This is perhaps less a question and more of a cautionary tale, but I've seen a few people asking how best to talk to their supervisor about mental health and I wanted to share my experience with this and perhaps get some advice for if I find myself in a similar situation further down the line.

So, to give a little context, I am a female student who has just completed her viva. I also suffer from anxiety and depression. For the most part, my PhD went well, I was happy to follow my supervisor's guidance and tried my best at everything she asked. As time went on though, depression and anxiety started creeping in. By the time I got close to handing in, I was seriously depressed, bordering on suicidal, and was having near daily panic attacks at the thought of facing my supervisor. It also took me a long time to get help, my supervisor was very much of the 'just work harder to get over it' mentality and I ended up adopting that for myself. I couldn't really be depressed; obviously I just needed to work harder.

Fast forward to having handed my thesis in. My supervisor was advertising a post doc position, built on the results from my PhD. She was very keen on me applying for this post, telling me multiple times that she was happy to hand it to me on a plate, as it were. I, however, couldn't face another three years of working with her. I had finally started getting help for my depression and, although I wanted to get better, I was very aware of the fact that remaining in my current situation would not be helpful. I didn't want to be rude, and simply not apply for this postdoc, so I sent my supervisor an email.

Dear {supervisor} I have decided not to apply for the postdoc you have advertised, but I felt I owed you an explanation for my decision. I understand that you need the best person possible to fill this role in order to do the project justice and to produce the best science possible, and at the present time I do not feel I can be that person. This has not been an easy decision to make as the project is both an interesting and exciting topic, which would allow me to develop all the work from my PhD. I have spent a lot of time weighing up the options, but I cannot honestly apply for the role and give it my best. My mental health has been deteriorating for some time now, and this combined with other stress-related problems means that I cannot commit to a long-term role at this point. I have seen a doctor and am currently having sessions with a therapist to help work through these issues, and I hope in time I will be able to return to a healthy state. At present, however, I do not feel that I can honestly apply for the role, and I hope you will accept my apologies for disappointing you.

I appreciate all the help and guidance you have provided during my PhD studies, and I am very thankful to you for providing me with this opportunity. Of course, I will still do my best in readying the remaining chapters for publication and in preparing for my viva. I just cannot commit to a future role at this point. In conclusion, although my current health problems prevent me from applying for the role, I wish you all the best with this project and hope you find an eminently suitable candidate.

In hindsight, this perhaps was not the best move. Since the subsequent meeting following this email the supervisor has been increasingly angry with me. She has told me that my behaviour is unacceptable, and that anyone else would have fired me. If I make mistakes, she accuses me of behaving maliciously towards her and tells me that I am unqualified for a career in science. She has also told me several times that she can't possibly write a reference for me, despite my good work for the majority of my PhD, because she doesn't know if that is the real me or whether instead I am a nasty manipulative person.

In some respects, very little of this matters. I have been offered a job outside of academia, which I am looking forward to starting, and have recently worked with a conservation organisation who are more than happy to give me a good reference. I have also passed my PhD, and have no corrections to make. I do, however, still have to interact with this supervisor, as she wants to publish work from my PhD and I am worried that, unless I am involved in the process, she will not include me as a co-author.

I would like to get some feedback, though, on how common this sort of reaction to mental health problems is in academia. I know that the percentage of the academic community with mental health problems is disproportionately high, and that it is important that more people are open about mental health. Is it something that is still viewed as a weakness in academia, though? I don't want to believe that is the case, but I do want to advise caution for anyone thinking about telling their supervisor something like this.

I also want to encourage anyone who is struggling with their mental health to seek help. It's really important that you don't try to deal with something like this alone. You can't fix your mental health just by working harder. Furthermore, it is not a weakness. It is an illness, a medical condition. Just like a broken bone or a fever, a mental health problem is not your fault.

Just to clarify, in case anyone is worried, K Grayson is a pseudonym.

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    Viva: short form of viva voce, another name for a Thesis defence, used in the United Kingdom and India.
    – jiggunjer
    Oct 18, 2017 at 2:38
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    While it's a side note, you don't need to continue working with her, if she tries publishing your work without your permission then write the editor of the journal, she would likely suffer far more than you in this case if it is a journal of any repute. As you are worried about her doing so, it may be worth mentioning to her that you will not tolerate it and would ask any journal to enforce your rights as you are leaving (if you do choose not to continue with her).
    – ttbek
    Oct 18, 2017 at 11:05
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    Some Supervisors are like modern day slave holders. They think they own their PhDs and just care for results. I would straightly, not interact with her anymore. In general I learned during my PhD and PD time, that you really shouldn't waste your time on such people. Even writing such long letters is a waste of time. Keep it short and try to do the best for yourself.
    – user75308
    Oct 18, 2017 at 15:13
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    "She has told me that my behaviour is unacceptable, and that anyone else would have fired me." This is alarming. It's bullying, plain and simple. Report up the chain if you're able. Otherwise, cut ties.
    – Rich
    Oct 19, 2017 at 0:21
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    There is something else going on here (I guess) where the supervisor for some reason needs these results for a given deadline or purpose. Apparently needs them so much that she is willing to put an insane amount of pressure to get it. Consider finding out what this is. Oct 19, 2017 at 13:01

6 Answers 6


Your university should have policies in place for equitable treatment of individuals with disabilities (which mental disorders like depression count as being among), which your supervisor is almost definitely in violation of. Take whatever evidence of your condition, along with whatever evidence of your supervisor’s misconduct you have to the student association, equity office, or whatever analogous organization your university possesses that is in charge of providing support to students with disabilities, and make a formal complaint.

