Guest Post: Research, Teaching, Service…and Depression

I thought about blogging about having depression as an assistant professor for a long time. I had a sort of vague idea that since being depressed is something that is usually dealt with in silence, maybe sharing some of my own experiences would be helpful. But then I got scared; somehow it was a little too personal and low self-esteem would start to creep in: “What could I possibly have to say about depression that others haven’t said?” Then this semester happened and I witnessed first hand a post-doc and a brilliant undergraduate student have to take a semester of medical leave because of depression. This was when it hit me – we all have to start talking in a more open, honest and caring way about depression, mental illness, grief and similar conditions that most of us deal with at some point in our life. These conditions are highly personal and not readily visible, and the academic workplace – or likely any workplace – may not be the most understanding place. There are no easy answers to these problems, and those of us who have “managed” long term depression well enough to advance in the academic ranks (at least to assistant professor) aren’t helping others in similar experiences by keeping silent about our struggle.

So, a bit of my own story. As long as I can remember I’ve been depressed. I remember feeling alone and deeply sad even in Kindergarten. I didn’t discuss these things much with my family and didn’t start any kind of treatment for depression until graduate school. If I ever become ridiculously wealthy, I will donate an obscene sum to the counseling center at my graduate school because I truly believe it saved my life. A key factor in my making it through graduate school was that I eventually joined a group therapy setting where I met other graduate students dealing with depression. For the first time, I didn’t feel alone in my experiences and I felt myself growing stronger with each visit. Although I started to get better, there were weeks where it was difficult to take care of myself and I could not focus on research or course work.

I have been an assistant professor on the tenure-track at a research university for several years now. With nearly a decade of counseling and anti-depressants under my belt, my condition is (mostly) manageable. But don’t get me wrong, there are still days where I feel like the whole world is swallowing me and even getting out of bed to face the world is more than I can manage. I’ve rescheduled meetings with students and collaborators because I was feeling too depressed to face another human being. (I’m fairly certain that breaking down in tears because you’re a horrible advisor is probably not in the best-practices guide to mentoring.)

For a visual description of what it feels like to have depression – at least to me – Hyperbole and a Half says it better than I could.

So coping with a regular series of ups and downs is where I was in January, when I first started thinking about writing this post. Then over the semester, I found myself talking with several students and a post-doc about depression. Maybe I give off that vibe that says, “I’m a safe person” but I like to think that it’s because –possibly as a function of my depression– I’m pretty good at reading emotions. I know that I cannot and should not be a counselor to my students, but if I see someone in my office that is clearly dealing with something big, I can’t help but ask, “Is everything ok?” I’ve heard faculty members complain about students bringing their personal problems into a meeting – and I’m sure that there may be students who do so to receive special treatment. But from my own experience I know that you sometimes find yourself in a dark, horrible place and just having someone care enough to ask “Is everything ok” helps you to know there may be a light at the end of a tunnel somewhere.

As faculty members who teach and mentor undergraduates, graduate students and post-docs, we need to be at least mildly aware that there are students, staff, colleagues and many others we interact with who are dealing with depression, mental illness, or a catastrophic life event and are just trying to get through the day.

Why is this important? Well, for one, I think it would be a better world if we each remembered to be kind to one another. As Professors we occupy fairly powerful positions; depending on student backgrounds we may be one of the few positive adult role models they have or we might be seeing them just after their “safe world” has shattered.

I also believe that in academia –and in most social institutions– we do better when all voices are heard and valued. Just as there have been studies that show how having gender diversity in the workplace can improve problem solving, I suspect that “mental-diversity” – for lack of a better word – may have benefits too. In my case, possibly because of depression and my “critical internal voice” I’ve been good at identifying weaknesses in both my own work and the work of others. These weaknesses have sometimes meant I see a new method or approach, which may suggest a new line of inquiry. I also believe my “sensitivity” has helped me to teach all types of students – I work to communicate to my students that I care about them beyond the course and that their value to me is not determined by their grade. (When I feel especially depressed, I just read my teaching evaluations.) Finally, there are all sorts of studies that link depression with creativity, and in a research environment fostering creative minds is certainly important. (Don’t we still want people to “think outside the box”?)

In any case, having seen first hand two lab-members struggle with managing depression, I feel quite strongly that I want to be part of creating an environment where all types of researchers can succeed. So how do we create such a work place? The first step for me is being honest about my own situation and trying to start a dialogue. How do we as mentors/researchers/colleagues work to support one another given our own limited resources and demanding schedules? Do we simply refer those in need we encounter to counseling services and keep our relationships entirely professional? I’m eager and interested to hear what others think and to share experiences they have had. Finally, if there are fellow depressed academics out there, please know you aren’t alone.

This is a guest post by ProfXX, a relatively new assistant professor in a STEM department at a public research university in the west.  She loves the outdoors, science fiction and travel (although she sometimes over does it)!


