Philosophy and Depression

Philosophy and Depression


In the wake of Peter Railton’s Dewey Lecture, I have been asked to create a space on Daily Nous for philosophers to share their experiences of depression and other forms of mental illness. Discussion of the personal and professional challenges confronting those afflicted by these conditions, ways in which the behavior of others affected your experiences in this regard for better or worse, helpful and harmful institutional policies and practices, ways people suffering from depression should seek help, and related topics are all welcome for discussion.

Interested readers may also care to look at “On Critical Abyss-Gazing: Depression and Academic Philosophy,” a post from August 2014 by Jake Jackson (Temple) at the site PhDisabled, some of the themes of which are of a piece with those in Railton’s lecture.

(art: detail of “Composition” by Nicolas de Staël)

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gradstudent
gradstudent
6 years ago

Reading the touching and thoughtful contributions here higlighted – Railton’s lecture and the post at PhDisabled – made me think about another way of dealing with mental health issues in academia that may turn out to be the other face of the coin. Rather than silence, shame, consciously ignoring the struggle of one’s colleagues and students, and stimatizing, I have often encountered what we may call “a culture of acceptance”. This term came to my mind based on reading this brief piece (but I am sure many already discussed the problem):
http://www.theguardian.com/higher-education-network/blog/2014/mar/01/mental-health-issue-phd-research-university
I have witnessed PhD students from various institutions openly declaring that almost everyone at their department was on medication for depression or anxiety. What’s more, the situation was perceived as normal, as a common side effect of pursuing a career in academia or struggling to complete a doctoral dissertation at a very good university. Not only living with a mental health disease was felt as a wholly justified and thus OK (!) reaction to the academic environment pressure, but there was an implication – which some of my very intelligent and sensitive interlocutors regarded with mixed feelings indeed – that being stressed out was proper for a PhD candidate at their institution x, and a sign of one’s dedication and effort. In some cases, there even was a feeling that dealing with mental health issues was distinctive of better, more ambitious, more focused, more deserving PhD students.
I don’t know if such situations are common across institutions and countries, nor if they are unique to the graduate school experience. But they exist. Again, I don’t think these observations contrast with the issues raised by the two contributions Justin brought to our attention in the post. It’s rather a different point of view on the same culture we should make an effort to change.Report

Robert
Robert
6 years ago

Hi all,

I am mildly on the autistic spectrum and am working, amongst other things, on the philosophy and ethics of autism (although note that I certainly do *not* consider autistic spectrum conditions to be ‘mental illnesses’, or indeed a matter of disorder). Anyway I’m posting here as I’m always very interested to hear from other philosophers who are on the spectrum, or indeed anyone with a philosophical interest in autism. If anyone would like to talk about autism in a philosophically interesting way, feel free email me @ [email protected]

Thanks for this topic!Report

Nomy Arpaly
Nomy Arpaly
6 years ago

Dear All,

My colleagues will be surprised that I’m awake at this hour – I am nervous about what I am about to do – but like many acts of coming out, it will probably surprise very few people. I have a mood disorder (which some of the said colleagues already know about, and have been accepting, helpful, and all around wonderful about). The very smart shrink I am seeing now is not keen on precise DSM categories, but the closest one is bipolar 2 disorder: I have had depression (sometimes suicidal, sometimes lie-on-the-floor grade) and I had mild to moderate highs (which used to be a fantastic way to get work done and then became hazardous). The worst of it all were the states involving being depressed and wired and the same time. Self-hatred and despair were a lot worse to me when I couldn’t deal with them through sleep.

Some depressed people, it must be emphasized, do perfectly well on a common anti-depressants (taking only one of these) plus some type of therapy (cognitive seems to work for many). Even with more complicated mood disorders, I know cases in which it’s that easy – a lithium a day pretty much keeps the monsters at bay. I was not that lucky. I took forever to find the right medication. Stopping the symptoms was achieved early, but there was a long time in which I could hardly write anything, and that was horrifying. I would have stopped the medication if my friends did not remind me of the fact that if I die, I won’t publish much. A tweak in my meds brought back my ability to write, but for some reason giving a talk still felt like playing an instrument with my left hand (and as a vain person I must add: in front of people who don’t know that I’m right handed!). Another tweak, just when I was at my wit’s end, and now people once more seem entertained at my talks. Knock on wood, but I am very pleased with the drug cocktail that I am on right now. It’s great to feel OK.

I would like to make two pleas. The first one, inspired by Peter Railton, who was very kind to me during the days when I didn’t only have an undiagnosed mood disorder but also had the social skills of a rock: if you have both tenure and a history of mental illness, please consider stepping forward! Peter has been concerned that more women than men admit to having mental disorders, just like among neurotypicals, a nervous person is more likely to say “I’m nervous” if she’s female. So if you are male, have a mental disorder, and also have tenure, please consider stepping forward even harder. We can’t beat the stigma, which as Peter says, still affects many, if we don’t talk. I know you are out there! Yes, you!

The second plea applies to people without tenure as well: if you suffer horribly from your moods, whether you call it a disease or not, you have a condition that is not in your control. Nonetheless, you might feel like taking medication would be “cheating”, a shortcut to eudaimonia that doesn’t go through virtue. Wrong! Happiness is not like an award, gained fairly or unfairly. Happiness is more like American citizenship: some people have it because they were born with it, some perhaps get it through marriage, some have to work for it. It’s not cheating to find a non-torturous way to get an advantage that other people have from birth.

All the best,
NomyReport

AnotherGradstudent
AnotherGradstudent
6 years ago

I wanted to second Gradstudent’s comment above. I too have have encountered situations like he/she describes, even being part of discussions between other grad students debating their experience with depression meds and how they helped them being more productive, while feeling (believe it or not) ashamed that obviously mine was just a non-serious case of self-hating impostor syndrome, and not a full-fledged case of depression (it indeed wasnt/isnt, as far as I can tell, and i never was on any meds). There’s something deeply wrong in an academic environment where one might feel relieved for having a real illness like depression, in order to excuse herself from perceived intellectual shortcomings.Report

Chris Nagel
Chris Nagel
6 years ago

I wouldn’t call that a “Culture of Acceptance.” I would call that a culture of self-abnegation and self-destruction. You only describe this briefly, and I think it’s something many would recognize in their own experience.

To me, the more important question is what normalizes this?Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

As a follow up to Nomy’s encouragement for those suffering to seek help:

At first I thought my symptoms of depression and anxiety were just an understandable response to the stresses of trying to finish a dissertation and facing the insane job academic job market, combined with my own failure to foster a sufficiently professional work ethic. I coped using some amateur, do-it-yourself cognitive behavior therapy (though I didn’t think of it that way at the time). The problem only got worse as I continued to reject the idea that I needed professional help. By the time I realized I needed help, I was so busy and so stressed that the act of seeking it out felt like one more task I didn’t have time for. I also feared that medication would dull my philosophical acumen.

What I found instead was that it was neglecting my mental health that dulled my focus, and that a combination of medicine and therapy helped me to feel more like myself again.

So if you’re suffering – seek out help. If you’re a grad student, you probably have services available through your university. If those people aren’t giving you the help you need, look elsewhere. It’s not cheating, and it won’t dull your mind.Report

Derek Bowman
Derek Bowman
6 years ago

I should add: the medicine won’t make you happy, and it won’t make the stress go away. It will just make them more manageable and make you more able to enjoy the things that make you happy.Report

Felonius Screwtape
Felonius Screwtape
6 years ago

the current modalities and atmosphere of academia in general and philosophy in particular are the conditions of possibility sine qua non for depression and anxiety. One frets about getting into the “right” (i.e. ranked) program where one competes for approval and eventually falls under the Svengali-like sway of the Master. One isolates oneself for long periods of time to work on some project that one deludes oneself into thinking is all important but secretly knows is of zero interest to anyone outside one’s immediate circle, and even within that circle, knives are out, and one feels those when one steps out unto the public stage for the first time of for the upteenth time. One is abandoned in mid-sentence at The Smoker because whomever one is conversing with has noticed someone else more important. And then somehow or another one manages to finish, only to find oneself in the most inhospitable job market, and eventually the realization slowly sinks in that one will forever be an adjunct; perhaps one even thinks that one has wasted one’s life, or made mistakes, but if one says that aloud, then one is bullied and mocked and derided with comments like “maybe you should have gone to a higher ranked school” (or is threatened via lawsuit with it being used against one). Or maybe fate has smiled and one receives a tenure-track job, and if one is not denied tenure, then maybe, just maybe one can transcend one’s depression — not by treating it, but instead by perpetuating the same ritualistic sadism onto the next generation of once happy and eager graduate students.

If we want to have a discussion of the professional challenges faced by those with depression, we might be wise to consider how “the profession” as it is currently structured and as it currently operates is itself a Depression-Machine.Report

DelightedDeweyan
DelightedDeweyan
6 years ago

I think Railton was extremely brave to use such a forum for an expression of a major factor of lived experience. Dewey would have approved of both the public nature of the discussion and the focus on the breakdowns of experience that attend depression and anxiety. As those of us who either are or have been graduate students are aware, depression is often a major component of the experience of graduate studies and philosophy in general. Speaking for myself, my own struggles with depression came to head in pursuing a PhD (coincidentally focusing on Dewey!) and it became a heck of a lot less scary and isolating to know that my peers and mentors had often suffered to the same extent. Bravo, Railton.Report

Eric Schliesser
Eric Schliesser
6 years ago

Nomy Arpaly (at DN) urges the following: “I would like to make two pleas. The first one, inspired by Peter Railton…if you have both tenure and a history of mental illness, please consider stepping forward!” especially if you are male. As it happens, I did so a few months ago, and I agree it is important that more do so (at their own time and leisure): http://digressionsnimpressions.typepad.com/digressionsimpressions/2014/09/on-depression-in-graduate-school.htmlReport

UCD Phil Grad Rep
UCD Phil Grad Rep
6 years ago

To have a place to support each other is a great idea. When many of your discipline spends quite a bit of their time questioning the nature and value of existence, when they are in search of meaning in the world and sometimes come to the conclusion that there is no meaning or no higher order, it can be a very difficult position to face mentally. When you are looking at the question of certainties, foundations, and structures and finding arguments against them, I think philosophers can be especially prone to challenges to their mental health. When your job is to challenge, question, or reject the foundations that so many people in the world (never mind other disciplines) take for granted and refuse to question (not unrelated to the fact that it produces anxiety, fear, and desolation), the ground beneath you shakes and totters. We need to be supportive of each other because of our humanity and our group identity, but we also need to acknowledge that our work is life altering in a way that can be an occupation hazard. Even if we do acknowledge all of this, there might not be anything we can do for each other. But damnit all, we can try.Report

Enzo Rossi
6 years ago

Male, tenured, diagnosed depressive.Report

(Sometimes) Sad Grad
(Sometimes) Sad Grad
6 years ago

To link this to another post: if you’re considering where to go for grad school, and you struggle with mental illness, make that a part of your decision.

