Monday, September 12, 2016

What is Mental Illness?

Today's guest post is written by Angela Zalucha, Principal Investigator at the SETI institute (website, twitter: @plutoprincessz). When Angela isn't using general circulation models to study planetary atmospheres, she is actively working to eliminate stigma surrounding mental health discussions to make our community more inclusive.


This series of blog posts is what one astronomer has learned while dealing with mental illness. It not be a substitute for help from a professional therapist or doctor. If this is an emergency, call 911 or go to your local emergency room.  In the U.S. you may also call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or click here for a listing of international numbers.

Hello, my name is Angela and I suffer from mental illness. What does that mean? Am I crazy? Am I insane? A mental illness is behavior or thoughts that prevent you from living an everyday life. Mental illness affects the way a person thinks, feels, and behaves, and it can impact your ability to relate with others and function on a daily basis. By no means are those with mental illness weird or abnormal--about 1 in 5 people in the US suffer from a mental illness (here are the stats from the National Alliance of Mental Illness). And those are only the ones that are diagnosed (see World Health Organization bulletin).

A few examples of living with mental illness include: washing your hands until they turn red, not being able to get out of bed due to apathy, or being so afraid of crowds that you become petrified. I'm not writing about “I got some super-glue on my hands once and tried to wash it off and it took forever,” or “I had worked really hard last week and just felt like lounging around on a Saturday in my pajamas,” or “I was tired and didn't want to go to the party.” I'm writing about “I spend so much time washing my hands that I'm late to work every day”, or “I couldn't get out of bed for a week and haven't paid my electric bill” or “my brother is getting married, but I've been worrying for weeks because a lot of people will be there.” These events (work, paying bills, family events) are things that we, our culture, or our society have deemed are necessary parts of life that we must do often, and mental illness serves as a barrier for engagement with life in fundamental ways. One in five people you know maybe coping with these issues; maybe that one in five is the reader: you are not alone, reader.

Academia exists within larger societal structures and is often rife with the same biases. While the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 disallows discrimination against mentally ill workers, the biases against mental illness are deep, and the reality is still very far from the ideal. Scientists and students who disclose their illness out of necessity may find that their credibility as a researcher is undermined by their need for accommodation. Too often mentally ill scientists are simply dismissed as “crazy,” or politely told that if they cannot do the required work, they should probably rethink their field of choice. This in turn leads to an unwillingness to disclose illness, which means that many mentally ill researchers struggle on without necessary medical help or workplace accommodation.

Untreated illnesses (and even treated, since that can take time) lead to cumulative detrimental effects on our careers: opportunities that couldn't be taken advantage of, lost time, and lower productivity; it's a barrier to access and ultimately, it likely means lots of talented people are lost from the field. (Currently, there are no studies of how many scientists and any level leave because a mental health barrier). Studies indicate we have a profound mental health crisis in academia, but the topic is so taboo that most of us don't even see the tip of the iceberg, much less the actual extent of the problem. (A collection of resources related to mental illness in academia can be found here).

What should you do if you feel like you might be suffering from a mental illness or maybe just want a consultation to determine if you are? It's pretty much the same as if you had a physical injury. The two main types of professionals are therapists and psychiatrists. Therapists are college-educated professionals (often PhD or equivalent) who usually use some technique such as talking, cognitive behavioral therapy, or meditation to treat your condition. Psychiatrists are medical doctors (or nurse practitioners) who can prescribe medication.

I will be honest, going to a stranger and spilling your innermost feelings is intimidating. But it's like going on a date. If you don't click with your therapist, you can go to a different one until you find one that makes you feel comfortable. Likewise, some people are afraid that drugs will change their personality, the things they enjoy. Many other patients are deterred by the strong societal stigma against medication to treat mental illness, though that has improved somewhat with time. While all medications carry side effects, prescription medications are meant to target a specific behavior, not turn you into someone you aren't.

In more urgent situations, at least in the US, if you are seriously thinking of harming yourself or have another urgent symptom, please consider calling the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, listed in the prelude to this point. You can also go to your local emergency room or call 911. (Depending your state of mind, it may be best to have someone else drive you). They can and will treat your emergency just as if you had broken your leg. There are triage nurses and doctors that can help you with your emergency. Each state has different laws, but in my state, Colorado, you can commit yourself to a psychiatric hold where you stay in the hospital for 72 hours. For your own safety, they take away anything you could use to hurt yourself and provide mental health care to treat the most urgent symptoms. Please be kind to yourself and get help and show compassion for others who are suffering, perhaps secretly.

As for long-term care at colleges, universities, and other institutions, mental health care varies by a large margin.  A long-term goal of the AAS WGAD is to assess availability on campuses of resources to astronomers at all career levels, and ensure it is widely known within institutions how to access these resources.

Significant contributions to this post were made by Alicia Aarnio and Jackie Monkiewicz. Future blog posts will focus on specific conditions such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, obsessive compulsive disorder, and other mental illnesses.


  1. Replies
    1. Hello! Yes, please email me, aarnio at umich dot edu, and let's discuss!

  2. As a planetary scientist with mental illnesses, I am very glad to see this post, and hope it helps continue the discussion about this topic in our fields. I recently wrote a post published in Solstice Literary Mag about supporting writers with mental illness, and I think a number of those suggestions are apt for our scientific communities, as well.