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This is the third installment of the series: What can I do if my advisor wants me to keep working, even while I'm on medical leave for severe depression?

So, many months were gone and I'm still clinically depressed. Medication helps just a little bit, but I don't know how could I live without it. I had a very bad day at the lab a couple of weeks ago, and I posted on my personal profile in a social media that "life sucks, I can't take this anymore, my life is a failure, I wish I were dead".... that stuff. I was on my personal profile, and I wrote something like this before when I got really stressed. Nothing out of this world.

However, some of my lab mates and grad colleagues saw my post and went to the Head of the Program (faculty and staff too) "worried about a suicidal student".

It didn't end well. The HoP called my adviser and asked her about "a troubling student" that she may be dealing with. My advisor tried to save my back saying positive things about me. But the HoP said if I continue causing trouble, my adviser should send me to her and "she will take care of this mess".

This is not a good thing. I heard rumours that the department thinks about getting reasons to kick me out of the program, because if I leave - and never come back - the program itself would be penalized with less government funding. That wouldn't happen if I get expelled. Apparently, they don't want to take that risk.

But I want to stay. So, how to deal with this kind of environment? My professor got my back (after all problems that we had, so I happy for that), but the "Witch Hunters" are lighting up their torches. How to deal with a department that wants your head??

Even if I stay, how to deal with the stigma about depression and suicidal thoughts in academia? Everyone here thinks I'm about to star the second season of the Netflix's series 13 Reasons Why. I am now the "crazy psycho guy."

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    Is it possible to go over the HoP's head and get protection from the University? Maybe a dean or other administrative higher-up would be able to help you navigate this, especially if you have supporting evidence that the HoP is gunning for you? This is a very delicate situation, but it sounds like your advisor is close to throwing you under the bus, so you need to figure out how to at least make sure you don't get shafted by these people. – Elizabeth Henning Aug 24 '17 at 16:50
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    I feel that I have to ask -- why do you want to stay in this environment? Don't get me wrong -- I understand that you want to finish your degree, and that you (seem to) enjoy doing research. Unfortunately, however, this doesn't seem to be a very supportive workplace, and constantly being worried about your job security/what your coworkers are thinking will likely worsen your depression, not improve it. So again I ask -- why do you want to stay in this environment? – tonysdg Aug 25 '17 at 19:53
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I'm having some trouble with the way you're mixing the words trouble, troubled and troubling.

If a student shows some red flags for possible suicidal thoughts, it's a good thing when the people around him alert the department, in order for support to be offered.

On the other hand, targeting the troubled student and painting him as a troublemaker would not be good.

As you are currently not in as good shape, mental health-wise, as you would like, it's difficult for me to know how objectively you are able to be, currently, in your perceptions and interpretations. That is, I'm not sure whether your colleagues are actually targeting you for possible removal from your academic program.

However, I will go ahead and do my best to answer. I'm not sure what country you're in, or what the laws and regulations are where you are, so I'll write the answer I would give to someone facing the problems you described in the U.S.

People fear what they don't understand. The key to acceptance of a mental health disability is education -- both of staff and peers.

In the U.S., I would ask NAMI, the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or a local disability rights group, or a county mental health association, to send a trained expert to give a mental health awareness presentation to the students, and a separate training session for staff.

Here is an example of a presentation that a college student gave about her neurological disability, Tourette Syndrome, to her classmates, with the help of a staff ally: https://youtu.be/zVY6B3ezY3k

I get the feeling from your post that you might not be in the right place at this time to give a presentation of this type yourself. That's okay. There are people who have experience giving presentations on behalf of a student.

Here is a nice website with suggestions for how to seek reasonable accommodations for a disability in the workplace (in the U.S.) -- I think this may give you some good ideas, and in general instill you with more of a belief that you are entitled to accommodations! -- Job Accommodation Network.

It would be great if you could participate in a peer to peer support group. In the U.S., in order to find such a group, one can try to find such a group with the following techniques:

  • google

  • ask a mental health professional, since these providers often have an email discussion group through which they can query each other about such opportunities

  • ask a government information service (one reaches it by dialing 211)

  • ask a psychiatric ward at a local hospital

  • the campus counseling center may have organized some groups of this type

  • ask the county mental health association

  • ask NAMI

  • if necessary, take the initiative and form such a group

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When I was still depressed, I lost my postdoc job over it. I decided not to fight it, but I felt it was wrong to be fired over that. Actually, my boss said he was firing me over poor performance.

