Mark Rothko, Untitled (Blue Divided by Blue)
And now for a post on a more personal matter. I haven’t said much about this publicly, but for the last several years of my PhD studies, I’ve been dealing with a severe case of depression. I missed major deadlines, failed in my teaching obligations, and thought seriously about dropping out at various points. For most of that time, I didn’t really understand that I was ill, or that treatment was an option. Once I did understand that and opened up about how I was feeling, I made enormous progress towards feeling happy and productive again. I’d like to talk about this experience, and how some common narratives about academic success can make it particularly difficult for graduate students to identify when they’re depressed and get help. Depression is a very common experience for graduate students, with nearly 40% of students in a number of countries reporting that they feel moderately to severely depressed. If you’re reading this and it resonates with something in your experience, some treatment resources are discussed at the bottom of the post. [ETA, 9 April 2019: I’ve since written two other posts about how to improve mental health support in academia, and what it feels like to recover from depression. Do check those out as well.]
Depression from the Inside
Depression really caught me unawares. Other members of my family have a history of depression, but I hadn’t been affected by it when I was young, so I always believed that I’d gotten lucky and wasn’t susceptible to this. I never learned much about the importance of emotional health, and of being open with your feelings. For most of my life, if I felt sad or stressed, the only coping mechanism I had was to ignore the problem and pretend that I was fine. This worked well enough for a while. However, by my late 20s I was facing a series of problems that were difficult to ignore, including a marriage to a lovely man which regardless wasn’t working out well, and some serious doubts about whether the PhD I had embarked upon was actually the right career path for me. I felt trapped, and ashamed of admitting that I was unhappy, and I grew steadily more depressed over time.
I got through the first and second years of my PhD well enough. By the third year, however, I was barely getting out of bed unless I had to go to class or teach — and sometimes not even then. I hardly engaged with the class I was teaching second semester and cried in front of them more than once. I started skipping my own classes and on-campus presentations that I really wanted to attend. My committee had to reschedule my prospectus defense date after I missed the deadline for submitting the prospectus with no warning. I scraped through the defense and went off to Ghana to start my dissertation research in my fourth year, only to spend most of my time there moored up in my room by myself. It took me a solid year of this before I finally thought, I have to tell someone about how I’m feeling. (I’ll write more about treatment and recovery below.)
In retrospect, it is unbelievably obvious that I had depression. Any one of the incidents above would have been enough to signal that something was wrong; all of them together could not be any more clear. So why didn’t I understand what was happening to me? And why didn’t anyone else call me out on it either?
I spent that entire period blaming myself for being lazy and stupid. I understood that I felt depressed, but I didn’t think I had depression, because that was something that happened to other people. I thought that I just needed to work harder on ignoring my problems and forcing myself out of bed, even though it felt like someone had replaced all my bones with lead when I wasn’t looking. I was also convinced that if I didn’t pretend that I was fine — if anyone realized I was struggling — they would judge me and dislike me and perhaps kick me out of the PhD for being an incompetent scholar, and then I would be both sad and unemployed, which would be even worse. The idea of going to therapy never crossed my mind, because I thought you should only go to therapy if you had a real problem, and not if you were simply lazy and stupid.
I now know that this is one of the cognitive effects of depression. It’s easy to end up in these spirals of negative thoughts. It’s also very tempting to just try to ignore the underlying problems, because they’re always on your mind and you’re tired of thinking about them. I so badly wanted to just snap my fingers and be all right, and I spent years thinking, “today is the day that I get my act together,” even though the same statement hadn’t worked on the previous day or week or month.
Depression in Academia
Academia can be an especially difficult place to contend with the idea that depression is your own fault. I was struck by how my feelings of shame and guilt around depression were reinforced by narratives about the determinants of academic success in the American academy. Throughout my time at in grad school, I received the message that success in the PhD was the product of intelligence and discipline. If you weren’t doing well in the program, it was because you lacked those attributes, and consequently didn’t deserve other scholars’ time or attention. There is little room in this narrative for the idea that mental health problems — or structural problems like racism or sexism — could also affect students’ work, for reasons unrelated to intelligence or effort. Fortunately, there is now growing awareness that graduate students’ personal lives and mental health have an impact on their academic performance, but there remains a lot of work to be done to really dislodge these ideas.
This narrative of personal effort was communicated to me in various ways. For example, it was common to hear that people who left my program before they finished, because it wasn’t a good fit or because they wanted other employment, simply “couldn’t hack it.” I thought seriously about dropping out at some points, but the idea of being known as someone who couldn’t hack it was horrifying. When I started regularly missing classes and subfield colloquia, one senior professor commented that I was failing to signal my commitment to the department, and implied that I had been a bad investment for them, which made me feel even more panicked and depressed. Later, when I had trouble finishing a prospectus draft, and eventually missed my defense date entirely, I got a number of comments from faculty about how I needed to stop flaking out on selecting a topic and just do the work — but no one ever asked if there was a reason that a previously high-performing student was now badly struggling. (To my classmates’ credit, several of them did ask if I was all right during this period. I wasn’t in a position to give them an honest answer at the time, but it means a great deal to me now that they noticed and cared enough to ask.)
