Jacqui Shine

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

On Depression, and the Toll Academia Exacts


I had planned to tackle another, less personal topic for my first Vitae outing, maybe get my rant on about the digital humanities. But it's winter again. It gets dark so early now. I struggle with it for weeks. Eventually, usually sometime in February, the bottom falls out. First I struggle to write, then to read. Somewhere beyond the possibility of boredom or interest, I stop getting out of bed.

I can rally for specific and discrete obligations, though that gradually requires more and more elaborate self-bribery. I’ll teach if I can bring the dog with me. I’ll go to class if I can get French fries afterwards. (The McDonald’s phase of a depressive episode is particularly humiliating.) The depressed graduate-student story, right? Well, maybe.

Over the last few years—and certainly since I started my Ph.D. (mumblemumble) years ago— mental health among graduate students has become a more public subject. There is much more discussion about the ways that graduate education can erode resilience and confidence and impair mental health. I appreciate that. I've also found that the discourse, particularly around depression, assumes that we need to address solutions to otherwise healthy people who have just been worn down by stress. Usually this involves destigmatizing the use of counseling and psychiatry services, and encouraging students to try tools like yoga, meditation, and cognitive behavioral therapy.

Here's the thing, though: Graduate school doesn't make me depressed. Depression makes me depressed.

I have suffered from clinical depression since childhood. Its effects on my life have been deceptively insidious: It has been difficult, but not impossible, to conceal my fairly constant low-grade dysthymia. As a student I’ve had a somewhat easier time minimizing the degree to which a major depressive episode disrupts my daily life than I might have had in a different kind of work environment. It’s easy to hide the fact that you’re having trouble leaving the house when you don’t have to be somewhere at 9 a.m. every day.

There are a number of ways, however, in which graduate school is particularly challenging for me—and there aren't necessarily easy remedies. It’s not a question of not knowing where or how to get help. My adviser knows I’m depressed and is very kind about it; I trudge to therapy (sometimes therapy and group therapy) weekly; I don’t cancel my regular appointments with my psychiatrist. I am pretty candid about my depression and my efforts to manage it.

The problems are bigger. One is that academia mythologizes intellectual work in ways that make it difficult for folks like me to adapt. In the humanities and social sciences, we are steeped in the belief that one has to truly love the work in order to succeed. It’s a conversation I have with my adviser a lot: whether or not I love the work enough to see it through, to be sustained by it.

But depression makes that a question I can’t answer. I don’t know if I love it. Depressed, I don’t love anything unless it comforts me in some way. (So I guess I love my cat, endless TNT marathons of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, soft hoodies, and coffee.) Certainly, I sometimes have moments of pleasure and satisfaction after teaching a good class or writing an elegant sentence or finding an exciting source. But I can’t say I love my work—or much else—in a sustained, daily way. And if that’s a requirement for success in academia, the solution is stark: Figure out how to love it. If you don’t love it, get out. There’s no way to do the job without that love, the logic goes, so there isn’t much use in trying to make it easier in other ways.

A second problem is that academic institutions don’t respond effectively to chronic and invisible disabilities. Folks in my department discouraged me from registering with the university’s disability-services program. They said outright that they couldn’t imagine what kinds of accommodations would actually be useful for me; they implied that registering could potentially stigmatize me.

Thinking that focusing on my health might give me the chance to figure out whether I loved my work or not, I broached the subject of a medical withdrawal with my psychiatrist. She said that there was no such thing for graduate students. She didn’t know any graduate students who had taken one, anyway. Much later, I learned that she was incorrect: At my campus, medical withdrawals are possible and, unlike so-called personal withdrawals, they are one of the only ways to pause the normative time clock. But if the professionals who authorize medical withdrawals didn’t know that I could take one, I had no idea with whom I was supposed to talk about it. At every stage, when I tried to pursue the channels available to me for supporting my chronic illness, I was actively discouraged from doing so.

So I didn’t take medical leave. I didn’t pursue disability accommodations. And my progress has been very, very slow. Yet I want to be clear that I don’t think this is a problem specific to me or to my institution, one that the University of California at Berkeley alone needs to solve. Nor is it one that is solely the provenance of academia. There is an enormous stigma against considering depression as a chronic illness, and I don’t know that those who advised against pursuing accommodations were wrong.

Yet what’s the alternative? What kind of career would I have if I spent all my energy trying to conceal my illness? Until we start asking what it might mean to better support students who come to graduate school with histories of mental illness, instead of responding as though depression is a side effect of intensive academic study, I’m not sure we will come any closer to addressing the very real needs and very real suffering of folks with short-term and chronic conditions.

So, no, I’m not depressed because of graduate school, not in the way one might imagine. In another way, though, I suppose I am: I live and work in a context in which I am encouraged to conceal my illness, lest it somehow devalue or denigrate my intellectual efforts or the currency of my reputation. As though my work and my life are somehow separate from one another. This is a toll that academia exacts from so many of us—from those of us with chronic illnesses, certainly, but also, more broadly, from anyone who is different.

