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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Depression as a Cultural Norm in Academia

Half the academics I know have been on anti-depressants or in therapy at one time or another, including este servidor. The other half probably have too, but haven't told me about it yet. The manual of psychological disorders (DSM) contains some that are culturally specific. That is, they are disorders bound up in cultural definitions that are not recognized outside of that particular culture. This does not mean that they are not real. I would point out that all psychological disorders are culturally constructed. Why call "mal de ojo" culturally bound but not Western ailments like "nervous breakdowns"? The sufferer suffers the same ill effects whether there is a culturally specific name that has no purchase in other contexts.

Academics are knowledgeable about treatments and seek them out. They don't tend to see depression as a stigma, so they seek out help. What is stigmatized is happiness, satisfaction. You are supposed to whine and complain a lot, participate in the culture of "college misery." If you look too happy, as Z has pointed out, people will start wondering whether you are working hard enough.

Of course, I don't mean to say that people get depressed because of this culture, that they should just opt out of their personal depression by realizing that it is culturally constructed. That is easier said than done. Also, to say that something is constructed does not mean that it is not real. Also, to say that something is constructed does not mean that it is not real. Also, to say that something is constructed does not mean that it is not real. I cannot say that enough times. Our very reality is cultural, that is the air we breathe, our psychological reality.

I would also like to separate the genuine concerns afflicting academia from the cultural norm of misery. In other words, there are really serious problems that have to be worked on, since academia is under attack from right-wing politicians and corporate-minded administrators. We should put our efforts into constructive work to fight back. The cultural norm of depression is a more general malaise that is not particularly useful, since it make us not want to get out of bed in the morning. This malaise also makes us think our own work in not valuable, and hence makes us weaker in the fight against idiot politicians and administrators.


Tanya Golash-Boza said...

well said, Jonathan. We can be happy and fight against injustice (or stupidity if you will) at the same time. Miserable academics do not necessarily make indignados, nor are joyful ones necessarily complacent. Picking my battles is a strategy that I have found infinitely useful to maintain my happiness.

Anonymous said...

Part of the reason I always get in trouble is not being the depressive type naturally. They do not like optimists in academia (although they do like Pollyannas).

I think academia causes depression because one is told a couple of (incidentally, mutually contradictory) things -

1- depression is a norm you must conform to to fit in and look cool / acceptable, sort of like wearing the right jacket, having a briefcase, etc.

2- anything that is wrong is something wrong with you. You should be able to control everything, strategize just right to make things happen just right.
You must not perceive oppression of any kind.

3- you must call everything oppression.

Also, abuse is depressing and there is a LOT of workplace abuse in academia, especially outside the R1 world where it's a lot harder for people to get away with things.

(Because lawsuits have already been filed 20 years ago and rules have been made, because these R1 places really realize they have to follow the law, because there are a lot of informed people around to ask what is happening and what to do, and because said people are not necessarily all in cahoots with each other, etc.)

Professor Zero said...

See also: http://www.anagrama-ed.es/titulo/A_430

Anonymous said...

Well, as a tenured faculty member who sacrificed a lot to get to this point, I would have to that in my case a lot of depression in academia is environmentally driven. Academia amounts to high expectations with almost no reward. One is either bombarded with large amounts of trivial criticism or politically supported unworthy praise. I for one wasted my life following an academic life and would recommend others to look elsewhere for a more fulfilling life.

Jonathan said...

A lot of people want to be us. It is a good life. It is sad that pathetic whining losers occupy jobs that others would love to have.

Anonymous said...

If others would love to have the jobs that much, and conditions really are that good, why is it so hard for us to hire ... why do people keep turning us down for other positions and even other careers? It´s not that we don´t advertise and recruit in all the usual ways; it´s not offering enough resources so that the person will be able to actually pursue the interests that brought them in in the first place.

Also - here, I just finished the first normal year of more than 10, because it was the first year in which there actually was competent leadership from the positions that affect my day. When you don´t have this, it´s not like having an academic job, honestly; it turns into a complete other world -- especially if you´re in a poorer state, in bad budget situations, etc.

Finally - you don´t know that Disappointed isn´t a great researcher and teacher with high interest in field; you don´t know they can afford a career change; you also don´t know what they sacrificed.

I find it odd that so many academics so disapprove of people who are even curious about other life paths, or who encourage students to consider other things as well. Why so defensive and so judgemental?

Leslie B. said...

Well, we have trouble hiring because we do not offer a lot of research resources, and do at times have a lot of very nasty politics at both institutional and state levels. So people who get disappointed, do so because they are precisely not getting to do what they got into it all for.

As a person who has been known to get on the phone and beg candidates to come, I am not entirely convinced there are so many people who would love to have all of these jobs once they look at them closely.

It is also not clear to me why so many academics are as judgmental as they are about people who even express curiosity about doing something else, or who advise students to consider other directions as well.

Anonymous said...

I am still working on this question.

I think one is supposed to affect depression because it is the conventional way to show

a) that one has fine sensibilities;


b) that one is very good and deserves better and has resources and is only slumming.

In other words it is an attempt at affecting a certain kind of upper class disdain of the world associated with Oxbridge and the Ivies, and which people believe they must evince in order to get ahead.

This is why, if there is an actual problem, one is not believed ... one is simply affecting it, or at best "having a bad day" ... people have said the sky is falling too often.