Living With Schizoaffective Disorder in the World of Academia

In the last month, I have had two articles published in reputable academic journals.

I have also spent time in hospitals, psychotic and extremely anxious, convinced I was possessed by the devil.

I have schizoaffective disorder, a heady mix of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder. I’ve had suicidal lows, cutting myself to release the anxiety and feelings of failure; I’ve had euphoric highs, pacing the hospital corridors all night and believing I was in touch with everything in the world. I also experience auditory hallucinations — voices telling me what to do or insulting me.

It appeared during the last year of my degree — in fact, the first psychotic symptoms hit me in the university library. I coped by locking myself away with no idea what was wrong. The next year I started my masters degree and things deteriorated quickly. I found it extremely hard to be surrounded by other people and frequently walked out of lectures. I was self-harming a lot and the nurses at the university medical centrer were keeping me together. The day after I defended my masters dissertation, I was hospitalized for what would be a three month stay in a psychiatric ward.

Rewind a couple of months and I had been awarded a PhD scholarship in England, due to start in September 2015. I came out of hospital and moved to the U.K. three days later. I lasted two months before being sent home to France, suicidally depressed and with no support from medical services despite my need being urgent.

Academia and severe mental health problems are not easy to juggle together. Last year I completed the second year of my masters despite two hospitaliations during the academic year. Luckily the doctor at the university health center gave me a pass to miss lectures but I also received a lot of support from my supervisor.

Therein lies a big question — disclosure. I have tried to be open with my supervisors, but am very aware of the difficulties in doing so. My masters supervisors are both aware of my condition and were very supportive, but there was a layer of risk-aversion, giving me strict rules about what I could (write my thesis) and couldn’t (involve myself in any other projects) do, including giving me a number of hours I was to work each week.

Right now, I am getting over the last hospital stay and starting to look for a PhD project, so disclosure is top of the list of worries. Do I take the risk of not disclosing my mental illness in the full knowledge that I am not yet stable and may need another hospitalization down the line, or do I tell them so that I can access support and make it more likely for me to complete this PhD? There are big gaps on my CV I will probably be asked about, but I’m aware that telling potential supervisors I have a form of schizophrenia is unlikely to be conducive to being chosen from the pile.

Like my hero Elyn Saks, I am determined to reach the top of academia, diagnosis in tow. It may take me longer than usual and I may need to have continued support and help, but I will get there. This illness is not going to get the better of me.

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