You may get an offer from your dream school and find that some big names want you to go there. It’s tempting—I know I sometimes wonder what life would be like if I’d gone to [Fancypants U.] to work with [Big Cheese]. But I didn’t. I went where I’d get support from friends and faculty, and I’ll never regret it.Report

Dave Baker
6 years ago

I’m glad to see this thread. After reading Peter’s lecture, it occurred to me that I should do more to share my own mental illness experience, especially since I’m not a very private person and the thought of doing so doesn’t actually bother me much. And I am, as of this AY, tenured and male. So here goes.

My problem with anxiety first manifested as a specific phobia of expressway driving, which I still suffer from. This developed during my first year of grad school after I almost fell asleep at the wheel.

The really bad problem came about more gradually, coming to a head during my fourth year. A cousin had been diagnosed with a heritable disorder that affects the heart, and despite being checked out for signs of it I became irrationally convinced that I had it. This led to panic attacks, which in my case were disturbingly similar to heart arrhythmias. My first real panic attack happened during a trip to Seattle to visit a friend. It opened the floodgates, and even once I was reassured to my satisfaction by cardiologists that nothing was wrong with my heart, fear of further panic attacks led to further panic attacks. Pretty classic panic disorder. Agoraphobia became a part of it; for about a month around the holidays I was confined to my parents’ couch. The increase in my heart rate when I stood up was enough to frighten me, and leaving the house was extremely stressful.

I was worried, of course, that all this would ruin my career, but those worries weren’t really a huge part of my awareness from day to day. Not compared with the far greater (and far, far less justified) worry that I was going to die.

As panic patients go, I was really fortunate. Antidepressants worked extremely well–after a month, I felt like I was back within epsilon of my regular self. I wasn’t assigned to teach that semester–teaching would have been hard to handle. And research became a coping mechanism. The philosophy library was one of the few places where I felt really comfortable. For a while I became known as a workaholic, which is really not in my nature.

Two year later I went off medicine and haven’t needed it since. Again, lucky. I still have problems with my fear of driving and, now, flying. But these things aren’t debilitating the way the panic attacks were. It’s a bit surreal to look back and think that if my symptoms had persisted for another six months, I would not have been able to go on the job market in ‘07/’08. My whole life since would have been completely different.Report

anonymous grad student
anonymous grad student
6 years ago

I am a graduate student in philosophy, and have dealt with recurring major depression for about 17 years – since my first year as an undergraduate. I’m mostly stable now, though I still have depressive episodes every 2-3 years that last a few months each time. I’ve been very fortunate as a grad student to be in a department that is both understanding and supportive, and for the most part I’ve thrived. My illness has at times made it impossible to write, so I’m often behind getting papers turned in, but in general I do high quality work and my professors have been willing to work with me on deadlines. But I’m very nervous about going on to the job market. I don’t feel that I can disclose my illness – it’s hard enough to get a job if you’re perceived to be healthy and productive. I also worry that I won’t be able to determine how supportive or unsupportive a potential employer/department will be if I’m afraid to ask questions about department and university policies, or about the climate of the department as it relates to disability. I want to be able to be honest, but I don’t feel like I can be – and I worry that if I end up in a department that’s hostile toward mental illness it will have a negative effect on both my health and my career. There seems to be less stigma surrounding mental illness now than there was when I was first diagnosed, especially among people who are well educated. But even if people think they understand what it means intellectually for a colleague to have a mental illness, often they don’t really get what it means (and doesn’t mean) to live with such an illness. I would love to see more people who can safely come out do so, but I’d love even more for people who work with depressed or mentally ill persons to ask and learn what it means to live with depression, etc. Given the right support, people like me have so much to offer! I just hope I get the chance.Report

John Collins
John Collins
6 years ago

After reading Peter Railton’s Dewey Lecture, I posted yesterday on my own Facebook page about my depression. I have suffered since the age of fifteen. In 1998 it reached a crisis point and I ended up taking a six month medical leave from Columbia, which, I think, saved my life. I thank Judy Levi and Akeel Bilgrami for (independently) recognizing the state I was in at the time, and for getting me the help I so desperately needed.Report

another graduate student
another graduate student
6 years ago

I am at the 2-3 year mark through my most recent episode of clinical depression, a condition I have had on-and-off throughout my adult life. Fortunately, my school and program have been incredibly supportive. A few issues — advising people to get help, raising awareness, and stigma — have been raised in the comments above. I’d like to discuss the last.

Perhaps the biggest stigma-related issue, in my experience, stems from the sometimes dramatic disconnect between appearances and reality. That is, many depressed people do not appear to be depressed. Instead, they might even appear to be happy and high-functioning.

When it became clear to me that I could not simply slog through it on my own and that I needed academic accommodations, it was sometimes quite difficult to communicate the depth and nature of the difficulty to my peers. Because of the high-stakes environment, I got the sense that those who knew viewed my accommodations as a cynical, strategic choice rather than a medical necessity.

The perceptions of peers, however, are less damaging in and of themselves than in their role as reinforcements to negative self-perceptions. While perhaps my experience is not general, I have found that depressed feelings often manifest themselves in a profound, unquenchable taste for malignant self-criticism.Report

CDF
CDF
6 years ago

As a long-suffering undergraduate with depression among other things, I have had the privilege of being surrounded by a number of great and open peers with regard to mental health, and to work closely with faculty who understand the reality of disorder. Rarely have I let it interfere with my work (a task which has sucked the energy out of most of my “free” time) but when I have begun to lost control, I have had nothing but support and attempts at understanding (many can never do more than attempt) from those around me.

But this is not uniformly the case. Not even in my own department or university.

In the past, I have comforted myself with these experiences as I await my phd acceptances: worrying about how my mental health will affect my future options as an academic or otherwise has never been a too-pressing concern, because it has not yet been an issue in my current studies. And yet, I know all too well this is unlikely to be the case.

We’ve been doing some great work at all levels in my department to give emphasis on the perspectives of minorities in (and outside of) philosophy. But one of the most difficult ones to target are we the “invisible” minorities (though, population statistics would have us far from a small number). It’s hard enough to target those minorities for whom we do not collect data: gender or sex and age are easy enough to ascertain from student files, but we do not collect things like ethnicity, SES. And certainly not mental health, which is not only invisible in the data, but oft to the searching eye.

It’s great to have tenured and other individuals bringing publicity to the reality of depression and matters of mental health. But I wonder if we should perhaps echo the call from a few posts back on seminars in recruitment weekends for women-only or minority-only sessions, and make an effort to bring such publicity of recognition of mental health into recruitment and to help students understand the nature of the climate there too.

As of right now, while receiving offers, I am becoming increasingly wary of where I might like to study, concerned that my applications may have been blind to my own mental health, knowing that my relatively utopian experience is not to last (Echoing Sometimes Sad Grad [13]). It would help in publicizing the reality of depression (&c) not only to focus on increasing awareness within the Academy, but also in confronting incoming classes who, for the most part, know much better today the mental health difficulties they face than in days gone by, and who need that support.Report

grad student
grad student
6 years ago

Nomy Arpaly is my hero.Report

David Sobel
David Sobel
6 years ago

Nomy is my hero too! As are all the good folks who have come forward and shared their stories in an effort to make living with depression in philosophy a bit easier for others.Report

ExPhDStudent
ExPhDStudent
6 years ago

I’ve been diagnosed with PTSD, comorbid with depression and social anxiety. My ex-supervisor knew about my condition and was (at least, appeared) supportive when I had to take a long sickness leave. Despite the enormous struggles, I managed to get back to work (even after being told to simply “go back home” initially) and to finish writing my thesis within a short deadline. But my efforts didn’t pass muster to the examiners. It didn’t come as a surprise. I knew I would have to revise my work. I was prepared to do what it takes to measure up to the standards except my ex-supervisor and the other senior members of the faculty thought I should simply abandon the idea of getting a PhD. Funding was an issue of course, and a few other things most likely, but had I not been “psychologically unstable,” they would have probably given me a more equal opportunity to succeed as a PhD student. I’m okay now, or at least learning to be. Every now and then I dream of that horrid last meeting with them. I have panic attacks. I avoid the campus. I avoid friends and acquaintances who might mention the professors in conversations. Admittedly, the whole experience has made me bitter and resentful but not so much because I didn’t get a PhD. The worse part was being told to give up something I was prepared to work hard for. The worst part was being made to feel so small and completely incapable.Report

Amy Lara
Amy Lara
6 years ago

One of the most moving parts of Railton’s lecture, for me, is when he talks about working with people outside academia, and he finds them as intelligent and curious as the people inside. Hanging out with fellow mentally ill people has given me a similar experience and reduced the stigma a lot. I’ve been a patient in lockdown wards a couple of times, where I couldn’t even keep my shoelaces, and I’ve spent months in “partial hospitalization,” doing many hours of group therapy with people across the mental illness spectrum. I already had my Ph.D. by then, but I was very far from being the most functional or insightful person in those groups. These were smart, funny people who had schizophrenia, drug abuse, and suicidal urges to cope with, but who were generous enough to set that aside and reach down to help pull me out of the pit I was living in.