My point is you aren't in the shape to fight. You should find someone to champion your cause. I would ask a close friend or family member to talk to the adviser -- if you have someone who understands what you are going through and is able to discuss this in an appropriate manner.

For the head of the program, you could try to get a letter from your psychiatrist explaining to them that you are going through clinical depression and containing recommendations on how to help you deal with it. This letter might be useful later, in court, if they decide to fire you. But, I doubt they will.

You should not antagonize your adviser, since she got your back this time. But, she should also read your letter from the psychiatrist. She needs to understand that you will not be able to do meaningful work until your depression goes away. And it can't go away if she keeps stressing you.

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    @Justus It would make a world of a difference, especially if it was mental health professional. The idea is to get through the minds of these prejudiced people what is going on with OP and that they need to help instead of calling him names. – user21264 Aug 24 '17 at 15:01
  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – user21264 Aug 24 '17 at 15:35
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You should not be fired for depression, but if starts to interfere severely with your work, the university can fire you due to poor performance. I know people who battled depression (not as my coworkers though), and a very realistic advice would be as follows:

  1. Get your own issues in order. Your medication is NOT WORKING. This has nothing to do with the University, but psychiatric therapy is way more "hit and miss" than other fields of medicine. So, go to your psychiatrist, explain to him/her that your depression interferes with your work to the point where you may get fired for it. Explain EVERYTHING that you explained here.
  2. I am sure your psychiatrist will change/adjust your medication and possibly, suggest that he/she writes a letter to the head of the department to at least buy more time for your medication to start working.
  3. Unfortunately, if your illness do not get any better and you still are unable to do your work, then I am afraid, yo will not be able to continue this job. Top research is psychologically very demanding, even if one is completely healthy. Consider changing your job.

Perhaps you did not want to hear this, but as I said, this is perhaps the only realistic advice I can give.

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    I downvoted this answer because I think there are more effective ways of suggesting someone check in with their doctor for a medication check, and of suggesting someone take a step back to rethink their employment situation. – aparente001 Aug 26 '17 at 17:08
  • @aparente001What are more effective way of suggesting than telling the person this exact thing?? – xmp125a Aug 27 '17 at 18:28
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    Example: Have you discussed your medication regime with your medical provider recently? Perhaps some dosage adjustments, or an adjustment in the choice of medications, would give additional improvement. // Have you thought about whether this position is a good match for you at this time? Top research is psychologically very demanding, even if one is completely healthy. – aparente001 Aug 28 '17 at 3:00
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The best thing that happened in the midst of all this is you got the support from your boss. When I had depression (still recovering) it's the one thing that I was most thankful for. Not every one will have this kind of support.

Like someone else said in their answer, when you are depressed you are more likely to experience exaggerated feelings that other people are trying to sabotage you. It happened to me. But regardless, you need to know you cannot change how people think and talk about you. And worrying about it would wear you out even more. When you are well again all those rumors would just go away on their own.

You need to be clear about what's making you depressed. From your previous posts I assume most of the stress comes from work. If it's relationship with others in the lab, learn to ignore them and accept that evil people exist and they are there to make you stronger. If it's work performance related, talk to your boss and let him know that your energy and motivation levels are low because mental problems do affect people physically. Ask him to give you time to slowly pick things up and restart again. As for yourself, just do the simple tasks first to regain confidence then move on to the more challenging ones. Don't worry about results too much as you can always repeat when you feel better.

I find that taking a break from work doesn't necessarily work for everyone. It's more like a general piece of advice that psychiatrists offer to anyone. If you truly want to have a career in academia you need to accept the fact that this job would only get tougher and tougher, and you need to be prepared to face all kinds of problems and crises. Then you would perhaps feel a bit easier to face the problems. Changing lifestyles worked for me in some ways as well.

