Gleb Tsipursky is passionate about a lot of things. As a professor, he is passionate about his students. As a researcher, he is passionate about history and psychology. And now, he is passionate about sharing his personal experiences to fight the stigma surrounding mental illness.
Tsipursky, an assistant professor of history at Ohio State’s Newark campus, has devoted much of his academic career to studying the intersection of history and psychology. In the classroom, he encourages students to study the latest in educational psychology research. As co-founder of Intentional Insights, a non-profit website devoted to the popularization of psychological science, Tsipursky writes and organizes blog posts and digital media content for a high school and college-aged audience.
But it has been Tsipurksy’s personal experience with an adjustment disorder that has inspired him to share his story in an attempt to reduce the stigma of mental illness.
“Mental illness is just like a physical illness,” Tsipursky said. “People can be mentally ill just like they can be physically ill and they deserve just as much respect as someone with a physical illness.”
Tsipursky said adjustment disorders develop when an individual experiences a major life event, but does not take the time to fully process the event or sufficiently take care of himself or herself. In Tsipursky’s case, this life event occurred last July, when his wife suffered a nervous breakdown. This situation caused him to take on the role of caretaker in addition to managing the day-to-day operations of Intentional Insights and teaching classes at OSU Newark.
“I did not know when I started teaching how bad (my wife’s) condition would be. I thought it would kind of improve quickly, but it didn’t,” Tsipursky said. “By the time I figured out how bad her condition was going to be, it was kind of halfway through the middle of the semester. And I didn’t want to take a medical leave because I did not want to abandon my students. I am really dedicated to teaching, so that was really important to me.”
Tsipursky said it was under the stress of these responsibilities and pressures that he started to develop his own mental illness.
“I had really high anxiety and it was irrational anxiety,” he said. “The emotional anxiety was really overwhelming.”
By November, Tsipursky said, the stress began manifesting itself in more physical symptoms.
“I am a very engaged professor. I have group discussions and class discussions, so imagine I am in the middle of the classroom and I am leading the class discussion,” he said. “It is going really well and the students are really engaged. It is really flowing and I am feeling like I am on the top of my game. And then I just feel this pounding in my head or this wave of weakness invading my body. My arms are dropping and I need to take a seat and it is really hard for me to talk, to gesture.”
Tsipursky said these episodes of extreme fatigue would last for varying amounts of time depending on the stressor. They could last anywhere from 20 minutes during class to as long as several hours if the stressor was more extreme.
Tsipursky said he was able to use his personal background in psychology, as well as the advice he had written and compiled for publication on Intentional Insights, to help him understand what he was experiencing, but he soon learned that these strategies were not enough.
Tsipursky said he decided to take a leave of absence from teaching and began to see a therapist that winter, which has helped him feel good enough to return to his teaching in the fall. He said he is fortunate that his condition had not worsened, as it could have turned into post-traumatic stress disorder.
Now, Tsipursky said, he is sharing his story to help others who might be going through similar situations in their lives. He said it is important for them to take good care of their bodies and minds and seek help if necessary.
“I want people to take away that they should be really careful about their condition and their health when major life events happen,” he said. “I want people to take away that they can be proactive in taking care of their mental health.”
Tsipurksy said he intends to share his experience on the Intentional Insights blog.
“One of the things that I decided to do is share about my mental illness on the blog and talk about it openly…to help other people who experience mental illness learn about research-based coping skills for how they can improve their lives,” he said. “I can speak from a place that is different than a place if I did not have a mental illness myself.”
Tsipursky said he hopes that by sharing his story and promoting resources like Intentional Insights, he will help clarify the misconceptions surrounding mental illness.
“There is a lot of room to improve,” he said. “When I started sharing about my mental illness, I found a lot of people were supportive, but many people were just surprised and kind of gave me the cold shoulder. They were like, ‘Why are you talking about this? It is not appropriate to talk about this. It is not a topic for conversation. Just keep it a secret.’”
This stigma surrounding mental illness is something the OSU chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness tries to lessen, said Janell Pisegna, president of the OSU NAMI chapter and a master’s of occupational therapy student.
“As far as OSU and our student organization, we are just really focused on educating people. If people understand, it is less likely that there will be stigma,” Pisegna said, adding that the group engages guest speakers and participates in events hosted by the Franklin County NAMI chapter.
Pisegna said the group hopes to humanize mental illness.
“I think a good thing for NAMI is starting an uncomfortable conversation and making it more approachable in general,” she said. “It is a really uncomfortable conversation for a lot of people and we want to try to make it not be like that.”
Tsipursky said, despite the stereotypes, he is inspired to continue the conversation by sharing his story.
“I have definitely experienced that stigma and pushback myself when sharing about my mental illness,” he said. “Experiencing that has made me more passionate and dedicated to fighting the stigma against mental illness as part of my civic activism.”