Treating people with disabilities with respect isn’t just a good idea, it’s literally the law. If you’re in the US, it’s the Americans With Disabilties Act, and other First-World nations will have equivalent legally mandated protections in place.

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    This isn't bad advice. But I feel the supervisor is behaving in a completely unacceptable way, regardless of whether the OP is or should be considered a person with a disability.
    – jwg
    Oct 16, 2017 at 14:10
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    @Physics-Compute arcelawgroup.com/…
    – CGCampbell
    Oct 16, 2017 at 16:18
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    @Physics-Compute It's a long-term health issue, which in almost every country counts as a disability.
    – gsnedders
    Oct 16, 2017 at 16:19
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    @Mindwin No, the sentence implies that non-First-World countries might or might not have such laws.
    – Robert
    Oct 17, 2017 at 17:47
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    @Mindwin Inferring that a person making an if-then statement is implying the converse of that statement is a bad habit. Try to break it.
    – Ian
    Oct 17, 2017 at 18:07

The thing about mental health issues is that people don't talk about them. Everyone knows how to deal with someone who has broken a leg, who has migraines, and maybe even with people who have cancer. But because we don't talk about mental health issues, we don't know what to do with people who have them: we don't know how to recognize the issues, how to separate health issues from performance issues, we don't know how to talk to the person in question. That's a shame because there are so many occasions where we ought to know this. I suspect that many people "sort of" learn this as they get older just because they have people in their family or circle of friends through which they're exposed to this.

Where I'm going with this is that it is possible that your adviser may be well-intentioned, but simply can't separate between "not working hard enough" and having mental health issues. She may not be able to recognize the difference, or not know what to do about it if she did. In about half of my answers on this forum, my suggestion is some variation of "talk about it with your adviser, from person to person". Since it sounds like you used to get along well, so why not suggest to have coffee together during which propose to talk about these things. That's not going to be an easy conversation (health issues never are, even more so if they involve a societal stigma), but you're both going to feel better about things at the end, and maybe understand better where you're coming from and what is going on. It's soo much better to talk about these things in person than via email!

All this said, I'm glad to hear that you are getting help! Your world will be a better place!

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    I wouldn't recommend jumping into this one-on-one if the advisor's reaction was so extreme. Including a third party like a mental health professional (from the school?) and/or someone who can help with school disputes (a dean) might help make the interaction less extreme (and in the worst case, implicitly remind the advisor that they are a witness).
    – Mark S.
    Oct 17, 2017 at 1:01
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    I would agree if the issue was trying to get restitution or about a legal recourse. But I read the OP's statement as saying that she has moved on from the job and is happy to have done so, except that she has unresolved personal issues with her former adviser. These won't be resolved by making the conversation a legal proceeding with lawyers on the sidelines. Oct 17, 2017 at 2:25
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    Your characterization about "lawyers on the sidelines" is a bit more extreme than I had intended. My primary thought was that if the advisor is so confused as to think depression and anxiety make the OP "a manipulative person", then having a third party to assure them that mental illness is real might help.
    – Mark S.
    Oct 17, 2017 at 9:29
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    My impression is the advisor thought everything was totally fine with OP until this bombshell landed in her inbox. She may have read the email as blaming her for OP's problems. So suddenly, instead of a bright, ambitious, hard-working student, OP's advisor suddenly has a student who is spurning a job on a platter and blaming her for all the student's issues. That seems like it may be a relationship problem where trust has vanished.
    – Neal
    Oct 17, 2017 at 10:15
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    I'd avoid this course of action. It's clear the supervisor doesn't understand mental illness and the impact it can have on a person's life, and given this is an academic institution I can't believe the school doesn't have policy and procedure covering individuals with mental illness. The professor is either unaware, or chooses not to follow those policies, and this must be brought to the attention of the administration. The email you sent was an unnecessary explanation, however the response is a form of abuse. If this isn't stopped and the professor educated in policy, it will happen again.
    – Adam Davis
    Oct 18, 2017 at 13:38

People, generally speaking, don't understand what it's like to suffer from mental issues. Those of us who suffer from it, sometimes have to carry very heavy (invisible) weight on our shoulders, trying to balance a productive life together with anxiety or depression. I find trying to express myself verbally and trying to share my feelings in an open and intelligent way highly productive and accepted very well both by students and faculty. I think it is important because it helps bridge the gap between the idea others have of who you are and what you are experiencing to what you are actually experiencing.

