Catherine Duclos, York County Community College
There have been articles written about advisors working with students with mental health issues or a mental health disability, but not about the advisor who does their work with mental health issues or a mental health disability, so I’m coming out of the closet to talk about it, to help others who have been in the closet as I have for so long. I am an advisor who lives with a mental health disability, bipolar to be exact, and I’ve struggled with it my entire life and as I’ve advised students of all ages. Now I am an advisor at the college level, and everything I have learned from living with my disability informs my practice as an advisor. This is how:
I felt lost, broken, and afraid for many years before I was finally diagnosed: much like students feel when they are struggling with their classes, their homework, or their confusion about the future that they are expected to have once they finish college. In a unique way, I have built in empathy, compassion, and an authentic understanding of their experiences. As an advisor then, I can go deep with them into those places of feeling lost, broken and afraid, confused and confounded. I can help them to begin to explore the pathways to the surface where they will find their strengths, their particular gifts in living a fulfilling life, their hope, and even joy at these discoveries of self. Surfacing, as I have come to see it in my students and as I have experienced myself, is just as it sounds: coming to the surface above the negative messages, internal and external, that have held one back from true self. It is a way of learning to trust oneself, believing in one’s strengths, value, and unique gifts.
One of the ways I learned how to “surface” in this way was by coming to understand that my illness was a gift, not a liability. One author in particular, Parker Palmer (2000), woke me up to this realization in his book titled Let Your Life Speak, Listening for the Voice of Vocation:
We arrive in this world with birthright gifts—then we spend the first half of our lives abandoning them or letting others disabuse us of them. As young people, we are surrounded by expectations that may have little to do with who we really are, expectations held by people who are not trying to discern our selfhood, but trying to fit us into slots. Then—if we are awake, aware, and able to admit our loss—we spend the second half trying to recover and reclaim the gift we once possessed. (p. 12)
Imagine being able to share with a student that their disability is a gift, not a curse or something keeping them from a promising future. Instead, through the advising relationship, one can assist them to embrace their difference as a pathway to true self; discover an awareness that their particular way of being in the world is not broken; reassure them that they’re not lost or alone. It is powerful to witness them shift their perspective so they can see that what they are facing is simply a distinct kind of challenge they can learn to accept, live with, and then actually thrive on. Guiding students through this process is a way to help them towards self-acceptance, resilience, grit—a freedom and joy that goes beyond measure.
This progression is part of trusting oneself and also becoming trustworthy as a person. Sankar (2003) phrases these actions in this way: “For academic advisers, trust building begins with the adviser being trustworthy and communicating trustworthiness. The ability to do so is largely based on one’s character, competence, and authentic way of being” (p. 50). My own role in this unfolding is being authentic with my students through appropriate self-disclosure. By this I mean revealing my illness or disability in what I discern as a safe and accepting environment. For example, when I work with a student who is obviously struggling with some mental health issues, I will share with them that I have also struggled in life in a similar way. I share with them that I have a mental health disability, but that I have been able to gain the health, stability, and competence to become successful in life as an academic advisor. My students can witness for themselves and trust that there is a model for their own success as I share my authentic way of being with them.
It wasn’t always that way, however, as I struggled for years in my professional life in silence, feeling ashamed of my “problems” relating to bipolar. For those who don’t know, bipolar was once called manic depression (a term I actually prefer as it is more descriptive of the experience of bipolar). For the layman, essentially, manic depression is a mood disorder in which one has high elevated moods where one can feel quite happy, even euphoric, and have far increased energy, creativity, and productivity levels (manic). Then, the pendulum swings the other way towards low, detached, sometimes hopeless and despairing moods where one can barely get out of bed, much less get to work or school (depression). This of course does not fit the pattern of a regular work day/week or the pattern of a regular class load at college or university. So, how can this be a gift one could wonder? Once I was finally able to recognize and track the patterns of my “highs” and “lows,” in other words, gain some self-understanding, I accessed all the resources available and I advocated for myself—this was the key, one I constantly share with students.
When I was in school, doing my graduate degree, I found out about the office for students with disabilities and registered with them so they could assist me when I needed it. Also, I talked about my disability and my patterns with all my professors so they could understand that sometimes I would be able to be in a very high, creative, and productive mode in my class work, and sometimes I would not be able to do as much, but would be able to eventually catch up with assignments with their cooperation through accommodations. I was encouraged and actively sought counseling and psychiatric therapeutic support along the pathway of my recovery. At times, I required inpatient hospitalization and had to take a break from school. I admit this was challenging and discouraging, but I always returned at the encouragement of my advisor and a few faculty members. At other times I was able to function and stay in school with outpatient clinical treatment, where I learned life-long coping skills that I still use. This is the kind of information I share with my students who live with mental health issues or a mental health disability. Self-advocacy and self-efficacy are crucial to their personal and academic success. I say this to them explicitly and role model for them the deep value of taking the path of appropriate self-disclosure, using campus resources, actively seeking counseling and psychiatric care, and most of all, an acceptance of their unique gifts.
And last in my journey, I eventually opened up about who I really am to the people in my life—my friends, my fellow students, and my co-workers. It was frightening at first because of the stigma of mental illness. I thought I would be ostracized, rejected because my experience was so different than theirs. Some did turn away from me in fear and otherness, but many embraced the way I experienced the world and saw it as unique and valuable. Today, I am fortunate to work in such an environment. Going through this process of self-disclosure and acceptance helped me to gain the self-confidence and self-esteem I felt I had lost earlier in my life. As Palmer said, I recovered and reclaimed the gift I once possessed. Students have this opportunity as well, given the clear guidance, the empathy, and the focused advocacy of an informed academic advisor, as I have described here.
As an advisor, this journey of mine into brokenness, fear, shame, and losing myself through the lens of my disability has brought me infinitely closer to students who share some of the same qualities of their journey in life. My disability is my gift in this profession; it took me a lifetime to come to my own awareness of this fact, as it may for other advisors who live with a mental health disability. That is why I am speaking now, so that others may not feel so alone—you are not. You are in good company.
College Success Advisor
TRIO Student Support Services
York County Community College
Parker, P. (2000). Let your life speak, listening for the voice of vocation. San Francisco, CA: Jossey Bass.
Sankar, Y. (2003). Character not charisma is the critical measure of leadership excellence. Journal of Leadership and Organizational Studies, 9(4), 45-55.
Cite this article using APA style as: Duclos, C. (2016, September). Surfacing: Advising with a mental health disability. Academic Advising Today, 39(3). Retrieved from [insert url here]