One of the worst aspects of depression is the ability to watch yourself disappear, unable to act in self-defense.Barbra Jago, 2002
It’s World Mental Health Day on the 10th October. I’m going to write about mental health today because I can’t guarantee that I’ll be able to write about it in October. That’s because I struggle with chronic depression. If you are in the same boat as me, you will know that you are at the mercy of your emotions (or, more likely, a sudden lack of them), and so you have to write when you can. I’m not a psychiatrist or psychologist and thus don’t have the fluency of vocabulary to describe, technically, what depression is. But it may be worth reflecting on what depression means for me, personally and as an academic. This post may also have a cathartic effect.
Where to start? I guess with my breakdown, because it was quite insidious. Breakdowns are a long time coming and then, when you realise that you’re in one, it’s too late. My most recent breakdown started sometime in 2021. Hard to say when exactly, but I’d probably place it at COP 26 in Glasgow. I attended as a delegate, but hated it. I mean, I hated everything about it. I found myself unable to distinguish anything good from anything bad. You can probably detect my mood in the blogpost I wrote about it. That was when I was still able to feel.
Returning to England from Scotland, I became increasingly detached from reality. It was busy at work; I was teaching a module; there were the usual distractions of a Program Director. But I was aware that my relationship with the world was changing quite rapidly. I removed all of my friends’ contacts from WhatsApp; quit Twitter (again); stopped listening to the radio; stopped reading the news. In fact, bizarrely, the only entertainment I could tolerate was watching ZackScottGames episodes of Plants vs Zombies on Youtube! Thank you Zack! I completely stopped socialising. By Christmas 2021, I had all but given up speaking.
I have a copy of a painting by Lowry on my wall. By the end of January 2022, I started to see people in 2D, much like the painting. They stopped becoming 3D in my mind, probably because I couldn’t bear to look at anyone in the street. I don’t know whether Lowry suffered from depression, but he manages to paint the world I saw.
Lowry, Yachts, 1959. I’m the one in the bottom right corner.
Coming back to work in February was hard. I found it increasingly difficult to feel anything. People would ask me how I was, and I realised that I was unable to answer the question. I simply didn’t know. I didn’t feel anything about anything. Of course, that was when colleagues began to notice. If someone asks you, casually, ‘how are things?’ and you answer ‘I don’t know’, well that’s the wrong answer. If they then ask ‘are you ok?’ and you answer ‘I don’t know that either’, well you’re kind of giving yourself away. At home, alone, I remember walking into the kitchen. I just stood there, for about twenty minutes because I couldn’t reason my way into going in one direction or another. When I ventured out, I would sometimes sit down because I couldn’t think of a good reason to continue walking.
In March, my line manager asked to see me. They were worried about me. In her office, I sobbed for a while. I remember being advised to contact the University’s Advice and Counselling service – a service I have signposted so many students towards over the years. I did do that eventually; not immediately.
Depression is a ghost disability: I quite literally wanted to disappear; to become invisible. And most of the time you won’t see it in someone. That’s because they/I don’t socialise when I’m depressed. Most of the time you wouldn’t know. You are more likely to notice it by something that someone you know stops doing. Consequently, it took me a while to contact A&C, and then longer to contact a counsellor for my first appointment. I had to wait for a break in the clouds.
The university counsellor put me in touch with a local counselling service and I had regular counselling sessions this year. They are exhausting! Typically, I would have to lie on my bed for the entire afternoon following a morning session, unable to move. Mostly, the sessions were an opportunity for me to talk, or not talk. Sometimes, I would have to ‘hold on for dear life’ as my counsellor put it; often, I would just stare into space.
My depression has affected my job as an academic, and will likely continue to do so. Earlier this year, I had to cancel four speaking engagements because I couldn’t bear to hear myself speak, let alone attend a public function. Motivation is patchy, requiring considerable effort to start a project, with no guarantee that I will be able to finish it. When the depression is in remission, I make plans, reach out, start to do new things; but when it returns, I fall silent, renege on commitments, and generally disappear. It is immensely frustrating. Generally speaking I avoid conferences, and periodic bouts of self-loathing dampen most attempts at self-promotion. A few years back, I deleted my blog globalhealthpolicy.net while depressed and all the posts written on it, and I erased all my 2000+ followers on Twitter. I hope this blog doesn’t experience the same fate.
I am talking about a recent episode of depression; an intense one, admittedly. But I have looked back on my life during counselling and now realise that I have been depressed since at least my late teens. It’s easier to identify and relate to depression these days, although depression remains a taboo within society. It is still perceived to be a weakness, a sham, an excuse for not pulling your weight. And people often misinterpret my inability to engage as grumpiness or rudeness, as uncaring or anti-social. Culturally, I am in the company of a depressed donkey (Eeyore), a depressed super computer (Marvin) and ‘sadness’ in the film ‘Inside Out’. Admittedly, sadness turns out to be essential, in the end. I used to be both ‘angry’ and ‘joy’. Perhaps I will be them again one day.
It is difficult to know what to say when someone outs themselves as being depressed. If that happens to you, don’t say or do any of the following: 1. Tell that person to ‘cheer up’ or advise them that ‘tomorrow is another day’; 2. Share your own depressive moments and reassure them that ‘everyone’ gets depressed; 3. Ignore them. Allie Brosh’s comic strip How NOT To Talk To Someone With Depression is the best place to start if you want to understand depression from the perspective of someone with depression. William Styron’s Darkness Visible is also quite good.
Fortunately, I have some very supportive colleagues who noticed something was wrong, and who decided to do something about it. I don’t think that happens very often in other professions. Depression is probably quite common amongst academics. The literature tends to focus on depression amongst students. And rightly so. But it would be interesting to see some data on depression amongst academic staff.
If you’re depressed, wait for a break in the clouds, as I did, and contact a local counselling charity, if you can. Your university A&C services are there for you too, so don’t feel ashamed to contact them. I haven’t been ‘cured’: I don’t socialise and I remain fearful of remission, especially as the winter approaches. But at least I now know that I can talk with someone if I need to.