A Trauma-Informed Mentorship Model for Early Career Academics and Graduate Students Experiencing Mental Illness

By Neil Simpkins and Brenna Swift

photo by the authors, Neil Simpkins and Brenna Swift

This piece is a part of our Spark series: Disabled and Chronically Ill: Navigating Work Inside and Outside the Academy

Higher education is organized around the idea that some people are fit to learn and others aren’t. Disability studies scholar Jay Dolmage describes how a vision of the ideal learner guides all choices that are made at universities, from the design of campus buildings to the ways that students are graded. The imagined elite learner is white, heterosexual, male, and nondisabled. Disability studies writer Margaret Price also adds that this mythical “normal” student or faculty member is also specifically free of mental illness. Students and faculty with mental illness are often seen as lazy, disruptive, a legal liability, a risk to eliminate from campus, and unable to succeed. Graduate students and faculty members with mental illness may encounter questions about whether they have chosen a realistic path. Some university instructors and employees with mental illness choose to go without accommodations in order to avoid disclosing their conditions; others are denied accommodations or fired. By perpetuating these exclusionary perspectives and practices, we risk not benefiting from the unique insights of people with mental illness. We miss out on their contributions to building a more just world, and meanwhile, the widespread stigmatization and abuse of people with mental illness continues.

Access for Mentally Disabled Students and Faculty is a Social Justice Issue

Access for students and faculty with mental illness is a social justice issue. Disability justice writers such as Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha shed light on how mental health disabilities can be connected with experiences of trauma and oppression, including interpersonal violence, racial discrimination, gender-based violence, and colonialism. At the same time, people from marginalized groups are less likely to have trauma-related mental disabilities recognized and treated compassionately by schools or the healthcare system, which has historically perpetrated violence against Black communities and disabled people.

Cover of Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha’s book Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice
Photo by Arsenal Pulp Press

Not all people with mental illness, and not all people from marginalized groups, identify as having experienced trauma. We note that emphasizing the association between mental illness, trauma, and oppression can stigmatize and essentialize marginalized communities. Some oppressed groups in the U.S. have different ways of understanding and caring for mental illness. Higher education tends to ignore ways of defining mental illness that fall outside the traditional Western, capitalist views of disability as a deficit. When institutions of higher education pathologize or exclude people with mental illness and trauma-related disability, they are complicit in cycles of systemic oppression and violence that have caused ongoing trauma for Black and Indigenous communities of color, LGBTQIA+ people, and other marginalized groups.

This is truer now than ever. The stress and trauma associated with the pandemic have disproportionately impacted people with mental illness, disabled people, and those labeled less worthy of survival on the basis of race or identity. Yet during the COVID-19 crisis, many universities have enacted strict policies that ignore the extreme stress experienced by both students and instructors. Nor have universities widely acknowledged that the trauma of national police brutality experienced by Black students is grounds for academic accommodation; at the University of Washington, the Black Student Union made this connection in its list of demands to faculty at the end of the Spring 2020 quarter. Marginalized people have encountered more barriers to obtaining healthcare, including culturally sensitive, trauma-sensitive mental healthcare, during the pandemic.

College, graduate school, and academic careers are inaccessible to many people with mental illness and disability, especially people from marginalized groups. We believe, however, that now is an opportunity for radical change — for what Angela Carter calls collectively reimagining “what education can look like.” People with mental illness and trauma-related disability always already mattered, always already deserved access. But with COVID-19 causing experiences of intense trauma for those who were already vulnerable, it is unacceptable to continue excluding disabled students, employees, or faculty. We must find another way.

Trauma-informed practices, we argue, provide one way to dismantle ableist barriers in academic settings. Trauma-informed practices acknowledge how trauma and mental disability impact people and their experiences with learning or teaching. A trauma-informed framework influenced by disability justice focuses not on “diagnosing” individuals with a disability, but rather on making environments more accessible for those who have been through trauma and those who have other kinds of mental illness. Neil and Brenna, the authors of this piece, both have mental illnesses that influence our positionality and experience as researchers. Our approach to trauma-informed pedagogy challenges the idea that mental illness is a personal failing and that only some people — nondisabled people — deserve to learn or teach. It also assumes that mental illness and trauma are widespread experiences while emphasizing how systemic violence causes trauma for marginalized groups. Trauma-informed practices can be used not only to support mentally ill academics who have experienced trauma, but also as inclusive practices for a wide range of graduate students and early-career academics.