13 thoughts on “Guest Post: Research, Teaching, Service…and Depression

  1. Thank you for writing this! And for sharing the link to Hyperbole and a Half! I’m a graduate student nearing completion, making good progress, trying to hold it all together while batteling depression.
    Uncanny this was posted today. I am having one of those days I am unable to make it out my door.

  2. Thank you for sharing your experiences. They parallel my own in several ways, and I feel the constant struggle to keep myself above water. Teaching and working with students has been therapeutic for me in that I can get out of my own head and focus on others–it works most of the time. I also feel an urge to talk about depression, my depression, and what has helped me. Thank you.

  3. Academic here, and sufferer of depression from early teens through to my 30s. Luckily for me I’ve finally seem to have found a place in my life where I am steady and happy, and have been off medication for 5+ years (so to those going through it, know that sometimes there truly is a light at the end of the tunnel). As a student, battling with depression during undergrad was hard, there was no-one I would turn to in the academic setting. As a graduate student things came to a head and I ended up dropping out briefly, ready to walk away from the whole thing. It was at that stage I finally told my PI and the response that it was ok to be depressed and it wasn’t that uncommon blew me away.

    Now I see students regularly who struggle with all sorts of emotional issues, from the passing issues (a bad break up), to long impact. I remember the words of that professor, and I invite them in to my office, I always have a supply of tissues and I listen. I try not to counsel, I advise who they can see for professional help, but I tell them I’ve been there, and I am here for them. Because at the end of the day, we’re all in the same world trying to make it through and we have to help each other.

  4. Every time one of us who has fought/is fighting this battle speaks truth like this post does, we may help someone who thinks the fight is insurmountable. It is not. It is difficult, it is scary, it is sometimes soul-crushing, but it is NOT insurmountable.

  5. I am pleased to see all the wise and helpful talk here. There are _many_ ways around depression, that (surprise!) are actually ways _out_ of it. If the guest poster gives off a safe person vibe, she is someone I’d like to know. I don’t know how it is in STEM, being a humanist, but I am aware that the distinguished logician Quine had some difficulties when he was a professor at Harvard and got some counseling from someone who was in fact another faculty member. They became friends, and much later Quine stayed with him when called to attend an out-of-town gathering. I also knew another logician who took his life. If I were a STEM-type person (wink) I would simply compartmentalize the subject, i.e., identify it, and having identified it, deal with it as Quine did —as just another problem to be tackled logically.

    A final thought: don’t be afraid to shop around. Finding a good helper is worth the effort.

  6. I experienced a year of depression following completing my PhD. I had no idea what was happening to me at the time, but it’s pretty clear to me now. I wish I had had more knowledge of mental health, so I would have taken steps to deal with my depression.

    Now that I’m overseeing students, I’ve made a point to direct depressed students to counseling. I’m trying to make sure other scientists have access to the counselling options I should have used. A good mentor saves mentees from previous mistakes.

  7. Thank you so much for this honest post. It means a lot for people to
    speak about depression and mental illness. I have suffered from anxiety/panic attacks for many years, and as a graduate student who also teaches undergrads, I often feel completely unable to reconcile the fact that I can have this upstanding professional life while also dealing with anxiety. The stigma I have is such that I feel that I’m leading this duplicitous double-life! So it’s such a relief to hear that there are others out there who are coping, and coping well, and…well, just talking about it. Just yesterday I was lamenting to my partner that I felt that there was “no one else in my immediate academic circle” who suffered from anxiety/panic (a ridiculous assumption, I know). I’d love to hear of any support/groups for academics in the same situation…hey, maybe we can start one? Thanks again!

  8. Thanks so much for this. As a grad student suffering from bipolar and various other things posts like this make me realise that I might still have a future, despite how grim it seems most days.

    I’m very careful not to use my excellent mentor or my auxiliary supervisor as counsellors, but being able to be honest with them when things are bad is super important. I’m lucky to have two extra people looking out for me, and knowing how to be critical of my work without criticising ME is a big deal.

  9. Thank you so much for this post. I’ve blogged a bit over the years about my issues with depression and other mental health issues, including a couple posts this month. Why do I do it? Because, as you pointed out, society as a whole has to be more open about depression. I feel like one tiny drop in a big sea of clueless people; knowing that other tiny drops are on my side is helpful.

  10. Thanks for sharing this! I’m lucky enough that I never had to fight depression but I believe showing that research is made by a variety of people that do not respond to the classical criterias of the perfect, undoubting, superconfident scientist is crucial in changing a mentality that’s harmful to a lot of brilliant people, especially women.

  11. Thanks for the great and very encouraging post! I feel I’m in a line of work that triggers depression – the high standards, pressure to perform, and self-criticism also feed depressive and ruminative thoughts. Anyhow, I’ve had an episode a few years ago when I was suicidal and unable to do my normal work for about 6 months. I’ve started to talk about it more and more openly and have heard from so many other people at work who also have suffered from similar symptoms.

  12. Pingback: Mental Health in Academia | Tenure, She Wrote

  13. Pingback: Link RoundUp: From Medical Leaves to Supportive Faculty – Academic Mental Health Collective

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