Jacqui Shine

Columnist at Chronicle Vitae

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On Depression, and the Toll Academia Exacts

Full 12182013 depression

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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