March 2019 – Monthly Post for ACPA’s Coalition for Sexuality and Gender
Cat McGraw (she/her) | Boise State University
Nick Daily (they/them; he/him) | The Claremont Colleges
I’m Cat, and I’m Nick, and we experience mental health stuff.
I’m Cathlene E. McGraw, MS. Academic Advisor. Communications Adjunct Faculty.
I have a 20 year old Bipolar I diagnosis. This experience leaves me greatly ambivalent. On one hand the depth of my ability to steward student crisis out laps my colleagues. As result of the exposure to new experiences stemming from my mental health care I can respond to a giant arc of human emotion and experience. However, because of the time in history I received my diagnosis and because my experience with mania was so deeply interrupting, I experience a great deal of shame. Plainly: I am strange. In professional settings I feel my difference acutely. This means when I need to draw on my college experience to illustrate an academic advising point, I know I will have to manage the impact of disclosing to students how I learned effective study skills as result of a psychotic break. It means that when I tell colleagues that my weekend included sleepless nights, I know that not everyone will know what to say to me after hearing about the dip in my mood that lead to a change in meds that kept me up, even if we just listened both polite and concerned about another colleague’s gallbladder troubles. I know that because I am a charming, funny, white educated cisgender woman, I benefit from privilege of my colleagues assuming I am a little “quirky” instead of the “crazy” lady in advising. I know that because I am Queer and polyamorous, I will always field probing questions and clinical disapproval from campus colleagues in medical professions about whether my sexual behavior and relationship modalities are a symptom of my mania.
I’m Nick Daily, I happen every day. The pronouns I use are “he” or “they”. I do arts engagement work in the Office of Black Student Affairs at The Claremont Colleges as Assistant Dean.
I was diagnosed Bipolar II, hypomanic 11 years ago. My own beliefs and values around mental health, social ills and our shared disconnection from each other and the planet complicate my experience of my mental illness. I believe, as someone who is an empath, that my mental illness is impacted greatly by the feelings of disconnection I feel near and far. I have a deep desire to engage students in conversations that situate me as someone who experiences the joys of living a life with a broad community while impacted by knowledge of the suffering of others. I choose to share my diagnosis with peers, colleagues, students, and collaborators, not as a way to excuse behavior, but in order to increase context and (ideally) accountability. Every time I share my diagnosis, I feel a lump in my throat and a feeling of dread. “Will they believe me? Will they see my smile and bright clothes and downplay it? Am I sure that this diagnosis was accurate?” are always playing in the back of my head. I also share my experiences of a manic or depressive state, as a way to highlight the ways that even someone who is frequently thought of as jovial, gregarious, and upbeat can also experience the shadow side of mental illnesses that rarely are seen (e.g. not wanting to get out of bed, negative thoughts about personal self-worth, and more). The expectations and pressures that I feel as a Blaqueer, genderqueer, dude drag wearing, married, home-owning “Assistant Dean” lead me to feel like a failure should I turn down an opportunity to collaborate, to join a project, or create a training for a community that is struggling. I know that because of dynamics of #BlackExcellence and #BlackBoyJoy, people will say that my hyper-production is a super power, but I also know that I feel pressure to not “fit into stereotypes” about those groups of people (i.e. lazy), which propels me further into manic behaviors or feelings of grandeur and saying “yes” because “I can do it”. #BlaQueerMagic.
It’s important for us to really highlight that the ways that our mental illnesses impact and are impacted by our multiple identities and how they shape the ways peers and students interact with us.
In our experiences as QT Student Affairs professionals, there are at least 6 ways to support your colleagues who experience mental health concerns feel less isolated and like their mental health experiences are less stigmatized.
1. Encourage office cultures that invite people to bring their whole selves to the office. This means making space for people to answer “how are you doing today?” with a sincere response, without the attempt to fix it. (Side note: If an office culture does not allow space to talk about medical issues, or only certain medical issues, there are always ways that individuals can make interpersonal conversations safe places to disclose mental health and other concerns in a safe environment.)
2. Support student affairs professionals, if they choose to, to use their experiences managing their own mental health as opportunities to engage students and peers who may be experiencing the same thing. Certainly, this depends on a person’s desire to disclose to peers and colleagues, but it also can help build a community of people informed about mental health experiences.
3. Allow, encourage, and role model honesty around mental wellness and “how we’re doing.” This means creating environments where people aren’t expected to be happy and cheery all the time. This also means allowing people to choose how much they want to disclose regarding their mental health experiences and supporting that as well.
4. Creating space in one-on-ones for people to describe how their current mental health experiences may impact the various ways they may show up to/at work. Though some may not know the answer to that question, others may value the opportunity to detail this information in a private, confidential way.
5. Foster an environment that encourages hard work, but discourages over work or burnout. For many in student affairs, we are used to Residence Life trainings and orientations that have us working 60+ hour weeks for multiple weeks in a row, we encounter workspaces that expect us to have email on our phones and responses during all hours of the day, and for us to “always be on.” To be clear, this dynamic is toxic to most people (even those who advocate it in the workplace), this dynamic is especially toxic to people who experience anxiety, insomnia, and many other mental health experiences due to the ways those diagnoses interact with that type of work environment.
6. Lastly, when your queer and trans peers and colleagues describe their mental health experiences to you, be sure to avoid ascribing their symptoms to their queer and trans identities. The histories and current realities of queer and trans identities being labeled as “disordered” make each disclosure a high stakes one especially when those identities are coupled with living with mental health experiences.