NEWARK – Gleb Tsipursky had a big decision to make.
An assistant professor of history at Ohio State University-Newark, he went on medical leave from his job in the winter to recover from a mental illness.
After several months of therapy, he was looking forward to assuming his responsibilities and returning to the classroom in the fall. But one big question remained.
Should he tell people about his mental illness? Or would it be better to keep it to himself?
He knew there was a chance that speaking out could have negative consequences. People he considered friends or colleagues might turn away from him. He might be subjected to negative stereotypes associated with his disease.
But he kept coming back to the same question — “What kind of world do I want to live in?”
He realized he wanted to be authentic with the people around him, especially when that could help other people overcome the stigma of mental illness and get treatment.
“The world where I told people about my mental illness was a much more attractive world to me,” he said. “That’s the world I wanted to live in, instead of keeping it a secret and hiding.”
So he started sharing his story and plans to continue, hoping to help as many people as possible. There is treatment available and people shouldn’t be afraid to ask for it, he said.
“There is a lot of stigma against mental illness,” he said. “I really wanted to tell my story as a way to deal with that.”
‘Very difficult and straining’
Teaching has been one of Tsipursky‘s greatest passions for many years.
A native of the Republic of Moldova, he moved to the United States with his family when he was 10.
After studying at New York University, Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, he began teaching at OSU-N in 2011.
He soon realized he truly enjoyed the campus and the opportunity to work with first-generation college students.
Tsipursky, 34, specializes in the history of the former Soviet Union and researches how emotions and decisions can affect history.
Through his research, he developed an interest in psychology and began trying to use scientific findings in his daily life.
He realized that some of the information he learned could help his students and others understand the ways they think, learn and set goals for themselves.
But it isn’t always easy for those who don’t have a background in academia to understand that research or know where to find it, he said.
In early 2014, he and his wife, Agnes Vishnevkin, decided to create Intentional Insights, a nonprofit organization dedicated to presenting helpful self-improvement research in a way that’s accessible to the public.
Between teaching, researching and the success of the website, things seemed to be going well. But Tsipursky’s life changed drastically in July when Vishnevkin experienced a nervous breakdown.
She began seeing a therapist, but her improvement was slow. Tsipursky became his wife’s primary caregiver, taking on all the household responsibilities as well as all of the work for their organization. When the fall semester began, he wanted to be there for his students and decided to continue teaching.
But the sleepless nights and long days took their toll on him.
“I was very glad to do it,” he said. “But it was very difficult and straining,”
As the semester continued, Tsipursky began to realize something was wrong.
He began having racing, anxious thoughts when students approached him.
“That’s a natural, everyday occurrence,” he said. “But I would have really anxious thoughts on my mind. Are they upset? Will they complain about me?”
Whenever he got an email, he would immediately assume it was something negative from his supervisor.
Then he began experiencing severe fatigue. Waves of exhaustion would hit him, sometimes while he was teaching, and simple things such as standing or raising his hand would become difficult. He’d be forced to sit down.
He tried using mindfulness and some of the strategies from Intentional Insights. That helped, but his symptoms continued to interfere with his life and work. It was time to seek professional help.
After the fall semester ended, he decided to take a medical leave from teaching and sought the help of a therapist.
He was diagnosed with adjustment disorder, with anxiety symptoms. The condition can follow a very stressful, life-altering event.
He worked hard with his therapist, coming up with additional strategies to cope with his symptoms. He worked every day to improve his mental health while also caring for his wife.
After several months, Tsipursky said, he is in a much better place.
“It’s important to take the time to take care of yourself, especially if you are supporting someone in your family experiencing mental illness,” he said. “I wish I would have learned that earlier.”
Tsipursky doesn’t see his mental illness as being any different from a medical condition such as an ulcer or broken foot.
He sought help and treatment and was able to recover.
“It’s just as normal as a physical illness,” he said. “It’s not something that’s surprising or outrageous.”
But he knows not everyone understands that.
Some employers don’t believe a mental illness is a justifiable reason to take time away from work. For a person who already feels isolated and afraid to ask for help, that attitude can make things worse, he said.
When Tsipursky decided to speak out about his experience, writing articles and telling friends and co-workers, he experienced some negative reactions.
But most people were positive and accepting.
“Some shared something similar has happened to them,” he said. “Some said they were proud of me for telling my story and being open about it,” he said. “There are a lot of people who keep it hidden.”
As he pursues his love of teaching, Tsipursky said, he’s hopeful he can break down stereotypes about mental illness and encourage others.
“(Talking about it) can fight stigma and encourage people to get treatment and be understanding,” he said. “People might start to see it as something that can be dealt with.”
•For local mental health resources, contact Mental Health America of Licking County at 740-522-1341 or mhalc.org.
•For additional support, contact the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill by calling 800-950-6264 or going to nami.org.
•For information about the legal rights of people with mental illnesses, contact Disability Rights Ohio at 614-466-7264 or disabilityrightsohio.org.
Found in The Newark Advocate, May 5, 2015