After going through that, I didn’t feel anymore internalized stigma about my illness. I’m fairly open about it with colleagues; I don’t advertise it, but if it’s germane to the topic at hand, I don’t have any trouble talking about it, and they’ve all been very supportive. So I don’t really have anything new to contribute to this discussion, except for a specific point about philosophy and ECT. If you’re a philosopher thinking about ECT, I urge you to get as much information about it as you can before you do it, and only use it as a last resort. I went through 4 rounds of it, and it really hurt me philosophically. For 6 months I couldn’t think straight at all. Then when I tried to get back into philosophy, I started by re-reading my dissertation. It was as if it were written in a foreign language; I couldn’t even remember having written it. My memory came back decently within a year, but it took several years of doing philosophy regularly before I felt like I was back to the level of cognitive processing that I was at in grad school.Report

HB
HB
6 years ago

I think the author of the PhDisabled article should be credited by name…Report

Another anonymous grad
Another anonymous grad
6 years ago

Thank you, Nomy. I am a male graduate student, and I too suffer from bipolar II,. I spent years—too many!—convincing myself that any suffering I experienced was primarily brought on by my own laziness, stupidity, or moral viciousness, and that any remainder was not enough to merit real help. And besides, the highs seemed worth the lows, or so I told myself. I learned to project apparent competence and soldiered on until a prolonged mixed state put me in real enough danger that I could no longer deny that something was seriously wrong.

Lithium was a wonder drug. I very likely would not be writing this without it. It did not cure me, and I still struggle more than I care to admit, but things are nothing like before. My life is far better in every respect since I recognized my illness as an illness rather than a moral failing and treated it as such. I still fear the stigma, especially as I approach the job market, but I have been fortunate to know faculty who, like Nomy, made honest discussions possible by disclosing their own struggles first. I applaud them for their bravery.

Finally, For anyone wondering whether they are “really” ill, please do yourself the favor of asking a professional. At worst, you will gain the benefit of an informed perspective, and you may gain much, much more than that.Report

Femke
6 years ago

Thanks Chris. That’s just what I thought.
You know this (assuming you are THE Chris Nagel), but to all others here:
I was diagnosed with anxiety disorder and depression at the beginning of the fall semester, and I am now on meds and in therapy. It shocked me to find out how many other grad students (not just students) suffer from some form of it (I found this out after I told others about my own problems).
I am not the one to stay silent about it because I feel that a big part of what caused me to sink into depression is graduate school itself. The waiting room at my psychiatrist is full of grad students, and my therapist just started renting an office close to campus because he is sure that is where he can find a lot of new patients.
Everybody should know that this is going on; how else will anything change?
That certainly half of the grad students develop mental disorder is not normal!
People’s health should not be threatened by simply going to work. Just as people who do physically strenuous jobs should not have their backs distroyed when they are 30. It seems that the common idea is that the person with the disorder must be a vulnerable individual….but we’re not talking about a few people here.
And to then flip this around by taking it to be some trophee of grad school is ridiculous. Mental ilnesses are serious and after one episode they may stay to haunt people for the rest of their lives.Report

Sandalwood
Sandalwood
6 years ago

I think one thing that is clear from both my own experiences in the field of philosophy and reading these comments is that a significant number of philosophers (especially graduate students) suffer, to some degree, from depression and anxiety. I would be curious to know: how does the rate of depression differ between philosophy graduate students and tenured professors? How does the depression rate differ between philosophers and other academics? How does the depression rate differ from academics and non academics? And here is a final question: is it the case that people with depressive tendencies are attracted to philosophy or does philosophy bring about depressive episodes in people who have a history of mental stability?

As a disclaimer, I have not researched the answers to these question, but I know that in my case, and in the case of others who I have spoken with about this (mostly women philosophers), the answer to the last question seems to be that there is something about pursuing a career in philosophy that incites depressive episodes. And, if this is the reality, perhaps we should start taking serious the question of what it is about the philosophy profession that is so toxic that it affects the mental well being of individuals in such negative and debilitating ways.

Here are some of my thoughts about this that stem from my own experiences as a graduate student (so these concerns address the question of why graduate students in philosophy might be especially vulnerable to depression): in many philosophy departments, graduate students are overly competitive with one another and unsupportive of each others successes (and, as a woman philosopher, I can say there is a trend of men being especially competitive with women in their department)- this is exhausting and can lead to graduate students avoiding their department altogether and alienating themselves from other students (and, on the other hand, it is arguably difficult (but obviously not impossible) to form meaningful relationships with someone outside of academia who does not understand the life of an academic) ; graduate students do not have the encouragement or support from professors who should be mentoring them and are left desperately trying to figure out how to succeed on their own (in my experience, many professors seem too wrapped up in their own work and career to even respond to emails and provide feedback on term papers, let alone help their graduate students publish, prepare for the job market, etc.); women graduate students perpetually experience a feeling of not belonging to the profession both at conferences and in their own departments; graduate students are living paycheck to paycheck, with a constant worry in the back of their mind wondering whether or not they will ever even end up getting a job after 5-8 years of spending their time in graduate school, not saving any money (I can say that there have been many nights I can’t fall asleep because I am worrying about this or I wake up in the middle of the night wondering why I am gambling my life away on a chance that I *might* one day get a job in philosophy); etc. I think it’d be helpful if, when addressing the issue of depression in philosophy, we start by acknowledging one very obvious trigger: this field is, for a number of reasons, quite toxic….. I, myself, question, at least once a day, why I continue to damage my own well being by remaining in this field.Report

Dave Baker
6 years ago

One thing to keep in mind here is that the mid-20s are the period in life when most people with mood disorders first notice symptoms. It may be (?) that faculty-age people with these disorders are more likely to have already undergone treatment and met with some success.Report

Anonymous
Anonymous
6 years ago

Things are not simple. One depressed person, X, cuts me dead when they see me. Well, I have had a horrible time with depression and ocd. I don’t know that I am glad I am still alive. Also, at the time my academic environment was proving very hostile. So I did act negatively about someone, who had in fact complained to me time and again about how much she worked to avoid X. BIG MISTAKE.
If you have any understanding about mental illness then do know that things like cutting people dead can result in hurting someone whose mental burden is already very, very difficult.Report

Amy Lara
Amy Lara
6 years ago

To Anonymous @ 29: I agree with you that things are not simple. People with mental illnesses are just as capable as anyone else of being jerks. In my own case, I’m confident in saying the illness is itself part of my jerkiness sometimes, but it in no way excuses my bad behavior. I hope, though, that just having these conversations out in the open can help us work on making a better environment for each other.Report

Jan Dowell
Jan Dowell
6 years ago

I also have struggled for as long as I can remember with depression and anxiety. My condition took a considerable turn for the worse during my first semester in graduate school; unlike Peter’s condition, which appears to be wholly organic, my episodes are partially triggered by events. My experience of the disease has been a bit of a roller coaster ride; I have my ups and downs that accompany changes in my life.
To the many words encouraging treatment, above, I would only add the suggestion that sufferers find a doctor or therapist who is a good fit. They are out there, even if they aren’t the first one you turn to. Don’t give up on the help you deserve if your initial attempt to find it isn’t successful. The National Alliance on Mental Health can help find a provider in your area. I would also urge those without personal experience of the disease to take a look at their webpage. The best way for you to help sufferers is by educating yourself, both so you can recognize signs of the disease in those around you and so that you can understand what living with mental illness is like.
http://www.nami.orgReport

Jake Jackson
Jake Jackson
6 years ago

Hello all,

My name is Jake Jackson and I am the author of the PhDisabled post linked above. I’m humbled to be linked in conversation with Railton’s Dewey Lecture and with the amount of conversation that my piece has generated since August. This has become more and more of an active project for me, not just a personal one but a professional one. I would highly recommend the work of Matthew Ratcliffe, particularly his new book “Experiences of Depression: A study in Phenomenology” (2015) for more research on philosophical accounts of depression.

I don’t really have much to add to this discussion except for the insistence that this dialogue needs to open up. I agree with Anonymous comment 29 that depression and mental illness does not reprieve one from one’s toxic actions before others. The case instead needs to be a mutual understanding, particularly introspection of the depression-sufferer’s actions.

but the main point is that we need to address this with radical honesty. and that stigma needs to be confronted, not just solely by mental illness sufferers, but collectively if we expect conditions to improve. If higher education/philosophy is to see itself as a moral guide, then they need to act like it and open up a discourse for all.

I additionally want to thank Peter Railton, and many of the commenters here who are speaking out publicly about the lived-experience of depression with me for the first time.Report

Enzo Rossi
6 years ago

P.S. This is quite a basic point, but I thought I should mention that I am weary of completely medicalising mental health as an individual problem. (I’m not saying anyone is doing this here; I’m saying it’s a risk, or a tendency.) We also have to ask ourselves why it is hard to flourish psychologically under certain conditions (cut-throat competition, marketisation, etc.), and so whether we want to reward the people who do. As many disability right theorists argue, there is a political struggle around what is to be considered normal, and who consequently needs to go out of their way to conform to that standard. I suppose academics don’t have the power to completely isolate themselves from wider societal conditions, but still, there may be some wiggle room between that and complete capitulation.Report

Female, tenured, of course anonymous!
Female, tenured, of course anonymous!
6 years ago

Kill me if you must but I am here to help you, fellow female philosophers. Don’t confess to depression or any other mental illness. Not on-line, not publicly, and not to the philosophical community at large. It’s bad enough to be a female philosopher – you are disrespected enough as it is. The profession is not progressive enough not to punish you for a confession of this type (with all due respect to Nomy Arpaly, who I take to be an exception to my advice for various reasons not relevant to the rest of us). Get the support you need and deserve elsewhere. Okay, I’m done. Fire away…Report

G
G
6 years ago

I’m a student, but my depression can’t be attributed to philosophy, academia, or the stress of competition. If anything, depression brought me to philosophy, not the other way around.

It’s been about half my life now. It is what it is.Report

Justin Smith
6 years ago

This is a complicated issue. On the one hand, it is great, and a huge relief, for this topic to come out into the open.

On the other hand, I can attest that my own history of clinical depression is quite extreme: years and years of medication and self-medication, institutions and interventions. I have the very most intimate knowledge of what depression is like, and my reaction to the recent discussion, while conflicted, is in large part this: Thank the gods, I think, looking back, that there was this thing, the social institution of academic philosophy, that required me to check my depression at the door when I entered into it. This did not force me to ‘keep a secret’ or ‘lead a double life’; it enabled me to appreciate something beyond myself, to contemplate problems sub specie aeternitatis in a way that, eventually, had tremendous therapeutic pay-off as well. If I had entered a subculture more open to dwelling on individual problems and pathologies (Hollywood, say), I probably would have remained a self-absorbed blathering mess. As it is, I am now able to sculpt that blather into relatively sharp and universalizable propositions about the bleakness of the human condition.

