In my my June column for Vitae, I pointed out that many academics with invisible psychiatric disabilities—mental illnesses, that is—don’t publicly disclose those disabilities. Like people in all walks of life, they often choose to stay quiet because they’re afraid of the stigma attached to having a mental illness. But academics, in particular, often opt against disclosure because we work in a profession that is supposed to be the “life of the mind.” If your mind doesn’t work properly, how can you work properly?
That argument is counterfactual, of course, but that’s how stigma works. It doesn’t care about evidence.
Given how common psychiatric disabilities are, it’s likely that we all know someone who has one. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness and the National Institutes of Mental Health, between five and eight percent of adults have depression, three percent have bipolar disorder, and a whopping 20 percent have an anxiety disorder, such as obsessive-compulsive disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder. Let’s presume, for argument’s sake, that similar numbers can be found in academia—even though some observers suggest that mental illness might be harder to treat or faster-growing in academia than in the average population.
(I’m aware of the criticisms, often flung by the anti-psychiatry movement, that mental illness is over-diagnosed. And I’m aware of arguments against the existence of mental illness at all. Disability studies is, after all, my field of research. But for the purposes of this article, I’m going to give our colleagues the benefit of the doubt and believe that their disabilities are real.)
So if 25 to 30 percent of our colleagues likely have invisible psychiatric disabilities, and that they likely choose not to disclose, it’s astounding how often members of the academy use objectively horrible language to describe our students and one another. I’m talking about language that uses specific psychiatric disabilities as insults—as though the disabilities themselves were insulting. We’ve all heard people use the r-word, and hopefully we understand why we shouldn’t use it to refer to people and things we just don’t like.
Ableist language not only stigmatizes our colleagues with psychiatric disabilities, but it also teaches those without disabilities that using such language is OK.
In case you were wondering, using hurtful, ableist language is not OK.
Here’s an example. Dr. Joseph P. Fisher, a learning specialist at the Office of Disability Support Services at George Washington University, has worked throughout his career helping students with disabilities. One time he was working with a student earning a graduate degree in education. The student told him—in an offhand fashion, during a work session on a writing project—that her special-education professor kept using an acronym unfamiliar to her: “FLK.” When the student asked the professor what “FLKs” were, the professor told her: “Funny Little Kids”—that is, kids with learning or developmental disabilities.
“The professor in question was being horrible about disabled children in front of a disabled adult with an invisible disability,” Joseph told me. “Someone was saying this in an instructional setting at the graduate level.”
Someone should have known better.
Here’s how to avoid alienating your colleagues with psychiatric disabilities.
1. Watch your metaphors.
“Bipolar,” “autistic,” “schizo,” and “ADD” are words that we should never throw around in conversation. These words are descriptors of real psychiatric disabilities that people we know actually possess. They are not metaphors for everyday behaviors that happen to bug us. When you use them to describe people you hate (by the way, why are we being so mean to each other?), you imply that the disabilities themselves are something to be hated.
Martine (a pseudonym) is a full-time, non-tenure-track professor at a private university in the South who has an invisible psychiatric disability. She reported that, while she was in graduate school, she “regularly had people—other grad students and faculty—refer to my dissertation director as ‘schizophrenic’ because she was an energetic, yet very scattered, individual.” Another faculty member in the department said to Martine: “No wonder it’s taken you four years to finish your dissertation—your director is so schizophrenic!”
Martine explained that the professor meant “that it must be hard for me to stay on track with a director who was working on multiple projects and who had a hard time keeping to her own deadlines, much less keeping me to mine.”
Martine’s colleagues used the word “schizophrenic” as a metaphor for “absent-minded.” In the case of Martine’s advisor, no one actually believed the advisor suffered from schizophrenia. With their words, Martine’s colleagues created a hostile environment for Martine, given Martine’s own disability, and they revealed that they were ableist jerks. They also revealed that they were really terrible at coming up with metaphors.
2. Don’t play doctor.
You can buy the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) at any bookstore and read all about the diagnostic criteria for psychiatric disabilities. With few exceptions—say, if you are actually studying psychology—please don’t do this.
Some of the worst ableist-jerk insults aren’t insults-by-metaphor, but the insults that arise when speakers think they know something about psychiatric disability. They diagnose, prescribe medications, and suggest therapeutic interventions, all from the faculty lounge. Unless you’re a care provider, don’t play at being one. At best, you mock the seriousness of your colleagues’ disabilities and the real care they receive. At worst, you might cause actual harm if someone were to take your terrible advice.
Ava (a pseudonym) is a Latina, non-tenure-track professor at a small liberal arts college on the West Coast; she has an invisible psychiatric disability. She reports that colleagues often “complain about ‘special snowflake’ accommodations for students with mental health issues.” Ava finds these complaints troubling and sometimes feels an urge to disclose her own disability to help explain “why these accommodations have nothing to with the student being a snowflake and everything to do with them leading as normal a student life as possible.”
Ava’s colleagues don’t know why these students with psychiatric disabilities need accommodations. They aren’t the students’ doctors. They presume accommodations for invisible psychiatric disabilities must be pretense for cheating. To top it off, they voice these presumptions to Ava, their colleague with an invisible psychiatric disability—creating a hostile environment.
Ava also reports feeling uncomfortable when her colleagues declare that a person needs “to ‘get on some meds’ for whatever behavior s/he is having trouble dealing with.”
“I’m sensitive to this,” Ava explains, “because I’m aware my meds make it possible for me to function at the level I need to. But my meds work not because they’re miracle drugs but because they’ve allowed me to listen to my illness through years of dialectic behavior therapy.” Ava’s colleagues’ words—get on some meds—mock medication and how crucial it is to people with disabilities.
And when you know that someone actually has a disability, for the love of egg salad, do not use it against them. Never say, “Did you forget to take your meds today?” It’s not your job to say something unless someone asked for your help.
3. Hold others accountable.
We should, when we can, hold others accountable for using hurtful, ableist language. Even gentle reminders—that we have better metaphors than “schizo,” that playing at diagnosis is hurtful—can break down stigmas and create a more-welcoming environment for our colleagues.
When asked how she would react to a colleague using “bipolar” as an insult, Ava said: “As an ethnic minority, I don’t spend a lot of energy policing people’s language, or I’d never stop. But in that situation I’d probably say something along the lines of, ‘X isn’t bipolar—she’s difficult,’ adding some bit of humor.” Ava is right: Humor breaks down defenses, making listeners more amenable to criticism. Often our colleagues don’t realize that their comments are hurtful.
But sometimes you will encounter people whom you know you’ll never change. This is the professor who uses the r-word to refer to freshmen who forget to bring their textbooks to class. This professor calls you the “PC Police” for pointing out ableist language. It’s okay to write this professor off. It’s okay to warn your friends about this professor, too. It’s okay to never, ever let this professor know that you have a psychiatric disability—because it is likely that this professor will hold it against you.
Academia, like the rest of the world, has its share of irredeemable jerks. It’s not our job to save them.