Defuse your time bomb

The Mad Magpies shares his experience of developing a psychosocial disability while a University of Sydney student and academic.

I was a fairly normal guy. Queer, but relatively normal otherwise. I had just been married and my wedding was featured on SBS News as one of the first same-sex weddings by an Australian couple in New Zealand. Then I turned 30 and had a 6 piece band and a drag queen entertain my friends and family for the milestone. My mental illness time bomb was ticking then but no one knew about it -not even me.

At age 30, I joined USyd with teaching qualifications plus Bachelor, Master and PhD degrees in business. I knew my new role as an Associate Lecturer with the USyd Business School would be challenging because my unit had 1,800 postgrads who were mostly from mainland China. I have considerable experience teaching international students across several good universities like ANU but this was something else. A few months before I joined USyd, Honi and SBS covered a story about systemic cheating in my unit. Then, while I was teaching the unit, the student mag reported:

Approximately 37 per cent of students who took BUSS5000: Critical Thinking in Business in the first semester of 2015 failed the unit, with a vast majority of them Chinese. (Joyner, March 22, 2016)

Added to the mix was my impression that the majority of the students and even teaching staff in this unit on critical thinking failed to think critically about evidence-based business studies. Our team ended up all fighting over petty issues and my lecture on socially-responsible business was corrupted by Associate Professor Margaret Matanda who meddled so much with the content that delivering the lecture went against my personal and professional ethics and betrayed my values of social justice.

While this was going on I was also studying a second Masters -this time in Learning Science and Technology. I could barely even cope with one unit of study given I was teaching some nights until 9pm.

Then, one night after being bullied and pushed around by the Associate Professor and a Deputy Dean, I stood on Redfern station clutching a pole to stop myself from jumping in front of a train. This scene was detailed in my report to HR and they did nothing to comfort or support me. I was sent to an EAP therapist and demoted from lecturer to fill-time tutor by Professor John Shields, Deputy Dean of the business school. Ironically, Prof Shields is an HR academic but his handling of my anxiety, lack of response to my claims of being bullied and mismanagement of conflict among 5 of his direct reports but his HR expertise into disrepute.

In my new role that was a demotion through mutual agreement by myself and Prof Shields, I actually had a much larger workload. I couldn’t keep up with my studies and dropped out after census date so was hit with full fees but no academic penalty. I took some sick leave to try and recover but then came back for final exam consultations. I was so stressed because of all the students spotting inconsistencies in the unit and questioning the ridiculous central framework of the course chosen by A/Prof Matanda that I fled my office into a fire escape to see a friend who then failed to comfort me. I then developed a paranoid obsession with security cameras, lawsuits involving USyd and trauma from bullying and my suicidal ideation. I was spiralling into stress-induced psychosis.

Throughout my first semester as a USyd academic and student the clock on my psychosis time bomb ticked down more rapidly than ever before. There are many factors that made me more susceptible to a psychotic break but in my opinion, workplace stress was the biggest factor. I have not received any compensation and am not pursuing any but would like an official public apology at least. I was highly functional for 13 years at Macquarie University but USyd was soul-destroying. While a USyd employee I was involuntarily hospitalised twice and 3 of the 50 or so nights in hospital that year were the most terrifying nights of my life.

Professor Shields phoned when I got out of hospital and rather than try and empathise when I said I had just got out of a psych ward, all he said was “you didn’t have to tell me that.” When he asked when I would be coming back I pleaded with him to fire me because I had a 6 month resignation notice period on my 12 month contract.

I still really admire USyd but was mistreated by so many people in two faculties and the HR department that I can’t help but hate the place. Going past the Abercrombie Building fosters the same feeling of grief and trauma I felt when visiting the 9/11 memorials. This terror did not kill me or anyone else but it continues to be a source of complex trauma, sadness and anger.

I now live with schizoaffective disorder which for me involves brief periods of intense depression, mania, delusions and many different types of hallucinations. This is considered a psychosocial disability because it affects my life so much but I am very fortunate to have great doctors, a highly supportive husband and self employment in teaching and mental health.

My time bomb could have gone off at any time in my life but went off later than most people. Maybe no one could have predicted the explosion or diffused the bomb but USyd failed to control the blast or apologise for cutting the wrong wires to accelerate the countdown.

If this story raises concerns for you, please contact a helpline.

November 5, 2018

  • Hi
    Your story touched me deeply. Without going into detail, I had a nervous breakdown while studying and teaching at a similar age to you.
    I now live an with anxiety disorder which I mostly manage well but there are episodes of mental torture.
    Currently I have a boss who is very difficult and this isn’t helpful. I too was sent to EAP and the woman said find a new job. Life is challenging we juggle so much and often environments are not supportive.
    Look after yourself, be kind to yourself. Most people have no idea of what we live through. We shall overcome.

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