Mental health -- it is important

Awareness of students’ mental health is growing in academia right now (see this, this, or this). Unsurprisingly, faculty suffer mental illness and disability too, and many do not seek help from their institutions. The fear that disclosure, even to the disability office, will have negative effects on one’s professional career is a common reason for not seeking help. I believe normalizing mental illness and disability could eliminate the stigma, reduce the fear, and get more people the help they need.

And so, to do my bit towards normalization, I suffer from clinical depression.

Before I go any farther, right now, I am doing very well, thank you.

Some close to me are alarmed that I am disclosing my experience of depression. Last fall I told my boss. Now I’m telling everyone! Surely there will be negative consequences?

Which is entirely the point. There could be, but there shouldn’t be. It’s no different from saying I’m a Type 2 diabetic.1 Clinical depression (among other mental maladies) is a chronic condition that affects my behavior, life expectancy, and quality of life. For the same reason, I should speak up. If I can’t weather the blow back (if any) as an atheist, cisgender, heterosexual, white, male, fully promoted professor, then there really is a problem. Privilege is leaking out of my ears. Still, I have taken a long time to get to the point where I could write this.

In 2012, three years after getting tenure, I was at the peak of my career. I had brought in some big(-ish) grants, my students were successful, papers were churning out, and I had stimulating collaborations. My children were growing, healthy and happy (as far as I could tell!), and my spouse’s career was moving equally well. Then I just fell apart. More or less. I vividly recall sitting in the car outside my office, calling a collaborator and saying I couldn’t make a meeting. I couldn’t do anything except sit there, crying.

Luckily, I was already familiar with my institution’s employee assistance program. A few years before I visited with a counselor to talk about stress management and felt comfortable calling for an appointment. Within a few minutes2, the counselor diagnosed me as clinically depressed.

TIL:3 it is not normal to think about suicide or dying on a daily basis. Who knew! I sure didn’t. Now I know that those thoughts are just symptoms. I treat them as such, just like measuring a high glucose reading is a symptom that my diet isn’t controlling my diabetes. # Suicidal thoughts / day > 0 is a sign something is off. I’m incredibly lucky to have a loving family – thinking about what my suicide would do to them kept me alive.

I’m not going to try and describe what it’s like to be in the grip of depression. I could not describe it as well as Andrew Solomon in his TED talk. Trigger warning: I burst into tears the first time I watched this – the description was so spot on. Or this great essay by Katie Rose Guest Pryal on working while depressed.

In hindsight, it is pretty clear I was experiencing depression for many years prior to that total collapse. Maybe I’d have spotted it sooner if mental illness was more widely discussed and acknowledged. I might have thought to ask my physician about the normal frequency of suicidal thoughts (zero!).

By 2014, the combination of counseling and medication had set me right. I was better! So I stopped the medication and the counseling. And then my sabbatical leave disappeared into a haze of despair. Back to counseling, and I chose a different medication with fewer side effects. I got better. Then things slid sideways again in 2016! More counseling, and I improved again. Just enough to say, sure, I’ll teach those extra courses and take on an administrative appointment. Midway through last semester, it all came unglued again. I made some tough decisions about what I could and couldn’t continue to do. Telling colleagues that some things were not going to happen was the hardest thing I’ve had to do for a long time. Choosing to give up the courses I created to focus on teaching required courses was just as hard. But, cutting back on work created space for me to start healing again. In part I could cut back because of my privilege. I was also trying to do too much. I’m still working 40+ hours a week. My days are full.

About work – I’d like to say you can be productive and depressed, but my own story isn’t good evidence of that. If you look at my CV my paper output runs into a brick wall in 2015. That’s when the pre-2012 pipeline finally ran dry. I’m super grateful to students that brought me problems post-2012, and paid my help back with co-authorship. Brigitte Tenhumberg pushed along a joint project when I was unable to. Without their help I’d have nothing to show for the past few years. I’ve always managed to meet my teaching4 and administrative obligations, but the self-confident creativity necessary for research largely evaporated. Whenever I’m well, it comes rushing back! My notebook starts to fill up with ideas. This time, I’m determined to stay well.

I told my Facebook friends I was experiencing a relapse last year. A colleague was surprised and wrote “I always thought you were a well-adjusted thoughtful and caring person. Still do btw.”5 But, outward appearances are deceiving. Even in the grip of the deepest depression I can walk into a room full of people and lead a meeting. But in my office? I stare at the wall. My own work, or more distant tasks like grading all those low-stakes lab assignments, sit undone. Some people wear their depression on their sleeves. You can tell they are suffering. But others, like me, show nothing in public. We’re still suffering. Those close to us probably see it all too well.

When I read about others’ experience of mental health issues, I’m blown away by the terrible situations that develop. My own situation is so privileged, I often think “how can I complain?” I should just suck it up. That kind of thinking is part of the problem! I can’t just suck it up. It is an illness. Yes, there is a lot of personal work that I do to improve my mental state. But there’s no switch I can flip, no magic bullet. I take medication, and that helps. A lot. But it isn’t enough. The medication helps me put a floor on how far I fall when things go bad. I regularly meet with a mental health professional. The combination of counseling and medication is more effective than either alone (see this or this). I practice mindfulness meditation. I exercise. It all helps. I’m getting faster at recognizing when a major depressive episode starts, and I’m quicker at pulling out all the stops to change things. The latest relapse only lasted a few weeks.

Sitting here in my privileged bubble, having dug out of the latest relapse, I’ve been asking “what can I do to make things better for others?”. This essay is one thing. Together with a few colleagues who also experience mental health issues, I’ve been looking around for ways to support students. We’ve added lists of resources to our course homepages and posted signs on doors indicating we are willing to listen. Meghan Duffy posted about supporting students with mental illness at Dynamic Ecology. I recently learned there is a UNL chapter of Active Minds, a national organization advocating for mental health on campus. It is for students, but I’ll keep an eye on their activities and support what I can. There is also a report on fostering a supportive workplace for faculty with mental health issues that I need to dig into. I’m really lucky to have supportive and understanding colleagues6; we’re building that supportive workplace bit by bit!

The realization that I am never going to be “better” was the hardest bit. Staying well is a process, not a state. I must work on my mental health every. single. day. Just the other day I found my equilibrium knocked askew by a random event. It was no reflection on me; just part of the job. Nonetheless the negative thoughts boiled up like storm clouds, sapping my productivity even after I had done all I could. I take some deep breaths – mindfully watch the clouds roll by. There is always blue sky up above. Above all else, be kind, especially to myself.

  1. I am!

  2. Turns out, there is a very specific set of questions to diagnose depression. Doesn’t take long to figure it out if you’re willing to answer honestly!

  3. I think of this as “Thing I Learned”, but urban dictionary says “Today I learned” which doesn’t work in this sentence. Tough, I like my definition better.

  4. Students may beg to differ!

  5. So many reactions to this comment! I chose to focus on the compliment that I am a thoughtful and caring person. But why can’t a depressed person be thoughtful and caring? Thinking otherwise is part of the stigma of mental illness.

  6. Some of those colleagues read this prior to posting, and it is infinitely better because of John Carroll, Lisa Pennisi, Leon Higley and Jessica Burnett. My counselor Peter Allman graciously took time to read this and (among other great advice) reminded me to emphasize the importance of counseling! And I can’t find words to thank my patient and loving spouse Brigitte Tenhumberg.

Andrew Tyre
Professor of Wildlife Ecology
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