From the Ivory Tower to the Abyss

I just learned about this blog about doing graduate study with a disability. I haven’t had much time to poke around on it yet, but it looks promising. The latest post offers a rich discussion of depression within academic philosophy. Check it out:

I think it should be the job for philosophy to demand that society’s discourse regarding mental health gets less awful. Good philosophy should offer alternatives for social problems, or at the very least scold the often careless ideologies that cause social problems.

But first, academic philosophy itself needs to turn its gaze to depression and how it is treated within its own ranks. We treat it with silence. No one finds it polite to speak on it, unless talking about the personal lives of the dead or as a dry systematic theory. We philosophers prefer to hold depression at arm’s length, even though it often lives so close within our chests as a tightening knot limiting our actions.

5 thoughts on “From the Ivory Tower to the Abyss

  1. Thanks for posting this. I could certainly relate to this part of her experience:

    “In my MA program, I had several interactions with other graduate students in philosophy with different approaches towards depression, but universally, it is treated as a shameful subject. Many act horribly insecure about their mental health, either secretive or, worse, bullying others who show any sign of depression, perceiving it like a weakness and those who evince it as prey.”

    Then she writes:

    “All of this shaming stigma needs to stop. Academia, academic philosophy particularly, can get bad enough as a stressful environment. All of our insecurities already rest within the Ivory Tower itself, let alone even trying to stay within it. Impostor syndrome is rife, yet shame in mental illness is pervasive. At the very least, all this mental illness-shaming seems like a waste of time and energy. At the very worst, it creates a subculture of alienated, disillusioned individuals who cannot trust one another, or their own attempts to see the strength inherent in the hard work they invest in living – surviving – with depression.”

    I didn’t know what “impostor syndrome” meant, so I Googled it. It turns out that it’s an unfounded fear that one’s success is unearned. I’ve felt that way and I know others who have too. I can also say from experience that it certainly doesn’t help when your peers go out of their way to explain away any tiny success you might have in terms of something other than merit. This also happened to me. And if that wasn’t enough, they then took actions to make sure whatever they thought happened, could never happen again. At the time I sort of laughed it off and even helped them in their efforts to preserve fairness. Looking back, I’m not sure why I did that. I think I just wanted them to stop and leave me alone. That didn’t happen. Instead they just found more and more reasons to criticize every interaction I had with them. I tried to let it roll off my back and push through it. But eventually I just stopped functioning altogether. It was bad.

    I’m not exactly having a blast sharing all of this, and I’m not completely comfortable with the term “mental-illness shaming”. But I think this blogger is on to something when she says that academia is stressful, grad students in particular are insecure, and one result of that combination can be “a subculture of alienated, disillusioned individuals who cannot trust one another.” And she’s also right that those of us with experiences like mine, can lose faith in quite a bit more than that.

    So with that in mind, and assuming that experiences hers and mine are the sorts of experiences we want to prevent, how might we go about doing that?

  2. From the few posts I have read, I really like this blog as well.

    I have also wondered the same thing as Anonymous-2:41; I think there was a poll/questionnaire a while ago (it might have been linked to from FP?) about students’ mental health and both how their institutions have dealt with it (either positively or negatively) as well as how they might be more accommodating.

    At least one of the institutions I have studied at had designated students who volunteered to be available to talk to about “anything” (the others might have had something like this but i was unaware). It was implied, but not explicitly suggested that stress, anxiety, depression and anything like that were the sorts of things about which someone could seek advice or talk. I think this is a good practice; it is a lot harder bringing this up to supervisors or lecturers, even if you need to (to take time off, say) or they explicitly tell you that you can.

    One way in which it is tricky is that the social stigma against mental illnesses exists and is harmful even if there are more formal avenues one can go down to seek help or advice. Even if it were implied that I could talk to another student or member of staff about depression and anxiety and how it is affecting me it can still be really hard to bring it up. On the other hand, I know that people can also have various reactions to being pushed for personal information about their mental health-even if the best of intentions are at hand. So, I think fighting the social stigma against mental illness is one of the most important ways to make things better.

    I think depression and anxiety, at the least, are fairly prevalent across undergraduate and graduate study, and maybe being explicit and up-front about this might be a small step that goes a long way. I know lots of departments and schools have introductory meetings and talks and this might be a good place to suggest that it is a not-uncommon phenomena and that suffering from depression and anxiety is a real thing. It is surprising that this sort of thing is rarely talked about in formal settings, even though the institution might have the resources available to students. I am not sure if this is intentional so as to not make people uncomfortable, or just a product of it being a social taboo to speak about mental illnesses. I know personally and from conversations with a few others, that when people-especially those in a position of more power-acknowledge that concerns about ones mental health are legitimate and real concerns, it can go a long way in making the environment better.

  3. I have been diagnosed with Bipolar I disorder for over 20 years and have worked in full-time academic positions for the past 16 years. During this time the condition has been under control due to drugs (I am one of the lucky ones for whom drug therapy works pretty well), though this was not the case when I was a graduate student. I’ve also been very lucky to have a successful career with relatively few institutional challenges, and am not at all shy about talking about my condition and the way I manage it with friends and close colleagues. Indeed, I try to be as open as I can in order to do my little bit for destigmatising it. But there are lots of caveat, e.g., graduate school was VERY hard at times for various reasons (not just the deep depression and mania themselves, but the educational/social fall out from both), and I’m amazed to this day that I got through; I still worry quite a lot about being considered ‘crazy’ when I get enthusiastic about ideas which are a little vague and jump around from one to another than my interlocutors seem to expect; and, perhaps most importantly, despite feeling like a very valued peer among those who share my academic interests, and despite wanting to make fully public statements about the difficulties that are posed by depression and hypomania, I still don’t trust the profession enough the feel comfortable doing that.

  4. as william styron pointed out in his truly amazing Darkness Visible, one of the problems that people with depressive disorders face is the inability of regular people to conceive of what it is like to have such a disorder. this inability, which, by itself is not worrisome (i, for instance, cannot imagine what it is like to have the pain of cancer, or what schizophrenia is like), can lead to horrible treatment of a sufferer of a depressive disorder, when combined with unfounded and negative stereo-typing of people with such a disability. (and it has!)

    even in the ‘enlightened’ world of academia, people with psychological disabilities, unfortunately still need to be very cautious about being open about their disability – even when such a disability is protected by the ADA, EEOC, FRA, etc. and, yes, this is bad thing. hopefully, one will have at least *some* colleagues/friends at the university that are supportive and helpful. having such colleagues/friends makes an incredible difference in the life of a person suffering from a depressive disorder.

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