Over time, I have had to abandon the fantasy that I could make my queer, working-class, chronically ill body and mind into something more acceptable, more invisible. I hope to use this space to explore what that letting go might mean as I contemplate the possibilities of an academic career—and also to start a conversation about what we need in order to make better lives as scholars and as people.

Jacqui Shine is a Ph.D. candidate in U.S. history at the University of California at Berkeley.

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  • I wonder how long it's supposed to last--until full professorship?

    Emily Gillespie Emily Gillespie
  • It is my belief that you need to and have the right to fight for what you need. This is not your professors' lives, this is your life. There is no reason why you need to continue suffering through your program or life for that matter. Do what you need to do to get the help and support you need for the depression. People who have not been through what you have been through may not understand that this isn't something that you are just going to "get over". It is a healing process and it is ok to ask for help!

    Sarah Bickelhaupt Sarah Bickelhaupt
  • One thing missing from this article. You never say why you are in graduate school. The reason that faculty advisers say that if you do not love your field of study, you should not go or continue; is that graduate school is a rough experience for everyone with uncertain prospects for long term return. While I sympathize with the problem of knowing what you love when you are depressed, in the end, there should be some benefit to you in pursuing such a difficult path to make it worth suffering through the daily grind that you describe. If you are not excited about your work, and the job prospects in history are difficult, I would urge you to consider if there is anything else that you could be doing that would benefit you more either emotionally or financially.

    Melinda Duncan Melinda Duncan
  • Jacqui, let me commend you for your choice to be "out" about your disability: as you note, for many, depression is a chronic illness that impedes functioning in all areas of life. The more open we can all be about our lives--the less we try to fit ourselves to the standard of "invisibility"--the easier it is going to be for everyone to follow their own path with fewer obstacles.

    Second, I'm very sorry but not surprised to hear that there are structural, policy-based accommodations that you can access … but that no one ever accesses them. See also: maternity leave, paternity leave, bereavement and family emergency leave, etc. We have some kind of hero-cult in the academy, whereby to be anything other than always already working is to manifest a fatal flaw.

    Third, the question of love is the wrong one. You needn't love a job to do it, although it's better if you don't hate it, right? In the academy, I really feel this language of "vocation" or "calling" or "love" is meant to paper over with affect or an idea of some kind of manifest destiny some truly appalling labour conditions. As you note, grad school can be a pretty good gig for depressives, in some ways: a lot of wiggle room around the wheres and whens and whether you need to shower to get it done. It's also a tough gig: very high intellectual demands, isolation, infrequent feedback that can lead to anxiety, low pay and bad benefits.

    I'm sharing your article with our graduate director, and with our students. I hope that'll start us all talking at my institution. Thank you.

    Aimee Morrison Aimee Morrison
  • Jacqui, thank you so much for sharing. That is a powerful story - so important.

    I wanted to respond to Melinda here. Melinda, the thing about depression is that it's not just something that can go away based on your choice of career or life path. Yes, PhD study can be particularly challenging to maintaining mental health, but so can a whole lot of other career paths and other choices like having children. If anything, it's a sign of love that people pursue graduate study even with all of complexities it poses to people with long-term depression.

    The wonderful thing about disability services is that they are a great resource in helping people with mental health issues navigate the particular challenges of academia. And, fortunately, pieces like Jacqui's and others are helping people access those services more readily.

    Anne Parsons Anne Parsons
  • Even people in perfect health have to maintain their stamina and energy level in graduate school and academia. Take a cue from them: Work out strenuously. Get yourself in top physical condition. Engage several times a week in something as vigorous as racquetball or, perhaps best, a hard-style martial art.

    Choose a diet that supports the required stamina and mental energy, and stick to it. French fries might not be a good choice.

    Engage in some form of mind training -- at least on the level of Zen and the Art of Depression.

    These things may or may not help with depression, but they will help you maintain the physical and attentional foundation required for sustained intellectual work, and they will help your body help your mind.

    Academia often requires tough-minded, task-oriented, self-directed action. Many people in academia will imply that, if you are not doing something for yourself comparable to those listed above -- clinical depression notwithstanding -- you're just whining.

    I'm not saying they're right, but welcome to this corner of what passes for reality. No matter how much you manage to humanize your environment, you'll still need to do your share of the heavy lifting. So get used to it now in graduate school, which is easier than what you will face later when you teach.