But as I said it’s a complicated issue, and here I can only relate my own experience.Report

Jan Dowell
Jan Dowell
6 years ago

I understand what animates the thought expressed in comment 34. Sexual harassment in my graduate program played a major role in my first major depressive episode and the anxiety I feel around large groups of philosophers socializing also stems from that period. It cannot be denied that women face barriers in philosophy, that one such barrier is the perception that we are not as rational as men, and that coming out as a sufferer of mental illness may, for some, indicate that one is less rational than those who do not.
These may be good reasons for a woman who does not have job security to not make her illness known widely in our current climate. But a central point both Peter and Nomy have made so forcefully is that we must not let that climate dictate who we are. When Peter reports asking himself, he is asking us, too: “are *you* going to let this be the world? Then *that’s* who you are”. The tenured among us are in a position to do our small bit to change that climate by saying “This is what depression looks like, this is part of who I am. Take it or leave it.”
I hope the answer will be “take it”. I enjoy and benefit from a good philosophical exchange as much as the next philosopher. But if the answer turns out to be “leave it”–you know what? It will have been worth it *for me*.
I am very lucky. I have tenure in a department with many good philosophers who are also good people. My hope, Peter’s and Nomy’s hope, is that by saying “this is who I am” it will become easier in the future for those who are more vulnerable than us to do so as well and to ask for the support they need from other philosophers when they need it.Report

Female, student, anonymous too
Female, student, anonymous too
6 years ago

Female, tenured, of course anonymous, it may simply be too easy to say this in all of my naive, optimistic hope for the possibility of change, and in my less experienced position — but — while I recognize that such confessions are risky, things change when people take risks. I wouldn’t begrudge anyone for not sharing their own experiences, for whatever reasons; however, a moment of collective vulnerability and recognition like this one appears as opportune a time as any to engage in that risk for the purposes of solidarity, awareness, and progress.Report

Jake Jackson
Jake Jackson
6 years ago

I agree with Jan Dowell regarding comment 34. While it is the choice for this person to opt out of disclosure due to fear of sexual harassment/gaslighting, it is only supporting the toxic status quo to advise others against honesty in all circumstances.

This is a do what you think is right for yourself situation. But to advise others to keep silent only further concretizes stigmatic structures at a critical moment when they are being challenged.Report

Josh Parsons
6 years ago

I’ve suffered from moderate depression on and off most of my working life, but was only diagnosed 3 years ago when it got really bad, and my wife intervened and sent me to the doctor who put me on SSRIs and referred me to a therapist. I stayed on the anti-depressants for about a year after that. Neither drugs nor therapy have been a magic bullet, but knowing the warning signs, knowing that things do get better, and knowing that professional help is there if I need it has helped me through.
The worst thing about being a depressed academic is that it destroys your ability to rationally evaluate your own work. When I’m down I see all my own research as valueless, and feel responsible for every student who doesn’t get a top grade. I remember that I didn’t always think those things, but to my depressed self, my non-depressed self seems irrationally confident, and feelings of hopelessness seem like a reasonable response under the circumstances. As an academic, you’re your own manager, so there’s no one around to counteract those thoughts.
It’s much harder than people realise to seek help. A lot of people I know have asked me if I use the university counselling service. Sorry, only available to students. Also, starting the conversation with your head of department is no easy matter when you already have it in your head that your colleagues perceive you as making excuses for poor performance.
On the plus side, I like to think that my depressive tendencies help when I’m not depressed. I’m a fair critic and a good problem solver. It’s when I can’t sleep because I’m too busy trying work out what I can do to improve the overall badness of… umm… everything that there’s trouble.Report

David Sobel
David Sobel
6 years ago

Carried to the extreme, the advice offered by poster #34 would seem to have the implication that blacks generally should have been advised to not march at Selma on the grounds that doing so was quite risky. There was both the danger of being beaten and the danger of being known to whites to be an agitator and so less employable. One might have argued that blacks are already disadvantaged and so advise quite generally against their sticking their necks out. But personally imprudent action, even by those already disadvantaged, can sometimes make sense especially if it helps empower those who stand up for themselves, provides a sense of solidarity, helps oneself see oneself as part of the solution, and helps overcome injustice.

Now obviously I do not mean to say that the cause of depressed philosophers is anything like as important an issue as overcoming racism nor that the risks to people today who talk about their depression is anything like as great as the risk was to those who marched at Selma and elsewhere. I understand clearly that neither is the case. I worry that this post will seem to fall into the all too common “I and my peeps are just like Rosa Parks” white fantasy. I and my peeps are not like Rosa Parks. My point is rather that it does not seem generally to be good advice to say that those who are disadvantaged ought not stick their necks out in trying to overcome injustice that harms them because they are already disadvantaged and that doing so is dangerous.Report

Prefer to be Nameless
Prefer to be Nameless
6 years ago

A few years ago I suffered a complete physical and mental breakdown, collapsing in the street and signed off from my permanent academic job for six months by my doctor. I immediately fell into a deep and serious depression, barely getting out of bed for the first month, unable to deal with anyone or anything. Slowly I started to venture out of the house but the depression remained severe and I contemplated suicide most days. The only thing that stopped me was that my wife was then pregnant with our son and I couldn’t quite bring myself to abandon her in her hour of need.

The doctor prescribed medication but I was too scared to take them, fearing a life of dependency. At one moment of desperation I did start taking them but they made be violently ill – but this may have been psychosomatic. I also saw a counsellor briefly but if anything she made it worse and had no comprehension of what I was going through. No doubt a more suitable person would have helped more.

The suicidal thoughts continued for quite a while. The birth of my son ruled out the possibility of acting on them. After all, how could I leave him alone in what seemed to be such a bleak, miserable, inhospitable world? But sitting hunched up in a corner crying my heart out about nothing in particular didn’t stop.

The cause of all this: stress and over work. Too much teaching, too much preparation, too much marking, too much giving a damn about my department and its future when it was under threat from hostile university management, too much anxiety about everything that I had worked so hard for, for so long, being taken away from me. In the end it was my own inability to cope that took it all away from me, stuck at home unable to work any more, barely able to function as a human being.

After the six months off I foolishly decided to return to work the next academic year, against the advice of my family. I just wasn’t quite ready to give up on my academic career, to give up on philosophy. I went back. It was too soon. I couldn’t cope. My colleagues didn’t really understand what had happened and showed little sympathy; after all, they were coping in these tough conditions, so why couldn’t I? I felt weak and useless. The aggressive university management got worse. They wanted aggressive winners, not people needing support. What little recovery I had made was soon lost. At the end of the academic year I quit. I resigned my permanent academic post, fully conscious that I was highly unlikely ever to get another one. I sacrificed my career for the sake of my health.

As it happened I walked straight into a temporary teaching post elsewhere, which was both a lifeline financially and a real confidence boost just when I needed it. After the extreme stress of a permanent post I loved being a temporary\adjunct, with no emotional commitment to the department at all. I just did my teaching and went home! Later there was talk that my post might get made permanent. In the end it didn’t happen but even talk of it led to a noticeable rise in my stress levels, to the point that I was at one point hospitalized with dangerously high blood pressure. I was beginning to give a damn again.

I currently have a temporary research post. I’m glad I’m still within academic philosophy, just about, and I do miss teaching and hope I’ll get to teach again at some point. The depression has more or less gone now, though I do still have bad days. I have a good sense of what can help me through them, although I don’t always do what I should. I can’t overstate the benefits of sunlight and exercise, although I’m still not disciplined enough to get as much of either as I need. An academic life spent chained to a computer under constant self-imposed pressure to write and publish is part of the problem, at least in my case.

I find it interesting (and of course saddening) to read accounts here and elsewhere of depressed graduate students intimidated by the job market and implicitly assuming that if only they can land the tenure-track job all will be well. My own experience has been the reverse of this: wonderful, joyous years as a graduate student immersed in my research without a care about what would happen afterwards, and the misery of a permanent academic post in the current higher education climate. It is no exaggeration to say that it almost cost me my life; thankfully I’m still here. Whether my academic career has any future remains to be seen.Report

Amy Lara
Amy Lara
6 years ago

To female, [email protected]: your warning is well-taken, but the wording you use troubles me. I didn’t take myself to be “confessing” anything; I was merely reporting some facts about myself. You also say, “Get the support you need and deserve elsewhere.” Personally, though, I wasn’t asking for support. I’m not thinking of this thread as a virtual group therapy session where I’m going to let everything hang out so people can help me work through my issues. I didn’t interpret anyone else as taking that approach, either. I reported some facts about myself because I thought it might be useful to others. When I need support I usually turn to professionals (no offense, philosophers, but y’all aren’t therapists!)

More importantly, though, there is a context in which it’s very appropriate to tell people in the profession about one’s struggles, and to ask for concrete support: that is when one needs to ask for disability accommodations. There is all too often a risk associated with that. But disabled people are already well aware of that risk, and I don’t think it’s a good idea to issue a blanket discouragement from asking for that support if/when you need it.Report

Anon Grad
Anon Grad
6 years ago

I just want to also add that, as a graduate student who both suffers from depression and knows other graduate students who suffer from various mental illnesses, it means a lot to me that people I look up to like Railton, Arpaly, and Dowell are being open about this. I am not a woman, so I can’t directly speak to the concerns of #34. All I can say is that, it feels great to know that there are those who are willing to take the risk to advance this conversation in our discipline.Report

Gene Witmer
Gene Witmer
6 years ago

I was present at Peter Railton’s talk last week and found it quite articulate and moving, and in fact spoke up verbally at that venue. After returning from the conference, a friend encouraged me to speak up here—as someone who is both male and tenured and relatively safe professionally. So here I am.

