Academics strike me as generally sad people. I don’t know if academia makes us sad, or if sad people self-select into academia. Probably both explanations are correct. I just get the feeling, when talking to my fellow academics, that beneath the confident and poised façade is an insecure and unhappy person.
I’m generalizing, of course. Although all academics experience sadness from time to time, not all experience depression in the clinical and diagnostic sense of the word. Sadness is a normal human emotion, but depression, on the other hand, is pathological, and yet so prevalent among us.
The thing about depression is that it is not immediately evident to others. Depressed people can project themselves as supremely confident (as noted above). They often have a good sense of humor and can make others laugh. They may even smile a great deal. Many sufferers can function (barely) at work, meaning that there are often no obvious indicators. I am willing to bet that you know people in your department who do not appear depressed but are very much so on the inside.
For whatever reason, depression is something we usually hide from each other in academia. Maybe we don’t want to be labeled. Maybe we see depression (even our own) as a sign of weakness. Maybe we’re too ashamed. Thinking back over my career, I’ve made many good friends in academia, but I can only think of a handful who’ve been open with me about their depression.
“For whatever reason, depression is something we usually hide from each other in academia. Maybe we don’t want to be labeled. Maybe we see depression (even our own) as a sign of weakness. Maybe we’re too ashamed.”
For this reason, I was very pleased to see the Voices of Academia initiative, curated by Marissa Edwards, Zoe Ayers, and Emily King. This platform encourages academics to come together and speak openly about their emotions, with depression being a common feature in their content. I applaud this initiative and invite everyone reading this to follow them and, if you feel comfortable, to contribute.
I confess, I have had bouts of depression here and there throughout my adult life. I can always tell when it is creeping up on me because I suddenly can’t sleep through the night. Last year was particularly bad (one might even say catastrophic) for various reasons. But I’ve come out the other side and am feeling better now than I have in a long time.
I’m proud of my accomplishments in academia. I’ve a decent research record for my age and am (if I’m allowed to say so) a pretty good educator. I often wonder how much more productive I could have been had my mind not been so dysfunctional at times. But I’m fine with who I am and what I’ve done. I guess that’s a sign that I’m in a good place now.
Let me draw this article to a close by pleading to you, dear reader. If you are struggling with depression, please reach out to someone, even if that someone is me. All you need to do is to say, “I need help,” and we’ll make sure you get it. This message is for colleagues, students, friends, and acquaintances. I lost someone very important to me to a mental illness and the pain was so deep that I can’t bare the possibility of that happening to you or anyone else.
Professor Andrew R. Timming
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