Sunday, April 20, 2008

On My Mind

I've been pondering this, and it's taken me a while to be able to articulate it. I'm still pondering.

A while back, Jeff informed out department that he's newly diagnosed with depression and is under a doctor's care for it.

A short while later, Jeff asked me if I couldn't find someone else to take his spot in the committee I chaired. I emailed back that Jack could ask around, but that I didn't think anyone else was looking for more committee work, since we're all pretty overloaded. I declined to undertake to find a new committee member.

And later still, a colleague mentioned that he'd taken over a different task for Jeff for the term. I expressed my, well, irritation. And the colleague explained that as we all knew, Jack's suffering from depression, and ill, and the colleague would have helped another colleague with any other illness, right? And I had to admit, that s/he made perfect sense.

So here's the thing. I've helped do things when colleagues have been ill. I've filled in teaching a class for a colleague who took parental leave for a while. I try to be a decent person.

I do recognize, logically, that depression is an illness. BUT, and here's the problem, I reacted emotionally as if it's NOT an illness, but some sort of failing or laziness.

Why is that? Why do I react negatively? Is it because "depression" has become so overused that I don't quite believe it on some level?

I know a number of my colleagues are on medication and/or seeing therapists for depression, etc. Does my response come from thinking that if everyone who's depressed needs other people to cover his/her work in some way, that some of us will be slammed even more than we are now?

How is depression different from other chronic health problems, if at all?

When I think back, one of the things I'm most ashamed of in my life is treating a mentally ill friend with great impatience. I couldn't wrap my head around her difficulty, and was harsh. And I'm still bothered by that. Most things in my life, I don't greatly regret, but that one time, that I regret.

But even though my reaction to Jeff isn't as big, it's the same basic response. And I don't like that in me at all.


  1. One thing I've gathered from friends of mine who have suffered from depression is that a) they have greatly appreciated help of the kind you're describing, but b) it's difficult to ask for that help in a way that totally straightforwardly links it to their illness. In other words, they, too, are dealing with the attitude (or their own fear) that they are just weak or lazy, so it can be hard to write an email saying, "Because of my medical condition, I won't be able to do X task." It can be easier to ask, "Do you think you could find someone else?," linking the request only indirectly to their depression. But, as you have experienced, that can, ironically, contribute to the impression that they're trying to weasel out of something more than if they wrote the first kind of email.

    I don't know which type of email you received, but from your post it seems like the latter.

    I hope this all made sense -- what I'm really trying to say is that I think your response is a common one, and one that people with depression have as well.

  2. Why is that? Why do I react negatively?

    Because the logic of meritocracy is so deeply entrenched in academia, that we (all of us; not just you) can barely consider its limitations.

    Because we pride ourselves on strong minds, and depression affects intellectual labor, so it's hard not to make those associations.

    Because depression looks like laziness from the outside (though it certainly doesn't feel that way from the inside).

    I don't think you should beat yourself up too badly for having had that reaction, but when I feel that response (about myself, and about others close to me who suffer some pretty serious depression), I believe I need to check it pretty seriously. Which you seem to be doing right now.

  3. Anonymous11:10 PM

    Thinking about how depression is/isn't like other chronic health problems: I think it's like something like fibromyalgia (I know, pick another disease that hasn't always been recognized as a disease!), or rheumatoid arthritis or the like - there are times when it flares up and makes someone incapable of doing certain things, and there are times when it doesn't. Presumably if your colleague has informed the dept. and is seeking a doctor's care, right now the disease is uncontrolled, or he's struggling to get it under control, but in either case, it became unmanageable and serious enough that he needed professional help. So right now, the committee work/other task aren't things that work for him. But presumably (hopefully!) treatment will help him get the disease under control - and then he will be someone who has depression, but takes medication (or sees a therapist, or both, or neither) so that it's controlled, at which time he will be back to "normal" and able to do all the things he's been doing up till now.

    So no, not everyone who's depressed needs someone to cover their work, all the time; but there may be times when they do indeed need that help.