Those who already know me would, I expect, hardly be surprised to hear that I’ve been diagnosed with depression. It’s been something I’ve dealt with for many year (I’m tempted to say: since reaching the age of reason). It was only once in graduate school that I sought out medical help, being prescribed an SSRI. What really pushed me over the edge into seeking out such measures was a combination of two things. First, as time went on and I got closer to the PhD, the reality of the market became more and more frightening. Second, in my third year in graduate school, my mother committed suicide. This latter event was obviously a horror. But it made me want to take better care of myself. After all, if she could take that actual step into oblivion, I could do so as well—and the idea that I might do that myself became that much more real.

The SSRI took a fair amount of time to have a discernible effect, but it did, eventually. The effect was not to dull my mind, nor make me feel disconnected from myself, or anything like that—though I know from reports by others that they have experienced such effects. What it did was break a kind of regular cycle I had observed by that time, a cycle of falling into a serious bout of depression that seemed impervious to all efforts to end it, whether that was by reasoning, exercise, support from friends, or the like: a kind of viscous cloud of mental tar that would settle in and leave when it wanted to and not a moment sooner. The medication made it much easier, if I may so put it, to make that cloud disperse. It was no longer a cloud of tar but a flock of unhappy thoughts that could be chased down, torn apart, made to play with other thoughts—and the result was that, while the thoughts could still be quite unhappy in content, the sheer pleasure at being able to think was itself a comfort that made things so much easier to bear.

I spoke up at the APA session and thought I should repeat what I said there, with some elaboration.

Part of Railton’s talk was about the ways in which the institution of philosophy seems to encourage a kind of harshness that can be quite harmful. Critical rigor is obviously essential to our discipline, but this value can be used to excuse behavior that is aimed primarily at demonstrating one’s talents as a critic. It’s not surprising, really: philosophy is a subject practically guaranteed to make one feel stupid and insecure, and those who persist will find ways of not being defeated by those feelings. The easiest strategy is to act in ways that bring out the insecurities of others, by highlighting their errors—and so it is understandable, I think, that so much of the intellectual wrangling essential to our field often looks like personal wrangling for superior status.

What I mentioned at the talk was that, while this is true, I think it’s important to recognize the way in which the harshness of the discipline can actually serve to help one deal with depression. After all, the critical tools that one can see deployed against oneself can be taken up against one’s own demons. A nagging internal voice declaring that one is a fool, too stupid to succeed, or whatever—you can subject that voice to the same rigorous criticism as any philosophical text. Interestingly, this gives one a sense of control—at least, it has for me—even if one ends up still inclined to some dreadfully unhappy conclusions. I suspect that for many philosophers it is the same as with me: feeling stuck in one’s thinking is almost worse than concluding that things are hopeless. There’s something very valuable about being able to say, “Well, yes, things suck; but at least I understand on my own terms just what sucks and why and what my options are.” Obstacles cease to appear as quasi-super-natural foes with omnipotent power, and the more straightforward costs and benefits come into view that allow for rational assessment.

In short, I guess what I want to say is that the sharp tools of philosophy can be one’s friend in dealing with depression. Yes, those sharp tools also help generate a climate in which personal power dynamics are hurtful, but they don’t have to do that; it takes work, but I am quite confident that there are good ways to criticize in a way that demonstrates that one cares more about figuring things out than besting one’s interlocutors. Further, those sharp tools can help when applied to one’s own storm of private thoughts. Someone else on this thread (#35, an anonymous student) said: “If anything, depression brought me to philosophy, not the other way around.” I think that is true of me as well, and I still think it was the best place it could have taken me.Report

David Sobel
David Sobel
6 years ago

I should have added to my above comment that I agree that there are genuine concerns that Commentator #34 is getting at and that the onus falls squarely on senior faculty to very much get the ball rolling. More vulnerable members of the profession do need to think about what makes sense for them and should not ignore the worries #34 mentions. I was taking issue with what seemed to me a rather too sweeping blanket recommendation.Report

Blain Neufeld
6 years ago

Josh Parsons said: “The worst thing about being a depressed academic is that it destroys your ability to rationally evaluate your own work. When I’m down I see all my own research as valueless, and feel responsible for every student who doesn’t get a top grade. I remember that I didn’t always think those things, but to my depressed self, my non-depressed self seems irrationally confident, and feelings of hopelessness seem like a reasonable response under the circumstances. As an academic, you’re your own manager, so there’s no one around to counteract those thoughts.”
Wow. This expresses my own experience perfectly. Thanks for articulating it so well.Report

Dave Ripley
Dave Ripley
6 years ago

I’m lucky/sheltered/naive enough not to have run into, or not to have noticed, stigma within professional philosophy about my mental illess, which I’ve been pretty open about from the get-go. (For what it’s worth, I use the language of `illness’, `symptom’, etc, because I don’t have better words, not because these strike me as particularly appropriate, at least for my own case.) So although I’m not tenured, I’m happy to share my story, in case it helps someone.

I’ve been diagnosed with a combination of bipolar 2, dissociative identity disorder, and anxiety; I’ve dealt with a range of symptoms: panic attacks, agoraphobia, blackouts, cutting, mania, and depression, and a few hallucinations when things were at their worst. Nowadays my situation is under control, thanks to a combination of medication, therapy, and self-monitoring. I still cycle—I assume I always will—but within manageable limits nowadays, and I’ve learned to intervene if my cycle starts to build momentum.

I’ve had a much easier path through this than many do: my family and friends have always been unbelievably supportive, I responded reasonably quickly and well to medication, and I had health insurance when I was hospitalized. In addition, and this has been no small benefit, I’ve been able to find work where I can to a large extent set my own schedule, which allows me to manage my symptoms much more effectively than I would otherwise know how to do.

Things have been pretty under control for me since before coming into philosophy, which is presumably part of why I haven’t run into some of the stigmas others have encountered. (White privilege and male privilege are presumably also a large part of the story.) The worst of my symptoms so far, and hopefully ever, are fifteen years in the past now, and I only found out philosophy was a thing you could do three or four years later, more or less just as I was getting my head above water. I haven’t had to deal with serious, disruptive symptoms as a professional philosopher, and for that, as for so much else, I’m thankful.

I’m not sure what else to offer, except to echo Nomy Arpaly’s final point, which I think is crucial: if you’re struggling, be open to medication. It might take a while to find a good drug or cocktail, and the trial-and-error period can be disorienting and demoralizing. (The same is true of finding a therapist.) But taking medication off the table only narrows your options, where there are already too few.Report

GradStudentAgain
GradStudentAgain
6 years ago

I have a mood disorder caused by a blood condition and what I’d like to stress is how difficult it is to escape feelings of guilt for not ‘snapping out’ of depressive/low mood episodes even knowing full well it is out of your control. I was diagnosed at 27, following a 7 month period of insomnia, missed deadlines (despite foolishly trying to work around the clock to meet them) and a general feeling of being ‘out of control’, which was the best way of summing up my experience to a counsellor – the first time I had sought one, too. My blood condition does not receive a lot of recognition because it is not physiologically debilitating, and the existing medical studies on it deal with its relation to depression, manic depression, or other mood disorders (which don’t receive much recognition either). I knew I had this condition but only learned about the correlation with mood disorders following my episode – which is also when I noticed my mother matched the symptoms for one of these disorders, and she is now on medication. Bottom line, I have a mood disorder which I know is caused by factors outside my control, but I avoid talking about it, not just because I fear incredulous stares (such as the ones I encountered during the process of being diagnosed) but because I am still embarrassed by my inability to ‘cope’.

And now for a more general point: I think one of the issues that makes academia a tough place for discussing mental health problems is that it is very outcome-oriented. Our job descriptions focus on what we need to do, not on how many hours need to be put in to do it. The time you take is typically seen as your problem, and taking too much time is your fault. This discourages talk of obstacles to productivity, mental health issues included.Report

Jon Lawhead
6 years ago

I just want to express my admiration and support for everyone who has posted here. Depression (and related alcoholism) run very strongly in my family, and while I’ve been lucky enough to escape any serious problems so far, I know first-hand how damaging and draining mental illness can be, both for the person suffering and for their friends and loved ones. It’s very, very unfortunate that such a stigma is still attached to mental illness, especially in academia (where presumably we should know better). The fact that people even need to worry (as some commenters have) about “coming out” as grappling with this sort of problem for fear of the damaging their careers is very upsetting. Those who are working to get rid of this stigma despite knowing the risks they’re running deserve our unconditional support and adulation. Seeing the way this discussion has been received around the philosophy blogosphere makes me optimistic about the future, and makes me proud to be part of academic philosophy.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

It’s been said before, but thank you so much to those who have been willing to identify themselves publicly as having dealt with mental illness. It takes courage to do this and goes so far in removing the stigma (often the largest barrier that prevents people from seeking help), that I really can’t thank you enough. Your actions might save lives.Report

Chauncey Maher
Chauncey Maher
6 years ago

Five months ago, I was diagnosed with depression. My wife also suffers from depression and anxiety, as do several friends. My father happens to be a psychiatrist, and a very caring person, so I grew up with a reasonable understanding of depression, and the belief that there are effective treatments. Despite those things, and despite the relatively crippling experiences I was having day after day for a few weeks, I had a very hard time seeking medical help. I’m not sure why. I was afraid of what the medicine would do to me. I was afraid of how I would have to revise my view of myself. Initially, I didn’t tell anyone but my wife how I was feeling. Again, I don’t know why. I was probably afraid of what they would think of me. I didn’t want to talk about it, since everything I said about it sounded exaggerated or dramatic. I didn’t want to frighten or burden anyone. My wife encouraged me to tell other people. She is exemplary in that respect; she has always been relatively open about her illness. Slowly I did tell friends and colleagues, who were supportive and helpful. That wasn’t surprising, but it was such a relief just to share my difficulty with others. Attacks of dread and sleeplessness continued, and I came around to the idea that I really did need to see a doctor. I did. She put me on Zoloft. Although I was very worried that it wouldn’t work—complete with two bouts of full body hives—eventually it did start to work. Now, five months later, I am much better. It feels very good to say that, and share it with others whom it might help.

