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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Mental Illness and the Terrors of the Law School Tenure Track

McelroyLaw Prof Lisa T. McElroy (Drexel) has a gripping piece on Slate about her battle with mental illness as she progressed along the tenure track: Worrying Enormously About Small Things: How I Survive Anxiety and You Can, Too. Here is the opening:

I sat in my tent in the Kenyan bush. It was nighttime. I was up late, in Kenyan time, at least. Back in the United States, it was afternoon. The afternoon that the tenure committee was meeting to vote on my future. As a university professor who had worked 13 years toward a goal of job security and respect from my peers, it all came down to this one conference room sit-down.

I listened to the lions roar. And I thought about walking outside the demarcated safari “safe area” into the night, into the bush, into the wild. Because, for me, the safe area was not safe. No place was safe. No place on Earth, I’d found, as I’d crossed hemispheres—west to east, north to south—trying to find one.

If the lions ate me, my family would get my life insurance. And then a tenure denial wouldn’t matter. Having a back-up plan made me breathe easier.

It was a very long night. No email arrived by 1 a.m. I took a sedative and tried to sleep. At 5 a.m., I checked again. There it was. The email.

I had been voted tenure.

So many colleagues across the country had tried to tell me that getting tenure would be anticlimactic. It wouldn’t matter, they said, because by the time the vote came around, I’d have a pretty good idea of whether I’d met the standards or not. I’d have a feel for the politics of my law school. I’d have heard through the grapevine which way the winds were blowing. The vote would not be a surprise.

But as I write today, a month after the board of trustees formally granted me tenure, six months after receiving that email after a very long Kenyan night, I can tell you that my colleagues and friends were wrong.

You see, for a person living with mental illness—in my case, a severe anxiety disorder—the kind of security and certainty that come with tenure are an exquisite relief. And that is because the six years it takes to get there are an exquisite kind of torture, of terror, of talking oneself into being semicalm through the night to make it to the next day, the next class, the next faculty meeting.

Those years are full of lions around every bend. And so the lions in Kenya were familiar, if not friends. And considering letting them eat me alive? It couldn’t be worse than the six-year job interview I’d just been through.

(Hat Tip: The Faculty Lounge, PrawfsBlawg.)

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Comments

You are brave. I am proud. Unfortunately, some pigs are more equal than others when it comes to mental illness. First, people forget it is an illness. Like Cancer, diabetes, and many other long term illnesses they are all illnesses. But metal illness is still something that remains "in the closet" and cannot be married with work.

And I apologize for having to say this but you will be treated differently than others. If you had schizophrenia or bipolar disorder I doubt you would have received a similar reception. All are illnesses. All are illnesses that affect a vital organ, but people think they can relate to you because everyone has felt a measure of anxiety. However, I know better. I know that is not how it is for you. Your illness makes it a much different thing. Just like there is a difference between feeling depressed and suffering from depression.

I do not think the legal profession is ready to hear that their colleagues suffer from mental illnesses, well at least some. I think people would be scared. Like I said, I think if colleagues found out that a person was schizophrenic or bipolar they would immediately question the person's fitness and ability to do his/her job. I think some bosses/managers, even under the laws that protect people with metal illnesses would provide reasonable accommodations, would think the person is unfit to do their job. And if the person suffering from mental illness (I will we would start calling a spade a spade and recognize that these are brain illnesses and call them brain illnesses), such as bipolar disorder, went to his/her boss and said "X happened (or X is a problem for me) because of my illness" the response or the response feared is "if you can't do that because of your illness, then you can't do your job and you are of no use to me."

Trust me, you did a very courageous thing and you should be proud. Maybe you have made the road a little easy to tread for those who come after you.

Posted by: taxguy | Jul 20, 2013 11:14:37 PM

I am curious if Prof. McElroy can better relate to the majority of the recent graduates from Drexel Law School, for whom sleepless nights and a palpable fear over their inability to pay for their own basic needs is not a manifestation of illness, but rather the expected response to their current economic circumstances.

Posted by: JM | Jul 22, 2013 5:08:02 AM