I don’t think any of these messages or actions were badly intended. Some of them seemed to be born of a type of congratulatory self-regard among certain professors, who tend to emphasize the role of intelligence and effort in their own success, without always acknowledging the role of privilege and luck. (And to be very clear, I’m a Berkeley student because of privilege and luck as well as hard work.) These ideas are also the product of a fairly decentralized PhD system in the social sciences in the US. Students are responsible for selecting their own topics and keeping up their own progress. Advisors are expected to support their students, but don’t tend to closely monitor their work, in part because faculty members are also generally overworked — and often have their own struggles with depression as well. All of this meant that when depression hit, my own deep sense of shame about it was compounded by this academic narrative of personal effort, and no one was in a position to consistently observe that I was struggling and ask if I needed help. That’s not unique to academia, but I do think it can be especially pronounced there.
Treatment and Recovery
I ended up climbing out of the well of depression with support from my family and friends. After a full year of being miserable, I finally decided that telling people about how I was feeling couldn’t really be worse than what I was already feeling. I went in concentric circles, starting with my partner, then my family, then close friends. After much discussion with them, I made some decisions that helped me have more control over the underlying problems in my life. My partner and I reevaluated whether our relationship was working, and ended up getting the world’s friendliest divorce. I moved back to East Africa and launched the Mawazo Institute with a good friend, which put me back on track towards the type of career that I really wanted — research-focused, but not within academia. I took my fifth PhD year off from dissertation work, mostly by accident as I was busy with the move and Mawazo, but also ended up finding that it was useful to have some time away from research in order to regain my enthusiasm for it. I also started doing a lot of journaling to address some of my continuing mental health issues. Even after I resolved some of the major problems that had been stressing me out, I still had a lot of negative thought patterns that I’d developed during years of depression, and journaling helped me to identify those and work to reduce them.
It’s now been about a year and a half since I began opening up about my experience of depression. There have been many points when I felt that I was just complaining without feeling better, or when I did start to feel better, only to get totally knocked out when some new source of stress came up. But the average trend of my feelings has been decidedly upwards, towards a place of much greater self-understanding and much less fear and shame. Talking about my emotions has deepened many of my friendships, as I found that people tended to respond to my admissions about mental health not with derision, but by sharing stories about their own challenges. It’s helped me to have a calmer, happier, and more trusting relationship with my current partner, knowing that I can now communicate openly about any problems that might arise. It’s improved my performance at work, as it let me address some productivity issues which I hadn’t even realized were related to depression, like what used to be a horrible habit of procrastinating on email. And it’s allowed me to feel curious about the world again, which, as someone who still hopes to finish her PhD research some day, is very reassuring!
All of this is to say, if any of this post resonates with you: there is nothing wrong with you. Depression is such a normal experience, and there’s no shame in having it. Trying to hide how you feel often seems tempting, but it’s usually only delaying an inevitable reckoning. It can feel pretty vulnerable to open up about your feelings at first. However, if you can do that with a friend or a therapist who will support you — or with a journal, or in prayer, or in some other way if you’d rather do it privately — then there’s a high likelihood that you’ll start to feel better. There’s some really interesting research about how identifying your emotions actually reduces the activation of your amygdala (which is one of the places the brain processes fear) and helps people feel better when confronted with stressful situations. Simply talking about your feelings can help you to feel calmer and more in control of your life, even if it doesn’t immediately fix an underlying problem.
There are a number of different approaches to treating depression. You might try several of them, alone or in combination, before you figure out what’s most useful for you. For me, journaling has been incredibly effective. I’ve had to invest a lot of time in it — anywhere from 10 minutes to several hours per day, over many months — but it’s ultimately helped me develop a great deal of insight into my own feelings, and identify solutions to a range of problems. Here are some tips on how to get started with journaling. Speaking to a therapist has also been shown to be highly effective at reducing depression in many people. I didn’t do this last year because I was traveling a great deal at the time, but I know many of my friends have found therapy very useful. The American Psychological Association has a good overview of what to expect from therapy, and why some common myths about therapy aren’t true. Medication is also an option, and you can work with a psychiatrist to figure out if it seems helpful for you. Here’s a useful overview of antidepressants. There’s no shame in using medication to treat depression, and there’s also nothing wrong with deciding that you’d rather not use medication. It’s really important to pay attention to your own experience and preferences when you’re seeking treatment. It can feel really difficult to find the energy for this when you’re already depressed, but I promise it’s worth the effort.