I know that there are lots of people who have suffered longer and more severely than I have. I offer myself as an example of the fact that depression doesn’t always look that way.Report

Felonius Screwtape
Felonius Screwtape
6 years ago

It is indeed very good that so many are coming out of the depression closet. I use that metaphor intentionally. One can see a pattern in many of the comments, a pattern of shame and embarrassment and humiliation and defeat. Depression and people suffering from it are stigmatized; worse, the depressed person not only internalizes this stigma, but also convinces him or herself that no one is able to understand, no one wants to deal with a depressed friend, it’s america and we’re all shiny happy people. And so, the closet. In public, one “passes”, one learns a variety of strategies to deflect and distract so that no one believes one is depressed, but at home in private where appearances can be dropped, it’s quite another story. And so coming out of the depression closet is quite a momentous step forward, if not least because so many attitudes and misconceptions about depression have to be corrected in broader society. The closeted individual wants to find solidarity with others, yet paradoxically, and perhaps as an effect of the disease, i can understand and empathize with your depression no more than you can mine. Learning that one is not alone strangely underscores one’s loneliness. But still, if coming out changes how we view depression, than coming out is an undeniably good first step, because at least then no bully could threaten to use it against someone in a lawsuit (and you know about what obscene twit i’m speaking). And this parenthetical remark brings me again to my main point, articulated a couple days ago: the institutions, attitudes, atmosphere, and modalities of professional academia in general and philosophy in particular are a Depression-Machine, and until we confront and correct those in a serious and systematic manner, we will continue to reproduce and work in the conditions under which depression flourishes.Report

Joel Parthemore
Joel Parthemore
6 years ago

I have had life-long struggles with depression which at least one professional that I’ve seen (in the process of applying for Peace Corps service) suggested qualified as clinical depression. I would count it as such, though I’ve not ever sought out a formal diagnosis. Two things stand out for me:
1. The roots of depression can go far back in one’s life, to early childhood events. They do in my case. They are *so* far back — and I worked so hard at the time to repress them — that they are difficult to get in proper contact with, still. Nevertheless, they are there, and they have fundamentally shaped the person I have become. It is far too easy, when immediate causes of depression cannot be identified, to just put them down to a vaguely defined “chemical imbalance”.
2. Finding the strategies that work for me have been key. One has been seeking out a career with a fairly high degree of travel (that certainly applies to academic philosophy!); I am hardly the first to note that new situations help to break the cycle of catatonic-like helplessness. Another is a chance accidental discovery. I am, and have always been, highly light sensitive. For many people, the long winter nights in the North bring out depression. For me, they have something of the opposite effect: not the winter nights, per se, but the constant shifting in light cycles over the course of the year has done much to “boost my spirits”.Report

Lydia du Bois
Lydia du Bois
6 years ago

Some of consequences of depression and other conditions like it are isolation and self-doubt. The psychological toll of stressful life events can have a similar effect. Relocation (moving to a new institution for graduate school or a job, for example), financial instability, and the uncertainty that accompany academic life are also often considered to be catalysts for mental illness or for acute episodes of them.

Being far from family, new in a community, and often in a very exposed position when it comes to teaching, presenting, and publishing, can make it very difficult to live with mental health problems. Mental health professionals often recommend stability, routine, and a degree of predictability in one’s lifestyle when it comes to minimizing the effect that anxiety and mood disorders have on people’s life projects. But it seems as though academic achievement is often considered to be tied very closely not only to our ability to write good papers and to teach, but to do so in the context of a lack of stability, routine, and the ability to form expectations about the future. Academic acumen seems to cover much more than people’s ability to reason or teach well. But sometimes a struggle I have had with adjusting to a new city, learning how to do my taxes in a new country, and delaying plans to see my family because I cannot predict my income or availability can have an indirect effect on my productivity or my teaching.

This is not at all to be deflationary about mental illness. On the contrary, it is rather to say that apartment hunting on a TA salary, caring for an aging parent from a distance, or applying for a credit card without a job lined up are difficult in and of themselves. But they are disproportionately harder (and acutely so) for many who suffers from depression or anxiety to flourish.

It may well be that no such norms about academic acumen in fact abound. I hope that is so. But an academic lifestyle contains certain challenges, mental health notwithstanding. These particular challenges are ones that can make a psychiatric condition, which is manageable in principle, unmanageable in practice. I think this is consistent with many people finding the actual teaching and research a wonderful anchor for their sense of self in the face of depression and anxiety.Report

anon student
anon student
6 years ago

Eating disorders haven’t been mentioned either here or in Leiter’s recent poll. Experience, limited evidence though that is, leads me to doubt that this is because they are rare among philosophers and other academics. I wonder if it is because they are more taboo than some other mental illnesses. There are degrading stereotypes.

Perhaps I’m wrong, and they are as uncommon in this discipline as the silence about them would suggest. I’m mentioning this just in case other readers have been wondering when someone was going to. I would be surprised if I was the only one.Report

Abby
Abby
6 years ago

I have bipolar I disorder. I am currently tenured but my colleagues have known about my condition since my second year on the tenure-track. My colleagues have given me tremendous support as I have gone through psychotic manic episodes and suicidal depressions. I work at a small liberal arts college that truly feels like a family. Having a strong support system makes all the difference. I can’t imagine going through this without having my friends there for me. I feel so fortunate to work where I do and know the people that I know.

I am also open with my students about my experiences, as it is very important to me to show them that you can have a serious mental illness and still be a professional, a parent, etc. I strongly believe that being open about mental illness is the best way to reduce stigma and to make mental illness–even experiences like psychosis and suicidality–less scary.Report

G
G
6 years ago

Anon student (#56): I have also dealt with eating disorders, in addition to depression. I spiraled so out of control during my sophomore year that I had to take a couple years off from going to school full-time in order to get it together enough to finish. I still don’t own a scale for fear of triggering obsession. I still have a warped view of my own appearance… or so I’ve been told.

In some ways I’m lucky on that front – everyone seems to be obsessed with food now. With so many different dietary restrictions for so many people, I can technically get away with going gluten-free raw paleo vegan and cut my diet to five things, and all people will assume is that I shop at Whole Foods. (I do, although I don’t actually follow all of those rules.) The depression is harder (for me) to hide. It’s a whole outlook I’m supposed to pretend I don’t have, and I’m just not that good of an actress.

Anyway, you’re not alone.Report

Female, not tenured, and of course also anonymous!
Female, not tenured, and of course also anonymous!
6 years ago

To “Female, tenured, of course anonymous”!: Thank you very much for warning us not to come out, because it confirms my not doing so all along. It is quite true that women in philosophy are already severly underappreciated and discriminated against. I have been struggling with some form of depression (probably) since puberty, and I have been treated for it since 13 years or so (taking medication and having therapy). Things have become a little better in the last three couple of years, but I will be on medication for my whole life and probably also in therapy. It has been difficult to come to terms with that thought, but now that I have I feel a certain calmness come over me.
But I still think it would make my life in academia worse or even end it altogether if I came out with my illness. Even my colleagues do not know it. I once admitted to a (female and very beloved) colleague when I made a mistake that I am not in a good place right now. She really did not know what to say. And I thought that if I could not come out to this person, I cannot tell anybody, because she is about the nicest and best colleague I have.
Coming out to my superiors here at the university would be a nightmare. My boss is an over-achiever who thinks that everybody must work as much as him and basically only views people in terms of what they can do for him. He is already very onto me, because I have two kids, which means that I cannot be at the office from 8 in the morning till 8 in the evening (btw: I have a 50% position there,). So, no, I will never tell anyone here. Maybe, if I am lucky and get a tenured position, I will reconsider. In the meantime I am hiding in the same closet that many gays and other people who are “different” hide. It is not great in here, a little dusty and stuffy, but at least nobody will use my weakness against me.
Does it make me sad? Yes, very much. Do I hope for change? Yes, also very much. But I think that sadly it will take much more that Peter Railton standing up and admitting to depression. That being sad, I still thank Peter Railton very, very much. I also admire everybody who has the courage to speak up about their condition. I do not have it, even if I am on medication and if everything else is kind of okay. I am also kind of glad that I am not alone in being a philosopher and fighting mental illness, I feel for everybody who had to suffer through it. Even though I am very pessimistic right now it gives me hope that there might be changes in the future. I hope we can continue the discussion here, even though I choose to stay anonymous due to the reasons mentioned.
Sorry, for being such a downer. This may be part of the illness, but probably also due to my disappointment in academic philosophy.Report

crispin sartwell
crispin sartwell
6 years ago

i think philosophers and academics in general need to be more human, and show the personal sources of their ideas. also, it possible to be out, say, as a recovering addict, even without tenure. i certainly was. i guess i think the fear of what the institution is going to do to you is debilitating, is itself a basic source of the stress. that’s something that in part we are imposing on ourselves, or merely capitulating to. also i do want to say that an academic career is not especially more stressful than a lot of others. right? say you’re trying to raise your kids on minimum wage…Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
6 years ago

Here is what I wrote on my facebook page this morning: “Very disappointed, though not at all surprised, by the discussion that has ensued in various forums in the aftermath of the paper that Peter Railton gave at the central APA last week in which he discussed the fact that he has experienced depression. With only a few exceptions, the discussion has naturalized, individualized, and depoliticized depression; furthermore, with only a couple of exceptions, there has been no connection made to the phenomena of ableism, in general, nor the exclusion of disabled philosophers, in particular. In addition, the discussions have thrown into relief the fact that the vast majority of philosophers (even those who work on issues of justice, equality, etc.) are entirely unaware of philosophy of disability and other disability theory and scholarship. I may write a blog-post about this matter on the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog.”Report

Female, not tenured, and of course also anonymous!
Female, not tenured, and of course also anonymous!
6 years ago

Just an addendum: I am not saying that it is the right thing to do to hide and not to step forward if you are depressed in academia. I just said that for me this has been the right choice so far. That may very well make me a coward and stress me out, because it goes against a lot of what I believe in.
BTW thank you, Shelley Tremain, for your excellent comment. I am disappointed, too, in the discussion. The system of academics must not be disputed, it is all about the individual and his problems, pfff…Report

anon grad student
anon grad student
6 years ago

I’m with Dr. Tremain. In these discussions, individuals have chosen to come forward and share their own personal experiences of suffering. But it is clear enough that these very same individuals understand the source and nature of their personal suffering in terms I do not approve of (e.g. non-political, individualistic, and naturalized). This is disappointing, not to mention insulting.Report

anon grad student
anon grad student
6 years ago

I was employing sarcasm. I’m registering a complaint with Dr. Tremain’s comment.

