I’m capable of conquering depression and chronic anxiety. I’ve instead decided to write this to illuminate an important issue that plagues people at all levels of academia yet still evokes stigma and feelings of shame. For those of us living with debilitating mental illnesses, it is hard to understand how psychiatric disorders could possibly have perpetuated through generations. How can genes survive in a population if they produce effects that at times cloud your judgment so severely you contemplate stepping into oncoming traffic? And more personally, did I choose this path because my anxiety gave me an edge in the academic world, or is there something about pursuing higher education that brings out my psychological predisposition?

I realize that I am posing largely speculative questions, but we just don’t have very many answers yet. However, some hypotheses suggest that mental disorders are ramped up remnants of a sophisticated behavioral repertoire in our ancestors that was required to survive hostile environments and rapidly changing circumstances. For example, some propose that bipolar disorder evolved in the northern temperate zone as an adaptation to extreme annual fluctuations in climate during the Pleistocene, effectively allowing individuals to hibernate in a depressive state during harsh winter months [4]. And what about anxiety disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorder and social anxiety? Though there is little hard evidence to evaluate these types of hypotheses, psychologists have suggested that many kinds of anxiety and phobias can prepare individuals for action against an unknown threat. It is when these natural defenses intensify and persist that they begin to interfere with daily life. Those of us with severe anxiety are overly prepared for the worst, and it changes the way we relate to others and how we view our surroundings.

We still need to learn more about how the human brain works and why some of us are particularly prone to developing these mental disorders. My own personal feeling on the issue is one of acceptance. My father, ironically a school psychologist of close to twenty years, told me that everyone is a little insane, some are just better at hiding it than others. Figuring out why we are the way we are is why I became so fascinated by the study of anthropology, and it seems only natural to continue trying to understand what it is that makes me the person I am today. My mental illness is part of that and I encourage those of you who may be struggling to embrace that part of yourself as well, and seek help if you need it.

The National Institute of Mental Health has numerous resources for finding mental health services in your area. If you need immediate assistance, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1 (800) 273-8255. Potential evolutionary advantages aside, there is no reason you or anyone else needs to suffer alone, and you can find comfort in what Aristoteles once said: “There is no genius without having a touch of madness.”

 

1] Andreasen, N. C. (1987). Creativity and mental illness. American Journal of Psychiatry144(10), 1288-1292.

2] Kaufman, J. C. (Ed.). (2014). Creativity and Mental Illness. Cambridge University Press.

3] Kinman, G. (2001). Pressure points: A review of research on stressors and strains in UK academics. Educational Psychology21(4), 473-492.

4] Sherman, J. A. (2012). Evolutionary origin of bipolar disorder-revised: EOBD-R. Medical Hypotheses78(1), 113-122.