Finding mental-health clarity under pandemic pressures

Cicada infected with fungus Masospora cycadina (Left) and Adderall (Right), which is used to treat ADHD, both contain the amphetamine stimulant.Credit: Matt Casson

In 2017, my PhD student and I discovered that 13 and 17 year old cicadas are infected with the fungus. Masospora cycadina Trace amounts of amphetamine and cathinone inside their fungus-filled stomachs. Little did I know that four years later, during a global pandemic, the same class of stimulants would be prescribed to treat a mental disorder that had gone untreated for a long time.

I first had severe depressive episodes interspersed with prolonged episodes of hypomania (higher activity or higher-than-normal energy levels) when I was an undergraduate studying forestry and forest ecosystem from 1998 to 2001. I was hospitalized and dropped out of my second university for a year and a half ( It’s often considered a big red flag on a resume). These symptoms have been misdiagnosed as bipolar disorder. Latent hyperactivity and anxiety followed me for the rest of my scientific career. Despite the distraction, I have learned to live with these symptoms over the past two decades. Only in the past few months have I learned how to manage it successfully with medication.

Like many people with mental illness, I have kept my struggles private on a professional and personal level. Convinced of my own resilience, I felt I might be able to beat my illness by focusing on my education and maintaining a fortified exterior.

During my Masters and Ph.D., I directed my excessive anxiety and focus towards the study of fungi. During my graduate school, my symptoms felt like a superpower: a common and dangerous mischaracterization of anxiety and hyperfocus when successfully harnessed to socially acceptable tasks. I had dozens of work periods all night (some in a row) and it generated huge amounts of data. This may have encouraged and encouraged my unhealthy work habits. But I felt good about noticing my dedication and productivity. The shocking truth is that graduate programs are still organized to reward those who excel in their studies, with little regard for the costs of getting there. Some institutions, including those I attend and where I work, have made great strides in addressing these issues in recent years, while others have made little progress.

By 2014, after two years of post-doctoral studies and more than a decade with no psychotherapy or intervention, I began my work as a faculty member at West Virginia University in Morgantown, where I am now an associate professor of mycology and plant pathology. Before I took the position in 2020, I was preoccupied with my work with little regard for my mental health.

Some people have witnessed my lack of interest in various aspects of my personal life. The administrative side of my faculty job also kept slipping and presenting problems. Receipts and reports were delivered late, my to-do list piled up, but I reassured myself that this was just life in academia.

When the pandemic hit, my few remaining coping mechanisms faltered under the weight of the backlog. I felt like celebrating my tenure during the pandemic in many ways: I felt as though I was equally drawn in three directions as I coordinated the education of three young children at home, while giving virtual lectures and running a crowded lab, with limited opportunities for individuals to have the interactions with my students and lab members that I craved .

A year and a half into the epidemic, I reached a point where I knew I needed help. I scheduled appointments with both a therapist and psychiatrist after a 19-year hiatus from looking after my mental health. My psychiatrist provided a diagnosis of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Diagnoses are sweet and bitter – they provide comfort, but they also frighten uncertainty. Unlike bipolar disorder, ADHD and GAD and the medications used to treat them (such as Adderall and Prozac) are familiar to many people. Some people know colleagues or family members with these disorders. This realization makes ADHD and generalized anxiety disorder less of a stigma, but nonetheless they can be misunderstood. Most people do not understand the disabling effects of these conditions, individually or collectively, when left undiagnosed or treated. Barriers (eg, leisure time, drug cost, and stigma) limit access to diagnosis and treatment. People also don’t understand that some of us with ADHD can leave our anxiety temporarily unchecked to over-focus our work, often with successful results.

The experience of pathological hyperfocus and mild anxiety in academia can be confusing, as it may indicate the success and mental well-being of others. My productivity increased significantly during the first year of the epidemic: I published more papers, received more grants, and received awards from departments, universities, and the national community. I worked frantically day and night, editing manuscripts, writing grant proposals, pre-recording lectures, pushing myself beyond the brink of exhaustion. The line between my work and my personal life has completely blurred.

There is a natural temptation among scholars to draw parallels between our objects of study and ourselves. This is true for me and for infected cicadas that I study. As a mycologist, I am also aware of the parallels between mycophobia (fear of fungi and mushrooms) and my reluctance to advocate for my mental health. As I find clarity in my own diagnosis, I realize that my long-term relationship with fungi has taught me how to challenge cultural stigma. Perhaps one day people will talk as easily about the benefits of psychotherapy and medications as we do about the various beneficial roles that fungi play in the world around us.

It took me decades and a global pandemic to prioritize my mental health. It is still a long journey to remove the stigma of my mental illness and find happiness and acceptance in who I am and who I am. With the right combination of medication and therapy, I discover the true meaning of balance. Being open about my mental disorder does not diminish my value and my contributions as a scientist. Honestly, the truth seems like a second chance. It is also important to acknowledge the many layers of privilege that enable me to speak more freely about mental health. As a white, male, consistent professor, I have taken advantage of the existing biases built into the system, considering my stereotypical public identity throughout most of my career.

Many scientists, especially early-career scientists, continue to suffer silently from the constant fear of developing their own mental illness. It’s never too late to seek professional support for your mental health. Even before my diagnosis, ADHD and generalized anxiety disorder have always been a part of my identity. The contributions and perspectives of neuroscientists, including myself and many reading this, enrich academia and contribute to a healthy environment for those pushing the frontiers of scientific knowledge.

This is an article from the Nature Careers Community, a place for temper nature Readers to share their experiences and professional advice. Guest posts are encouraged.

conflict of interest

The author declares no conflict of interest.

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