Saturday, 19 January 2013

Depression: Big D and little d?

One of the things that I think slowed down trying to get help for Depression (with a big D) was thinking of depression (with a little d) as a normal part of life.

As I've mentioned before, and in a different way so has a mental health professor, misery in various forms is a normal part of life.  It's also one we can't insulate ourselves from completely and it would probably be unhealthy to do so if we could.

Which leads to an odd dichotomy.  The conventional wisdom is that talking about Depression in academia is rare and is almost taboo.  But on the other hand at coffee somebody might well say "I was depressed when I got my grant rejected."  Does that mean anything?  Should we worry about this person?    In fact, when I googled for "depressed academics" before starting this blog, maybe half the links were little d.  Like the job market for postdocs being depressing.

This kind of ambiguity of common and technical meanings is hardly unusual.  But it makes some kind of conversation difficult.  Imagine a conversation with my Grant-Rejected-Friend
GRF: I was depressed when I got my grant rejected. 
Me: Ahh, I think you might be depressed. 
GRF: What are you, Eliza or something? I just told you I was depressed.  Where are the biscuits?  
Me: Sorry, I wasn't clear.  I think you might have a mental illness.
GRF: Thanks, I get a grant rejected and it's a sign I'm mentally ill.
On the other hand, sometimes academics do get mentally ill, and later they realise they should have asked for help earlier.   It could be for entirely non academic reasons, but it could well be that a rejected grant or a bad job market for postdocs pushes them to the point they need help.

I've got two more thoughts about how much academics talk about depression.

Academics talk a LOT about their jobs being stressful.  A recent (ridiculous) article stating that university teachers had the least stressful job caused a firestorm, complete with its own twitter hashtag.  It got such a huge response precisely because academics are usually eager to talk about the huge stress involved in their job.  Stress in academia in serious.  The sign of a department at breaking point is having several people off sick with stress: having just one is almost seen as normal.   It seems at least in language use - and I have no idea of the medical position - stress and stress-related illness are seen as a normal part of academic life, while Depression (big D) is something that is not talked about much.

Here's the second thought.  I think Depression (big D) is talked about in academia, but in very tight groups.  When I told a small group of friends, probably two of the three people I mentioned it to were all over me with what drugs they had taken for it, tips for what to do and what not to do.  

I'd really like to sign off with a glib ending: "So you see, this post has taken you on a journey and we've all learnt something."  But no, I had some thoughts and I've put them down here. See you.


  1. At my wife's department, they have a mechanism in place that has impressed me quite a bit. They fill out weekly surveys on their well-being, with questions about perceived stress levels and health levels, and — importantly — also questions about whether the perceived situations are appreciated or not.

    They found by looking at the data that very many of the academics there reported incredibly high stress levels. But also that they all rated their perceived high stress levels as having positive value for them.

    Now, the part that really impressed me was that apparently, they do monitor the responses: we found out a while back when the system pointed out to my wife that her responses had had a systemic change, and asked if she wanted a referral to a counselor…


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