    I know what you mean about the "overuse" of depression, in that I think there are a lot of possible levels of depression, and a lot of people with depression seem to function decently day-to-day. Mostly they have the disease under control. Some people are lucky enough not to need accommodations (I never had to tell my department or shift my duties - in fact, teaching was one of the only things that made me feel normal, although I don't know that I was as effective a teacher while depressed), but I suspect that if your colleague is telling the department, it's been bad. I don't know, maybe another analogy is headaches - lots of people can suffer from headaches (I get headaches all the time), and take advil or whatever, see their doctor, cut out caffeine and so on - and sometimes they have to teach with headaches and it's not fun by they can do it - and then there are people who get migraines that incapacitate them. Both groups suffer from headaches, both are treated, but they don't necessarily affect someone's function in the same way.

    The thing is, it's such an invisible disease. I knew a woman in grad school who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia (to go back to the analogy), and here's this attractive, 20-something woman who looked maybe a little tired, but completely normal. But she had to get a handicapped parking sticker because she couldn't handle the walk from the parking lot to the dept building, and some days she had to use the little scooter in the grocery store, and she said she always felt like people were looking at her like she was a slacker. Because she looked healthy. So in that respect, it's not surprising we react differently to depression than, say, cancer, or a broken leg.

  4. I think NK has a lot of good stuff to say. It isn't unreasonable of him to say, in effect, 'my circumstances have changed since I accepted this committee assignment, and I need to not have it anymore. I'm being honest with you because I don't think I can do the work right now.'

    If he'd suddenly become a parent (say a sibling died and he had custody of her kids) you'd be fine with it... because you know that his new personal circumstances have created new conflicts.

    The real quesiton comes in the long-term -- if, when treated and controlled, all he can do is manage to get to and from class, is he really doing his job?

  5. I think NK is right, and you can respond to it that way. However, it seems to me in departmental terms it's the chair's job to figure out what the solution is. It's the chair (presumably) who talks to Jeff and says, "what's the help you need right now? What tasks can and can't you do?" The chair will have an overview -- so you're not going to the same person that Jeff has already asked to take over something else.

    But I also recognize your response, because it's mine, at times. And I realize it's not helpful! When I've suffered from (mild) depression, I know that hte only thing that helped was actually accomplishing something.

  6. I can't speak directly to the situation in academia, but I can say that one needs to realize that there are different degrees of depression as well as precipitating factors that cause the problem. For some people, it is a temporary illness lasting for a period of time; for others it is a chronic illness, recurring over time. If your colleague is telling coworkers that he is sick, it was likely a huge step to be able to do that.

    I think that in our society, it is a good thing that people are more open and aware of depression, but, because of the prevalence of RX medications for the spectrum of depressive illnesses, it is easy to assume that it isn't that serious of a matter and therefore the one who suffers is a slacker.

    The challenge for not only the patient, but for caregivers, family, treatment providers is to recognize the thin fine line between when the patient uses his/her disease as an excuse for not doing what is needed, and when it is simply the recognition that because of his/her current state, he/she is unable to do something and for his/her health, is bowing out temporarily, acknowleging one's limits.

    I think it is okay to help one out when they ask, but it is also appropriate to put very specific limits on it (e.g., I can take over your committee duties for the next 2 months and we can evaluate then if you are ready to return...). To acknowledge that one can't do something is responsible; to not re-evaluate and to continue to rely on others when the need may have passed is not. I wonder if the website for a depression advocacy group has suggestions for co-workers in similar situations. I think there is a group named something like Amer. Assoc for People with Mental Illnesses.

  7. Kermit, Thanks. Your explanation helps!

    Horace, Good point about the way academics teaches us to think. Thanks.

    New Kid, The analogies are helpful to me, thanks. I think things are going better for Jeff now, but I'm not there to see for sure. The invisibility makes it hard for me to "see," in so many ways.

    Philosophy Factory, Yes, good point. I wish I'd asked him to talk to the chair about changing the committee thing. (Since I couldn't really do that with an elected position on my own authority, I don't think.)

    Susan, Thanks, I think you totally hit the mark by suggesting getting the chair's help. Our chair is good, and would have helped, too.

    Cam, Thanks for your comment, especially your note about the challenge to everyone, and about the limitations.

    Thanks again, everyone, for commenting. You've helped me think things through, and I hope to do better if/when I face this sort of issue again.