A Trauma-Informed Approach to Mentorship

Trauma-informed practices for college settings have been adapted from guidance for community agencies and students in kindergarten through 12th grade; it is rare to see them applied at the graduate school and faculty levels. But we believe trauma-informed practices can begin to break down the structures and beliefs that exclude learners in all settings. Before describing a trauma-informed approach to mentorship, we must first strongly caution against approaches to trauma-informed practices that focus on the specific outcomes of trauma for individuals, neglect the impacts of systemic injustice, and frame mental illness as a personal problem to be “cured.” These approaches further essentialize and pathologize people with mental illness and other disabilities, ignoring the systemic origin of access barriers. Instead, the approach we advocate centers and celebrates the lives of people with mental illness while examining where the barriers originate.

Mural of Angela Davis quote, “It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.”
By Neil Simpkins and Brenna Swift

As Shannon Davidson explains in a guide to trauma-informed practices in postsecondary education, one of the most important first steps in implementing trauma-informed practices is to ensure that learning environments are safe both physically and interpersonally. This means holding classes and locating offices in buildings that are well-lit, with easily accessible exits and gender-neutral restrooms. In their guide to supportive environments for faculty with mental illness, Margaret Price and Stephanie Kerschbaum emphasize avoiding stigmatizing language and building flexibility into the organizational culture. It is crucial for graduate programs to establish safe and inclusive climates. In her research in progress on the writing experiences of people with mental illness and other disabilities, Brenna has found that some of her graduate student interviewees experienced intense intimidation, racism, ableism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination while in school.

Another key trauma-informed practice is trustworthy, direct communication. Direct communication makes the steps involved in writing, researching, and obtaining a job more transparent to people with trauma-related mental illness who may have difficulty processing unexpected challenges. Clarifying expectations for genres like prelims exams, dissertations, and tenure portfolios from the start and referring to them frequently can help support grad students and early career faculty with mental illness or who have experienced trauma. The “no assignment sheet” model of advanced academic writing is a key example of indirect communication that can become an access barrier.

Collaborating with students and giving them choices is another important trauma-informed practice. For graduate students with disabilities, collaboration is often the only way to address the ableism baked into graduate education. As an example, an autistic graduate student with PTSD and depression whom Neil interviewed for his ongoing research described how the nationally mandated language fluency exam for prelims would, in ze’s words, “break down” an autistic student:

There’s a lot of roleplaying, working out like the interpersonal social interaction and some of those roleplay situations were like deliberately conflict structured. And all of that together meant that just doing the interpersonal stuff took up so much of my brain that I couldn’t do language.

For ze, approaching prelims in this manner would have exacerbated hir mental illness, frustrated hir as an autistic person, and created another traumatic experience with graduate school. Through collaboration with the student, disability services, and the department, ze completed hir exam in a more accessible format by having an open conversation in Russian with hir department chair. Here, we can see the type of mentorship that Brenna and I argue for in this piece. Within the interaction, the student works with both hir department chair and advisor to problem solve the inaccessible design of the oral prelims exam. While much responsibility is put upon the student to meet hir own access needs, open collaboration facilitates this process.

Creating inclusive environments will require that we not only dismantle barriers within specific programs but also address the systemic issues that make campuses unsafe. A trauma-informed approach demands that we work to dismantle intertwined systems of oppression, including anti-Blackness, racism, ableism, transphobia, homophobia, and colonialism.

Ending the Exclusion of Mentally Ill Students and Faculty Members

Like the clock in the hallway that Neil passed every day in graduate school, higher education tends to find temporary, ad-hoc solutions to institutional problems. Our ultimate goal should be to move beyond piecemeal solutions to accessibility issues and to work towards radical transformation. We dream of a higher education system where scholars with mental illness can not just survive but thrive. The disability justice movement offers a pathway for creating this new system. Started by community-based queer activists of color and the disability performance group Sins Invalid, it takes an intersectional approach to understanding disability. Disability justice activists such as Patty Berne and the late Stacey Milbern have analyzed how disabled people are treated as disposable by powerful institutions such as colleges and universities. They call for a complete reorganization of society to end the exclusion of disabled people, including people with mental health disabilities. If ableist, racist, and oppressive definitions of the ideal learner have created a system that casts aside people with mental illness and disabilities, what we need are new definitions, new stories, and new ways of taking action. We are excited to help write these stories and work for a better education system alongside other people with mental illness.

Clock set to 4:05 with a sticky note attached “Add one hour”
Photo by By Neil Simpkins and Brenna Swift

Neil Simpkins, PhD, is an associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington-Bothell. Simpkins’ current projects use qualitative interviewing methods to explore how students with disabilities navigate higher education. They describe how students learn and transfer knowledge about access and accommodations across college classrooms, particularly as they relate to college writing.

Brenna Swift is a PhD candidate in student composition and rhetoric and the Assistant Director of the University of Washington-Madison Writing Fellows program. Her work uses disability studies, feminist theory, and critical race theory to challenge practices that exclude marginalized students from higher education.