From your post, it strikes me as if your advisor accuses you of being not genuine. Could it be that the way she has received your email was as an excuse for not liking her? It sounds to me like you may have touched a self conscious nerve there, and that she may have projected some of her insecurities on you. If in general your advisor really liked you, which sounds to me like the case, as she offered you a position which is basically the highest badge of appreciation, I suggest you try mending the wound with her. Some people live in extremes, where people either love them or hate them, and they reciprocate those same emotions. Often times, in the same snap of a finger in which you switched sides you could switch back just by having a genuine positive interaction with her.

Now, I'm not suggesting you'd go over the top to try to have such an interaction with her, but a solid way to accomplish such a thing could most likely be reminding her of a positive past interaction you two had, expressing appreciation and being open and honest.

On a personal note, to whomever gets to read this in the future, searching for a post regarding mental health issues in the academia. Don't be afraid to get professional help, don't be afraid to communicate your status and most importantly, if you are aware of having such issues and suspect they can interfere with your professional relationships, make sure to choose to work with the right people, and when I say the right people, what I mean is people with higher than average emotional intelligence. Being a brilliant researcher doesn't necessarily come with the ability to empathise with a fellow human having trouble. When choosing an advisor, choose someone you can feel comfortable communicating your difficulties, if you can't be honest about your competency of doing a task due to a mental issue or a hard situation, how can one expect you to be honest about your difficulties when you are simply not up to par academically? These are my two cents.


You are likely to find that your depression eases immensely when Toxic Advisor is in your rear view mirror.

Obviously, you are working with one of the increasingly-rare individuals whose constricted world view cannot comprehend life events as affecting a person's well-being. This is obvious by their threatening your hard-won work in academia, which later is likely to threaten your professional career in private or public sector also.

If you stop it cold here it is easier to do so now than later, as the supports in place to assure your Rights and Protections will never be as strong again as they are no. You are under the auspicious of instruction in a an institute of Education - the last port before launching into the World and expectations that become less compassionate as focused on money, money, money.

So, if you are leaving academia because of this unreasonable treatment you may want to wait before you commit to that change, especially if you love your work and had dreams of working in academia.

In fact, as I look back on your posting discussion, I must wonder if you weren't targeted as vulnerable. I think I catch a whiff off natural gas in the air; the conditions do lend themselves to you being the victim of gaslighting. Those emotionally vulnerable are often targeted by predators.

Is it possible that Toxic Advisor has strong motive to beat you into submission by way of claiming you Too Defective to be worth anything and Your Work and your Little Dog Too (what the evil neighbor/wicked witch called Dorothy's dog, Toto)? It sounds like you are being browbeaten into accepting their demand.

I do not think that Toxic Advisor is a brilliant anything.

What ever the deal is this person's attitude and performance - by any standards of any workplace that is not slavery or bonded servitude - are severely unprofessional.

It is altogether possible that your Advisor not referring you on to resources at the school may be in violation of school, state, or federal policy or regulations.

In the United States, Title IX and other federal program policies and legislation directly tie funding to the Right to Education and the Right to Disability Equity. If at all accredited, wherever your school is there is going to be an office responsible for investigating, reporting, and enforcing your Rights as person, student, and disabled.

Your Advisor has been duly notified that you need "Reasonable Accommodation," and which you should backup with a simple confirming email stating the same.

Get a doctor's letter that is called "Verification of Medical Necessity."

It is simple a note on doctor's office letterhead that you have a condition (nature of which is not their business, by law) that is a disability by effecting your ability to be able to concentrate and physical well-being such that you need periods of rest. The doctor who writes the letter should be one treating you for depression, either as a family physician or specialist.

The school then must respond with an approval or denial.

There are only two reasons for a school's Denial of Request for Reasonable Accommodation: 1) if the Reasonable Accommodation (RA)would substantively disrupt normal activities of the school, or be so 2) prohibitive financially as to place a burden on the institution.

Good Luck - Be well and enjoy

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    In the US at least, an accommodation also cannot substantially alter the existing educational standards of the institution. Oct 17, 2017 at 20:30
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    I'd go beyond "a whiff" - I'd say the supervisor is very clearly gaslighting OP when they're trying to convince them and everyone around that their mental state is just a manipulative play. The supervisor's behaviour is abusive even without considering any disability laws - although of course without them there's no guarantee of a recourse with any given institution.
    – millimoose
    Oct 18, 2017 at 9:31

You are definitely being "unaccomodated" as a person with a disability. Start the complaint process, but since you're leaving academia anyway, your goal should be to get your PhD process complete and published. Let the powers that be know that, and they'll be glad to finish you up out of the program and be done with you.


Some people are just jerks.

You got several helpful answers about how to deal with this legally and how to educate your supervisor.

Still, some people are just jerks. They will hang up to their view of the world even if the reality shouts something else in their face and even if this impact others or make them suffer.

This is not just mental heath - history has shown this with basically anything, from religion to homeopathy.

I would just move on. You have your PhD, you have another position in a better environment so just enjoy it.

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