By all means, let us argue about the various frameworks in which people understand mental illness, as well as issues concerning abelism, larger political issues, and so forth. But let’s not do that right now. Or, at least, let’s not do that in a forum where people are coming forward and discussing their own personal experiences of suffering. That is what we should be supporting and encouraging. We should not be policing how they understand those experiences, which is is exactly what Dr. Tremain is doing.Report

M
M
6 years ago

I think anon grad student’s remarks are a parody.Report

Shelley Tremain
Shelley Tremain
6 years ago

Participants in this discussion will be interested in the blog-post entitled “Railton and How We Move Forward” by one of my fellow bloggers at the Discrimination and Disadvantage blog. You can read the post here: http://philosophycommons.typepad.com/disability_and_disadvanta/2015/02/railton-and-how-we-move-forward.htmlReport

Jake Jackson
Jake Jackson
6 years ago

I agree with some of the concerns that this comment thread/other discussions like this often turn into just a question of navel gazing/self-love. My initial post on PhDisabled did warn of a sort of reveling look at depression as if it is some sort of ‘divine gift’ or the source of one’s intelligence. This warning seems to have been lost in part in this comment thread here.

but frankly, I feel that while this level of Consciousness Raising can turn into a vain project (and perhaps some along this thread have been doing so, it is hard to gauge intentions in comments), this stage is absolutely necessary for creating a wider, open milieu of recognition of mental illness problems. The editor of PhDisabled, my friend Zara Bain, has expressed concerns of this sort as well, especially that self-reveling in depression does miss out on the multitude of other, just as toxic and harmed, forms of disability and covers over them since we have a problem with only looking to one systemic problem at a time when it comes to ableism as opposed to fixing the structure itself. What I hope that this discussion, and even the more navel-gazing posts about mental health can give us AT THE VERY LEAST an overcoming of hermeneutic injustice. These discussions, even if they miss a wider affecting arc of change, at the very least open up the discussion enough that it allows people who are otherwise unaware of their own mental illness to now recognize it. To now overcome the stigmas that block recognizing mental health as an immediate concern.

Yes, we must move past just the individualistic discussions of depression and into a more solid praxis that allows for inclusion of not just the mentally ill *but overcomes stigma and practical quality of life blocks for those with disabilities of all sorts*.

All marginalizing ableist stigmas must be overcome just as readily. not just the ones we personally face.Report

Vasilis
Vasilis
6 years ago

As I have not seen it discussed yet, let me add here a plea to think more about the foreign grad students and philosophers like me, who might be going through similar experiences. Some conditions I could go into: often worse financial situation, unfamiliarity with the competitive culture of the US, accentuated feeling of not belonging, difficulties with the language that stop you from opening up, and general insecurity to come out, as, for some of us, this is our only chance of finding a job and/or staying in the US in the future. But I’ll concentrate on the specific: it is often very very difficult for us to discuss depression openly and seek the appropriate help. Some of our cultures are not used to treating mental issues with doctors, keeping it instead within the family (which is normally not there when we are in the US). Other cultures have a very different approach to medication than the American culture. Most of us are just not as familiar with the appropriate channels and paths for help. And almost all of us feel that we do not have the language skills to explain our case properly and maybe get the desired non-evasive therapy… I would advise faculty who are reading this to make the mental health processes available in their university more explicit and, why not, approach their foreign colleagues and students directly, and just ask if they know the procedures and general (American) culture on mental health. Depression is an issue that needs discussion and human contact, and we are generally extremely lonely over there! (I have left the US for now, but still have not settled in one place – hence the problems still follow me around..)Report

anon student
anon student
6 years ago

I really appreciate your reply. Thanks.Report

anon student
anon student
6 years ago

(Sorry, that was to G at #58.)Report

anon prof
anon prof
6 years ago

Anon student 56: Yes, I struggle with eating disorders. I cycle through AN, BN, and BED… with blissful one to twelve month respites from all three mixed in.
In my subculture of origin (upper-middle class liberal Manhattanites), anxiety and depression are totally normalized; everyone openly compares notes on therapists and medications. In contrast, I still feel a lot of shame about my ED. I do think that part of the reason I feel this way is that EDs are “feminized” (naturally, given the statistics). Presumably this is a source of shame to me because of my own internalized sexism.
My BN was fairly disabling during my first few years of graduate school, and again for the first few years after graduating. (Change is hard.) It was not just demoralizing but time-consuming and physically exhausting.
I am not at this point optimistic that I will recover, per se, but it has actually been psychologically and professionally helpful to make achieving *functionality* my goal. At this point, my eating is still negatively impacting my work and relationships, but I believe that the impact is minor, and I count that as a success.Report

anonymous student
anonymous student
6 years ago

As a female, an immigrant, a low-income and first-generation college student, I was amazingly optimistic and high achieving throughout high school and college. I had bouts of mild anxiety or depression, confusion about my identity (especially attending an elite college where my class became something of concern) and so forth, but I somehow remained engaged and interested in the world and felt that I had things to contribute to it. It was not until going to graduate school that I even began to understand how *who I am* would make being in academia a tremendous struggle. Because graduate school is not designed for the likes of me. I’m not even sure who it is designed for, because I know no people in my PhD program who are feeling utterly fulfilled being there. The lack of support and (worse) outright hostility that I have experienced in my graduate program, coupled with a heavy workload on (yes, I admit it) difficult topics, and being responsible for educating 70 undergraduates on top of it, expectedly sent me into the deepest depression I have ever known. Was depression my fault? I don’t think so now, but for the first two years in the program I questioned my own intelligence, and there was no one in my department to tell me I was not a worthless, stupid, poor woman who would never amount to anything even mildly important. The fact that I even thought these things about myself is shameful and embarrassing. The fact that graduate departments can cause students to feel this way is shameful and embarrassing. Of course I do not mean to blame graduate school for my socioeconomic struggles, but I do blame it for not being hospitable to people like me while pretending that it is.Report

anon
anon
6 years ago

i want to echo the first commenter, gradstudent’s, excellent point about the culture of normalcy around high anxiety and especially around the conditions that produce or exacerbate it. In my own leiterrific department, it is assumed that the grad students will be constantly working, constantly stressed, and constantly driven in the never-ending pursuit of an impossibly high standard of work. Workaholism is rampant (how much all this work *produces*, I don’t know, but the sheer volume of hours grads in my program work is ludicrous). Half or more of the grad students are on anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications, and these are just the ones I know about. Three grad students in the past 10-ish years (one before my time) have had fairly public nervous breakdowns.

I don’t know what’s cause and what’s effect — maybe the kinds of people who choose to pursue philosophy PhDs are also the kinds of people who tend towards anxiety and depression. Or maybe doing a PhD in philosophy causes anxiety and depression. Or both. But either way, I wish my own department and the culture more generally would stress that PhD students should maintain realistic expectations of themselves, pursue life-work balance, and generally treat their physical, emotional, and social health as priorities over their philosophical work. Instead, the faculty have impossible standards, pushing grad students beyond what is reasonably attainable at that level. The attitude to the job market is even more bizarre. The job market is incredibly stressful, but instead of acknowledging this built-in aspect of it and encouraging students to be aware of this and to try things to mitigate the stress, students who aren’t stressed ‘enough’ whilst on the market are treated as not doing it right or as not ‘getting’ it. It’s almost as though students who don’t exhibit a near-breakdown level of stress while on the market must not care enough about getting a job and hence, aren’t serious enough.

A related point here is that, at least in my own department, there seems to be an asymmetry in how depression and anxiety are treated. Anxiety–especially about one’s career prospects and about one’s work being good enough–is common, accepted, and even encouraged. It shows your values are in the ‘right’ place if your self-worth is all wrapped up in your output and academic success. But depression is not generally discussed, accepted, or encouraged in my department, even though I would guess that there are at least as many depressed grads as severely anxious ones. It’s interesting why this asymmetry exists. But whatever it is, it makes Railton’s especially apt, admirable, and ground-breaking, since I do think there is a special taboo around being depressed that doesn’t exist around being anxious or a workaholic.Report

Anonymous Full Prof
Anonymous Full Prof
6 years ago

Here’s a story I’ve never told anyone. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, whenever I was asked what I wanted to “be,” I never had an answer. Not because I couldn’t choose, but because there wasn’t anything I wanted to do. When I graduated college and the career that I thought would work for me didn’t pan out, I was desperate. I thought that teaching philosophy might work but I knew it might not. I made a pact with myself that I would give it a shot and that if it didn’t work I’d kill myself. I guess that’s motivation of a sort. When I think about giving up philosophy, as I do from time to time, I wonder what’s on the other side.

I don’t talk about my depression to others. It’s not the depression that is embarrassing. Depression is nothing to be embarrassed about. What is embarrassing is being a worthless, uncaring, unloved human being, i.e., what some might see as feelings relevant to depression. I think that’s a distinction that people miss sometimes.

For now I just keep passing the open windows and try not to think about things too much.Report

Tenuredcrazywoman
Tenuredcrazywoman
6 years ago

Earlier this term, I cancelled a week’s classes. Hospitalized for pneumonia. Again. Dang lungs! So sorry! Old crock that I am! Actually, it wasn’t pneumonia. I was hospitalized for depression; it was that or drive at speed off the side of a local mountain. Crazy again. Dang brain.

Peter Railton has ‘fessed up, and I’m no fraidy-cat. So why have I always lied about the ravages manic depression has wrought on my life, and why will I continue to do so?

Unlike Railton, I’m no poster child for the mentally ill. No hiring committee would hear my story and recommit to the ADA and EEO, and my nutcase students would get no comfort from my role modeling. For my disease has completely derailed a once-promising career. More devastating than the periods of paralysis during my depressed phases have been the mood stabilizing drugs that have robbed me of the periods of explosive creativity in which I did the work I used to be known for. I could go off the drugs, and maybe my mojo would come back (or maybe not). But then suicide would be a real danger.

