Sunday, November 27, 2005

Depression in the Academy

A couple years back I was sitting in on a colloquium talk about mental health, and the researcher used the term "dysthymia." As soon as he did so, many hands went up in the room, with people wanting a definition. He defined the condition as "mild to moderate long-term depression." To which one of the women's studies professors replied, "Oh, it's what we all have." Much dark laughter ensued.

It was a telling moment. I wish academics could collectively be more upfront about the prevalence of depression in our industry. I've lost count of how many grad students and faculty have admitted to being on antidepressants or antianxiety meds. And reading academic blogs, especially those by women who blog anonymously, it's apparent to me that we have a problem that's not being sufficiently addressed.

Universities don't go far enough when they merely provide individual or small-group counseling for depression and related disorders. There needs to be a widespread public-relations campaign about depression in academia, something that reaches every corner of our field--from the Chronicle of Higher Education to a depression awareness month on undergraduate campuses. Regardless of whether or not our students are depressed themselves, it couldn't hurt them to know that so many of us are hurting.

I'm not saying we need to pour our hearts out in front of our students, but rather just acknowledge the fact of depression, that adults have good days and bad days, and sometimes the bad days masquerade as good days, and sometimes we don't have the energy to hide the blues. And we need to be open to addressing depression in the student population, making referrals when necessary and just talking frankly about our personal struggles with depression in a way that isn't necessary painfully self-revelatory. We also need to talk to each other, as grad students and faculty. I'm thinking of discussions along the lines of: "Hey, I understand what you're going through. I've been depressed since age 13. Here's what has worked for me, and here's what has worked for friends of mine. You might look into your options."

Why am I thinking about this right now? Because I have 50 papers to grade and a dissertation chapter due this week, and as a result I'm feeling overwhelmed and I've entered a depressive cycle. I feel depressed about having to do the work, so I put it off by working on other little projects or through garden-variety procrastination: surfing the web, catching up on e-mail, reading the newspaper, etc. Then the deadline pressure builds up to the point where I just break down and sob quietly about all the work I have to do.

Ninety-five percent of the time I manage to make my deadlines despite this depression. But for those 5% of times when I don't, I can't tell you how great it would be to say to the supervising professor, "I'm going to need an extra day/week/month to get this done because I've been dealing lately with depression. I'm being treated for this condition, and I appreciate your understanding." Certainly the professor would understand if we said, "Hey, I've been sick with bronchitis/nausea/migraines/bird flu for the past few days, so I didn't finish grading the papers yet." But there's a stigma attached to depression, so I find I have to be vague or evasive when I ask for an extension. "Yeah. . .I had a, um, family emergency that, um, ate into my paper grading time." And then I have to dodge the follow-up questions.

Fortunately, my advisor, I think, would be understanding. But I know some faculty would not be sympathetic because they have never experienced depression, they have experienced depression but have had more success in dealing with it than I have (i.e. they're high functioning depressives), or they just plain don't think depression ranks seriously enough as an illness or disability to merit special consideration.

Of course, there's the chicken-egg question: does academia cause depression, or are depressives naturally drawn to academic careers? Or is the entire damn country depressed and I just haven't been perceptive enough to notice?


Breena Ronan said...

Personally I would say option #3. Here's the web page that backs me up: "An estimated 22.1 percent of Americans ages 18 and older—about 1 in 5 adults—suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year. When applied to the 1998 U.S. Census residential population estimate, this figure translates to 44.3 million people."
It's difficult to say exactly how many people are suffering from depression and anxiety in the US because those numbers involve many people diagnosed with multiple disorders, but that is still a lot of people. I would love to see a study of the rates of depression in academia.

Jane said...

I (thankfully) don't suffer from depression, but given the sheer numbers of students I've encountered (advisees, majors, random students in my classes) that are clearly depressed and *not* getting help for whatever reason, I think it's high time we *started* talking about this---out loud, everywhere. This is truly a health crisis, and we all need to acknowledge it---and we can start by demystifying it. We do everyone a disservice by not doing so.