Tuesday, July 21, 2015

On Mental Illness Within the Faculty. From Inside Higher Ed.

Over the years, Inside Higher Ed has published several essays by faculty members who describe the difficulties of being a professor and receiving appropriate support while facing mental illness. These pieces describe the fears and stigma associated with mental health issues, but relatively few faculty members who feel that they have been mistreated with regard to their mental illness publicize their cases or succeed in bringing legal action about them.

In a rare exception to that trend, an associate professor of chemistry at Boston College filed a grievance with a state agency over how he was treated when he returned from a leave he took to deal with his mental illness. And the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination has now found that the professor, William Armstrong, was retaliated against when he returned from the leave. Specifically, the department forced Armstrong to have his office away from the rest of the department, and refused to let him attend department faculty meetings, the commission found.

While the commission found that Armstrong's faculty colleagues may have been justified in their anger over some of his behavior prior to the treatment he received while on leave, taking actions against him after he returned from leave was illegal retaliation. A hearing officer wrote that the department's treatment of Armstrong was "highly irregular, hostile and isolating."

the rest of the misery...


  1. Egads that is sad. I don't have any idea how my department would handle such a case, but I suspect, poorly. Mental illness of any kind of just not tolerated. The isolation of people in trouble seems common, as is clear this department's faculty members aim to do.

    1. An individual who performs and behaves properly despite actual or suspected mental illness should not be penalized just because of mental illness. Why does that have to mean that one can underperform and misbehave and then suffer no consequences?

      The professor got plenty of leniency. He should not be surprised if other people are not comfortable to let him loose in a classroom (although he got an opportunity to prove himself by teaching a little) or to have him around. If he really is fine now and his medication is working, there is no guarantee that it won't stop working, if he even takes it.

      The illness may return at any time, but if he remained stable for a while, maybe he would be accepted and trusted again, although not necessarily as much as before the episode, at least not for some time. Do you think that if he taught that beginner course really well he wouldn't eventually get more challenging assignments, even after many years?

  2. I think perhaps the professor was being held accountable by his colleagues for his past overt behavior that had caused them real problems. That the misbehavior might be ascribable to something other than simple incompetence or asshollery did not nullify the impact upon them. The explanation of the behavior can help in the process of healing, forgiving, and moving on only if such an explanation was given. As one commenter on the linked article wrote: "My sense, however, is that fear of HIPPA litigation leads to an official omerta in which gossip, innuendo, and bad feelings fuel bad feelings and bad action on all fronts."

  3. Definitely a difficult case, since his actions while ill seriously undermined his ability to perform multiple parts of his job, and sometimes went as far as undermining others' ability to do their jobs. Still, it seems to me that the college acted appropriately (both on general principles and in keeping with their Christian principles) and that his colleagues did not do what they could and should have done to support his return. Mind you, I'd understand completely if they felt a need to supervise him closely; wait a while until he had any one-on-one advisory/teaching relationships with students, undergrad or grad; record department/committee meetings (with the knowledge/consent of all present) for everybody's protection, etc., etc., but shunning him/refusing to work with him is just counterproductive, both to his ability to re-integrate into the department, and to the department's ability to keep an eye on how he was doing (if somebody who has showed visible signs of instability in the classroom in the past is going to be interacting with students on a regular basis, then you want to be interacting with him regularly, too.)

    It doesn't say if Armstrong apologized to his colleagues for past behavior. If not, that's one obvious and very appropriate step he could take toward reconciliation. If you hurt someone, even while in a diminished/altered state, it's appropriate to apologize (it's also appropriate for the other person to acknowledge the diminished/altered state while accepting the apology, but that's another step along the way). Of course, when legal/personnel actions are in play, such conversations can be trickier, but it seems to me that the college's approach created an atmosphere in which they should have been possible.

    Even taking into account extreme cases such as this one, I still say that I'd rather have a colleague who has identified and addressed hir mental health problems to the maximum extent made possible by modern (and/or traditional/alternative) medicine than one who denies there is anything wrong, self-medicates with legal or illicit substances or otherwise engages in ultimately counterproductive coping measures, etc., etc. Since laws like the ones that supported Armstrong's case make it safer to seek help, I'm all for 'em.