Not such a great loss, you might think – certainly not to me. But I have two kids, both of whom have inherited my illness, and both of whom struggle mightily to make tolerable worlds for themselves. Caring for them is a duty, if not always a pleasure, and I’m the only one up for doing it. The time and anguish involved in caring for my disabled children is another way my illness has interfered with my work. I would urge anyone with serious madness in the family to think twice about reproducing. (This applies particularly to women, and particularly to academics: de facto women still take on most of the childcare, particularly at times of crisis; and an academic’s comparative freedom, schedule-wise, is an invitation to exploitation by 9-5 spouses.) Grumbling aside, there’s nothing more devastating to your ability to concentrate on the intricacies of a philosophical argument than watching the people you love more than anything in the world suffer the expression of genes you’ve passed on to them.

Railton is lucky to have had a supportive and loving spouse, and – from what he says – the help of understanding colleagues at critical times. He’s also obviously a strong and brave individual, able to gut out the bad times and to pull himself together sufficiently in the interstices to do excellent things. It’s not always like that, though. I am very grateful to have my job (I got tenure before I was diagnosed and before I had children) but I feel like a big fat fraud and failure and I often think I’d’ve been better off in a different kind of job. Academic work can be dangerous for crazy people: the work is intensely absorbing and the rewards are peculiarly intoxicating; but if you stop being able to do it, there’s no real scope for ‘sideways promotion’ or retraining. Except administration, and let’s not go there. I’d rather drive off a cliff.Report

Anonymous Former Undergrad
Anonymous Former Undergrad
6 years ago

Depression, ultimately, was the reason I opted not to pursue graduate education in philosophy. By the end of my freshman year (at a university whose graduate philosophy program is highly ranked), I knew this was what I wanted to study, and I took it as an assumed that I would go directly from my undergraduate studies to a PhD program. I loved my classes and the vast majority of my professors, and I did my best to pursue as much advanced coursework as possible. On one level, I felt fully confident that I’d settled on what I wanted to do with my future.

But during my last two years at university I returned home most nights, following the classes I still got a jolt of excitement from, and inevitably ended up contemplating what manner of suicide would be least disruptive and most likely to succeed. I felt isolated from the other students around me, convinced that there was no one whom I could connect with over the work I was passionate about, and constantly full of doubt about any hopes for my future. What did it matter if I was doing great in my classes now, if getting into a top-ranked graduate program was, by all accounts, the only slim hope of success I’d have in the job market? It all just seemed like more undergraduate bullshit, and how was I supposed to know that it wouldn’t all be worthless once I got my B.A.? On top of all this, social anxiety led to a complete failure of a struggle to form bonds with any of my classmates or professors and left me bereft of any support system within the university.

Amid all this, there was no one I felt I could talk to about these issues. Played over in my head, everything felt like an excuse for my not being good enough. Stress led to a decline in my health, to missed classes and increased disengagement from university life. I honestly expected to fail out in my final year, which made it a stunning, dumbfounding experience when my senior essay received high honors from the department. I’d traveled back home before I learned this, skipping my graduation ceremony, but somehow the news just felt like confirmation that I couldn’t keep doing what I had been. After a miserable year spent despairing of any other sense of what I wanted to do with my life, I began pursuing a career outside of academia. And, while this certainly hasn’t been a “cure” for my issues, I’ve been shocked by how much better the experience has been for me, both mentally and emotionally.

In the end, I don’t know what any of this means. I’m sure there were ways I could have sought out help back when I was a student. I don’t feel like any of my instructors had an obligation to take notice of my condition or offer assistance; they had lives of their own, and I was self-consciously avoidant most of the time. But I do feel that there were pressures within the university environment that made the experience worse, and I wish there had been more open communication about these issues with students at all levels. I wish there had been more frank and forthright acknowledgment of the stresses on both graduate students and undergrads seeking to pursue graduate education and that what acknowledgment there already was had been tuned more towards offering support and methods of coping, rather than treating the potentially bleak outlook of life in academia like some kind of warning sign, meant to ward off as many students as possible.Report

Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
6 years ago

I have struggled with depression and social anxiety since early adolescence, and it went untreated for about ten years. Since I’ve received help (medication, therapy, regular exercise), I’ve found a profound and enduring commitment to philosophy. But in some ways, this commitment has come too late: I had a poor GPA as an undergraduate, which I now see was a direct result of my untreated depression. This, of course, kept me from getting into a top-flight graduate program. And though I finally found a small program where I received my Ph. D., all I’ve been able to muster on the job market is a non-TT position and very few TT interviews. I can’t help thinking that part of this is due to pedigree since, otherwise, my dossier is very strong: I’ve won competitive fellowships, have publications in good journals, good letters from good people, and an outstanding teaching record.

Of course, I realized the prejudices of pedigree when going to graduate school, and I knew that getting a job would be more of a challenge for me than it would be for others. But I also thought that, with a strong dossier, I would have to catch the eye of a search committee with meritocratic sentiments. To say the least, that has not been the case. Instead, I get to sit on the sidelines every December, regret my youthful ignorance, and see how little my hard-earned success means to others.

All of this, of course, has a point: I wonder whether this new discussion on depression and the philosophical profession might give us occasion to revisit some of these harmful prejudices. Might the practices of search committees somehow work against (other) candidates who struggle with depression? Are there things that depressives can do to combat the prejudices of search committees? Might we want to discuss “best practices” for job-seeking depressives? And, for that matter, might we want to discuss “best practices” for search committees to treat depressives more fairly?Report

Eric Hill
Eric Hill
6 years ago

Your story reminds me of my own, and I just wanted to send you words of support.

Regards,
EricReport

Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
6 years ago

Thanks, Eric. It’s very much appreciated.Report

Nameless Adjunct
Nameless Adjunct
6 years ago

I hesitate to talk about myself, but I think there are two good things to learn from my story for those who suffer from mental illness, so I thought I should. I have suffered from depression on and off since my teens, but I was unwilling to get help for it. It eventually got so bad that my wife absolutely insisted I go to a psychiatrist. Thank God she did.

I was diagnosed with bi-polar type 2 and with anxiety issues that became crippling in certain situations. Fortunately for me, the first medications I tried for these worked amazingly well. Lamictal has made it impossible for me to feel depression any longer, and it stabilizes my mood quite well. Effexor has calmed my anxiety exceptionally well. My anxiety has reduced so much that I have gone from a mumbling, hard to hear teacher who struggled to get through my classes to an engaging, entertaining one that loves going to class and talking to people about something I love. My ability to complete work has also improved greatly, and I would likely be quite prolific at the moment if I wasn’t spending most of my non-teaching time caring for our 1-year-old son while my wife works 40 hours a week at her job. Getting help can work (although I do acknowledge that I was very, very lucky. It usually takes a long time to find the right drugs and the right diagnosis). I wouldn’t give up my pills and the life they let me live now for a winning Powerball ticket (and not just because winning the lottery doesn’t actually make people happy).

But while the help was fantastic, and my life is much better now, as far as my career is concerned, I waited too long to get the help I needed. By the time I got help I was years into my time as an ABD student, had run out of funding and was working as an adjunct, only had 1 publication to my name, and only worked in short bursts of minor mania between increasingly lengthy and intense bouts of depression. My anxiety also prevented me from putting much effort into getting accepted at conferences, as the fear of attending them often kept me from sending papers out by the time the deadlines came. My mental illness had led to an unimpressive CV, an unfortunately poor teaching portfolio, and a disturbingly long time as a grad student working on his dissertation. Despite having what I’m told are great letters and what I like to think is a great writing sample, unsurprisingly in this poor market I have been unable to find a full-time position. Since moving up from one’s initial posting after defending your dissertation is incredibly difficult, I’ve had to find ways to cope with the fact that I’ll never have the sort of career I always wanted. This is made all the harder by realizing that I probably could have had that career if I’d gotten help sooner.

One of the main things I’ve learned from getting help is that failing to do so was just stupid. At the time, it seemed like I was somehow a failure if I admitted I needed to get help for a mental illness. But doing great work while suffering from depression is incredibly hard. Hell, doing great work while not suffering from depression is incredibly hard. If your brain isn’t working right, you need to get it fixed in order to use it properly. It’s no different from any other part of your body failing to function properly. If your pancreas wasn’t producing enough insulin, it would be dumb to think you shouldn’t do anything about it because you deserve low insulin levels, or that you should really just try harder to make insulin because only weak people need help to produce it, or that at least you should be able to force your body to function right without it. If your brain isn’t making enough dopamine, it’s just as dumb to think you shouldn’t do what is needed to fix that problem, and to make yourself healthy again. And it’s important to get healthy as soon as possible. Waiting too long to get help may force you to give up on the only thing you ever really aspired to. It almost certainly has for me. Be smarter than I was.Report

YetAnotherAnonGradStudent
YetAnotherAnonGradStudent
6 years ago

I’m a grad student with a couple of previous hospitalisations due to Schizoaffective disorder. I relate to the earlier comment about finding it hard to judge your own work – but in the reverse! I have persistent delusions of grandeur and thus believe myself to be the greatest philosopher of the last 120 years. Can anyone else here relate to this?
These type of thoughts are motivating when writing a thesis but can lead to some level of arrogance, and, if discovered, I can imagine would hamper your ability to be taken seriously in a professional context. Anyway I haven’t told my supervisors or colleagues, and am unlikely to ‘come out’ any time soon. It’s tricky, I’d love it if more philosophers went public with their stories, especially of psychosis, but if I won’t do it I suppose I can’t really expect anybody else to!Report

S_G
S_G
10 months ago

This thread and the discussion around Railton’s talk has been a godsend for me, even as I stumbled upon it only after 5 years. I was googling Railton to see if he had done any work in the philosophy of science after the early 1980s and what I found was the discussion around his admission of depression. If anything was ever serendipitous to me then this was, as I am a European philosopher diagnosed with Bipolar II.

I would like to thank everybody here who shared his or her story. It has encouraged me to take a step towards honesty myself. I have written to my father about my disorder, something I tried to do in person over the last two years at least but just couldn’t. As was too be expected, his answer was only loving and supportive.

I have not yet told anyone in my work environment or my friend circle either, except my immediate boss who has also been very supportive. I am not sure I will tell anybody else soon but I at least have the goal to be as open about my disorder as I can. Reading the stories of so many others who have been struggling underlined this goal for me.

Thanks again to everyone who participated in the discussion and especially to those who shared their stories!
Report