Keep your chin up! Talk to your peers, professors, people who have similar experience as you. You would probably find that a lot of them are going through the same things and you are all trying to survive in the same environment...

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  • I'm not convinced about the advisor having his back. Earlier installments in this story make the advisor sound either very clueless or a little hostile towards the OP's condition. Plus I'm guessing that the story about the HoP's intention came from the advisor. If he really were solidly behind the student, he wouldn't have relayed that. It's exactly because people who are in vulnerable positions tend to be too optimistic and trusting that I think the OP should be careful. – Elizabeth Henning Aug 25 '17 at 19:34
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    It's not impossible but the OP also really likes him and he gives me the impression of being pretty genuine at least. Some PIs are actually clueless when it comes to management etc. They either really don't know what's going on or pretends to be because they don't want drama and sometimes things do work out better without too much meddling. Statistically speaking most PIs want good things for their students so OP's advisor would have to be really cunning to do something like that. – Menglan Aug 25 '17 at 20:00
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Most universities in the UK (and imagine this would be similar in the US and most other countries?) have both support centres provided by the university, and students' union advisors. Support centres may be split in different branches, but there's usually some port of call for disability-related issues. Perhaps you could try and make an appointment with someone at your university's disability centre? In many places they can draw up what is known here as a "support plan", which actually mandates how your department should handle the issue, and they take care of informing relevant people on a strictly need-to-know basis and can intervene if anything untoward should happen. They are usually very experienced with dealing with all sorts of problems and prejudices, too. This sounds like the kind of support you may need to deal with the situation in your department. If they can't help or things go sour and your department starts to actively try and get rid of you or something, then I would try and speak to someone at your students' union (or graduate union, or postgrad association; whatever body is representing you on campus). They will have resources and intimate knowledge of regulations etc. and can intervene--that's a big part of what they are there for.

The overall message here is: This is a tricky situation and has issues very specific to your environment, so your best available resource might be that which is system-internal and knows all the specifics and actually has a managerial and/or legal mandate to do something to help you in your type of case.

A lot of what other people have suggested here (getting outside people in and trying to force reeducation on your department) might not help, but rather make you appear confrontational and make the situation more difficult. And, if they actually have real negative attitudes toward the situation, I doubt they'd agree to such external intervention anyhow and you cannot make them. Those things are real bombs, and I think it would be wise to try to handle things internally first and minimise the number of potentially burned bridges.

Just as a side note, and this will really depend on your jurisdiction and university regulations, but in many places, academic institutions have different rules for students regarding 'leave' vs. 'suspensions'. If this were in the UK, and I'd hear your description of the status quo, I'd think you're in the wrong category and would be better served by fully suspending your status for a half year or year, meaning you'd be completely out of the system and everything would be put on hold. But as I said, these things depend so much on the place you're at that it is impossible to say much about it without knowing where you're based.

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  • I've been wondering for some time about how supports are planned for in European countries. Thanks for the info. By the way, what you call "support plan" is known in the US as "504 plan" or "504" for short. It's based on federal legislation and regulations called "Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act." – aparente001 Aug 25 '17 at 14:54
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    @aparente001 Section 504 really only applies to K-12. IEPs don't exist for postsecondary education and especially not for grad level. – Elizabeth Henning Aug 25 '17 at 19:38
  • @ElizabethHenning - I think you are confusing 504 with IDEA. IDEA is the legislative underpinning of IEPs; Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act is the legislative underpinning of the so-called "504 plan." IEPs are not used in college but 504 plans are. See, for example, www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/transitionguide.html. – aparente001 Aug 26 '17 at 17:02
  • Florian, I do really hope you will post an answer at the question about Europe. // I really like your suggestion of trying to work with the university's disability centre. // Could you expand on what you wrote in your third paragraph? Is this warning based on a bad experience you had with a disability awareness presentation? What do you think of the sample presentation I linked to? – aparente001 Aug 26 '17 at 17:16
  • @aparente001 Section 504 plans are often (imprecisely) referred to as IEPs because they're functionally equivalent. The DoE link says nothing about postsecondary 504 plans because they don't exist. understood.org/en/school-learning/choosing-starting-school/… – Elizabeth Henning Aug 26 '17 at 17:54

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