So I'm bipolar, and earlier this year my doctor put me on antipsychotics. They made it really hard for me to think, and my advisor expressed frustration with me not doing calculations fast enough, and not being able to keep our entire project in my head at once. (I didn't tell him about the medication.)

This summer my doctor switched me to antidepressants, and I instantly became smarter and more productive, and my advisor became a lot happier with me. But it looks like I'm having a hypomanic episode, so my doctor will probably want me to restart antipsychotics when I see her this week.

How should I explain to my advisor that I'm about to become stupid again, possibly for the rest of my time in grad school? I have a wonderful advisor who seems to genuinely care for my well-being, but I'm afraid he might fire me if he thinks I'll be permanently unproductive.

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    If you haven't already, it is advisable to discuss the negative side-effects of those meds with your doctor. This is aside from your main question, but there may be alternative medications your doctor can explore if they understand your need to not have your mental function unduly impaired. Doctors often have a go-to solution that works for the majority of cases - this doesn't mean, however, that it is the only solution. They should be able to work with you to find something else to try (if you haven't gone down this road already).
    – J...
    Aug 31, 2015 at 14:12
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    @J... - It's good to be skeptical and open to alternatives, and not afraid to seek a second opinion... but with psychiatric illnesses and conditions, one often has to make compromises. Sep 1, 2015 at 1:42
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    @aparente001 You're absolutely right. Sometimes there is no better alternative. I raised the issue simply because doctors will often prescribe a standard treatment, where a cornucopia are available, in the first instance, simply because it most often works. For some people the negative side-effects are more disruptive than for others, however, and if alternative medications have not yet been explored it may be worthwhile to see if there are equally (or at least adequately) effective treatments whose side-effects are less detrimental to an academic career.
    – J...
    Sep 1, 2015 at 1:48
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    @J... - Take a look at crazymeds.us. Bipolar is tricky to treat. (My son's psychiatrist once wrote a letter to the school with the unforgettable sentence "Unfortunately, medicating Tourette's can be an exercise in frustration, and adequately medicating ADHD is often in conflict with controlling the Tourette's.") Sep 1, 2015 at 3:36
  • @aparente001 I'm not trying to trivialize the problem. This is quickly falling off-topic.
    – J...
    Sep 1, 2015 at 10:02

4 Answers 4


In the UK, disability legislation says an employer has to make 'reasonable accomodations' for long term health issues like yours. Mental health problems are (sadly) not uncommon in academia. It sounds like you get on well enough with your supervisor that you could just tell him what's up. If you're not comfortable with that, you might consider going through more official channels.

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    Is a PhD student an employee in the UK? Sep 1, 2015 at 7:47
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    Usually no, but because the employment works that way, anywhere would be downright stupid to not apply basically the same rules. I think it might also be explicit in the legislation, either about students or about those using services, but I don't remember the details. It doesn't much matter. The key point is that it has been decided that it is culturally unacceptable to not make allowances for a disability if the cost is manageable.
    – Jessica B
    Sep 1, 2015 at 13:13
  • I'd also expect a university to treat students in the same way as employees, regardless of whether they're legally obliged to. Sep 1, 2015 at 13:28

You don't say where you are studying, but in the US, mental illnesses ARE covered under the American Disability Act and your program must accommodate you.

A student with a disability (learning or otherwise) has the right to accommodations under Federal Law (Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973). In most cases when a hidden disability such as a learning disability or mental illness is diagnosed, a plan, typically referred to as a 504 Plan, is developed with the school for what accommodations are to made. This can mean someone in class to take notes for the student, extra time for assignments and exams. The big difference between elementary and post-secondary education is that after high school, the student must self advocate. That means you have to take the initiative and tell the school and your adviser about your illness and work with them to determine what kind of accommodations you'll need to be successful. A good discussion of how the ADA applies to post-secondary education is here

While it's common to think that the ADA only applies to conditions like ADHD or dyslexia that are commonly termed as "learning disabilities", Section 504 defines a disability as "individuals with disabilities are defined as persons with a physical or mental impairment which substantially limits one or more major life activities" The HHS Factsheet for Section 504 (pdf warning) specifically includes mental illness as a disability.

  • In theory, the ADA should protect students with mental illness. In practice, this isn't necessarily the case (at least at the adviser level), and any student in this situation may need to consider seriously whether talking to other school officials (department head, student services, etc.) will be fruitful. Sep 1, 2015 at 9:46
  • The ADA makes it clear that the school is responsible for making the policy clear to its employees (professors). If the adviser is unwilling to make accommodations or follow through on them, they're risking a lawsuit and potentially the school's Federal funding. The US government takes this stuff very seriously and has a really big hammer to make their point.
    – DLS3141
    Sep 1, 2015 at 12:23
  • Agreed about the potential loss of federal funding. Just wanted to add that you don't need to sue, and you don't need a lawyer if intractable problems arise -- you need only file a 504 complaint with the Officer for Civil Rights. Sep 1, 2015 at 18:41
  • @DLS3141 Speaking experience with a colleague who had adviser problems related to disability, the response they got in talking to another professor was, "If you bring a complaint, the department will circle the wagons, and it would seriously threaten you finishing your degree and your future career, because you'll be known as a 'troublemaker'." I agree that there is a big legal hammer; I just want to point out the nontrivial amount of work it takes to actually use it, and the consequences that may arise if the adviser/dept./university fights it. Sep 2, 2015 at 1:54
  • You're right, it's not a trivial accusation, but that kind of discrimination won't stop if people just put up with it. The legal remedy IS the last resort after trying to work something out, but if the prof is the kind of person who would act that way, why would you want them as an advisor anyway? If the school doesn't support its disabled students, who would want to attend? Leaving a situation like that is always an option, but don't go without a fight
    – DLS3141
    Sep 2, 2015 at 3:41

When I found out my son has Tourette Syndrome, there was a short period of sadness, disappointment and fear... but quickly I started to feel that I had been given the key to understanding my child. Learning about his neurological disorder helped me see which of my expectations weren't fair to him, and also helped me find coping mechanisms.

I have had a hearing impairment all my life. In my early thirties I lucked into a Coping Mechanisms for the Hearing Impaired class, and I stopped seeing my difficulties hearing in certain environments as solely my problem, and started to learn how to let people know about my hearing impairment, and to let them know what helps. That was a game changer for me! Before taking the class, I used to have to talk past a lump in my throat just to tell a professor about my impairment (for example, to get a guaranteed seat near the front, or to ask him not to talk with his hand covering his mouth). After spitting out the difficult sentence, I would make a beeline for the bathroom to let the tears out. Even in grad school!

After taking the Coping Mechanisms class, I would make a point of letting each instructor know about my impairment at the beginning of the semester, to lay the groundwork in case I ever needed to ask for an accommodation. Each time I did it, it became easier and more comfortable.

Imagine that you are a professor, and you have a student with a hidden disability. Wouldn't you want to know about it, and understand how you can be supportive?

Tell your advisor.


My opinion is that all the legal protections in the world won't help if your professor wants top-notch performance and a student delivers inconsistently. They might graduate you, but recommendations could be lukewarm.

I'd refrain from admitting to any diagnoses or medications until necessary as a last-ditch effort to save your hide.

guess this is the cynical view, which might not be appropriate in your department, but it was where I earned a my degree.

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