    Gerald Grow Gerald Grow
  • Do you love your work and does it sustain you?--Just this question reveals the misconceptions about depression, particularly chronic depression. The stigma of depression is all over the place. We assume it would be better in a humanistic profession, but it's in some ways worse in academia that other places. Why? Maybe it's because academia emphasizes an individual's achievements (publishing) over working for the team. With the individual at the heart of the system, any obstacles for a person are viewed as impeding progress--implied struggle at least, failure at worst. I take your point about how easy it is to conceal problems in the academy. But I think you are addressing a larger issue about how we view people who are honest about not always being "happy." As a culture we are afraid of depression, and we refuse to deal with our fear and as a result, with depression itself. Remember that study that way out a few years ago that revealed college students report dealing with more depression these days? The stress of student loans and the scarcity of paid internships and jobs is just a piece of that dismal picture. But I think happiness and love are two different stories. On days you are feeling strong, you do need to feel love for your subject. I don't think that love is enough to sustain you through a powerful bout of depression, but I think it helps define you in a way that could make you stronger and more resilient.

    Kathryn Burak Kathryn Burak
  • As a professor and associate dean at Berkeley I am horrified and so saddened to read this account. We've been working in disability studies here at UCB for almost two decades, and I have witnessed many grad students dealing with depression and a range of non-apparent disabilities, learning disabilities-- and finding support systems, including among faculty dealing with similar issues, to help navigate getting the flexibility and creating the literacy needed to create workable solutions and perceptive response. It doesn't have to be this way. There are existing networks on the Berkeley campus to provide solidarity--which doesn't mean there isn't an incredible amount of work still to be done. Anyone whose campus has a disability studies presence should consider making contact with professors and graduate students involved in it if you are trying to figure out how to make it work for you in situations like this. Jaqui, please contact me at sschweik@berkeley.edu if you want to or refer any Berkeley grad students looking for allies my way.

    Susan Schweik Susan Schweik
  • Jacqui, Thanks for writing this much-needed column and sharing your story. And thanks for the link to the guest post, "Managing Mental Illness in Graduate School: Some Recommendations," on my blog, The Professor Is In. I want to make sure readers know that on the blog I maintain a whole category of posts related to mental illness, titled: Mental Illness and Academia. I have another post that is called "Academia and Mental Illness: A List of Resources." This contains a lot of links to writing that many others have done about their struggles with depression, bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses during their graduate school and academic careers. http://theprofessorisin.com/2013/02/13/academia-and-mental-illness-a-list-of-resources/ More and more people are beginning to speak openly about these kinds of topics; at the same time, the academy as a whole is a very hostile environment for this kind of self-disclosure, because of its unwillingness to countenance any life experience other than single-minded devotion and total self-sacrifice to the god of scholarship. Distractions arising from bodily frailties or infirmities (and this includes partners and children) must be disdained, denied, or disavowed. It is a weirdly cruel and unforgiving space, given how small the stakes really are.

    Karen Kelsky Karen Kelsky
  • I am so in here with you, Jacqui, more than I can express, right down to the double depression. I have had the low grade dysthemia all my life and then the major episodes periodically. I manage with tightly controlled meds, exercise, diet and support from those who know and help me recognize when the episodes are starting. Then we buckle in to ride them out, fighting as much as we can along the way, while giving as much room for grace and self-care as possible. Some get it, some don't, some are understanding, some make life more hellish.

    I think part of the problem is that once you understand that it is a neurochemical imbalance, a genetic thing that can't be shrugged off, while there's a freedom of responsibility there, there is a new stigma for the intellectual - the "my brain is broken?" stigma. Who are we if our brain is defective?

    You are not going to "LOVE" your area of study beyond the satisfaction you get now. We don't "LOVE" anything. We can't. Our chemical balance doesn't allow for it. We enjoy things differently because we experience them differently on a fundamental level.

    Other people have no frame of reference to comprehend that, so don't let their limits constrain you. Do what you know is right for you. They can't make the calls on who to tell and who not to, what accommodations could be made or not. They can't know what would help you because they can't conceive of how you experience the world. Only you can do that. And you CAN, truly, or you wouldn't have gotten as far as you already are.

    Stacey Romager Stacey Romager
  • Dear Jacqui,
    Oh how I wish this was thirty years ago when I graduated. I deliberately decided to abandon my search for work in my field without even knowing why. I didn't realize I needed different help when medications and therapy weren't enough. I lost my ability to concentrate and to consistently form & express whole thoughts, and even words. I am still not able to do so. I even had an early onset Alzheimer's test to see if that's what wrong with my brain.
    So thank you VERY much for writing this and letting me know - finally - that I did not go crazy.

    Karen Hettich Karen Hettich
  • Unfortunately I know how you feel all too well. While I mostly contend with extreme anxiety, depression is part of the picture as well. I wanted to be in graduate school. I loved the intellectual rigor, the give and take of discourse with classmates and faculty. My extreme anxiety made the experience less enjoyable than I wanted it to be. I did finish, but not without feeling anxiety every, single day.

    Some faculty were sensitive to my anxiety and others were not. I didn't have to disclose to anyone, because my anxiety was crazy obvious. I agree with some of the other respondents who pointed out that there is a stigma that still exists. Unfortunately there are no good answers out there yet. I really do think that invisible illnesses among grad students needs more attention.

    Dressa Drors Dressa Drors