The university: a guide for depressives

The frenzied pace and meaningless demands of university life can often enable a depressed scholar’s existing neuroses. Joe Moran offers some coping strategies

March 1, 2018
George slays the Dragon
Source: Getty

About once a month I dream what Freud called the “examination dream”: the one that requires me to resit my finals, having done no revision. The dream is presumably a manifestation of impostor syndrome – that nagging fear, known to many academics, that we will be found out.

But on one subject I never doubt my own expertise, even in my dreams. Reluctantly, I am now an authority on the feelings that lie behind impostor syndrome: that sense of being forever judged by fluid and conflicting criteria, of work as an infinite series of self-replenishing deadlines – a lifelong essay crisis.

I don’t blame academia for these feelings. But I do know how much university life can enable my existing neuroses and, occasionally, alleviate them. Now that these issues are being discussed more, albeit under that euphemistic phrase, “mental health and well-being”, I want to share some of the coping strategies that I have developed. They may not work for you, but I hope that you find them cheering rather than dispiriting.

Identify the problem

But first, the depressing bit. Why would the university make so many of us unhappy? Here is my theory. Academics are good little girls and boys. At school, we were the ones who purchased self-worth with the currency of teachers’ ticks and starred As. As adults, we are eager to please and do as we are told, hoping for more gold stars.

Bad news: the modern university is not a place where self-worth is so easily bought. It is run by a managerialist logic that is, in practice, a kind of unmanagement. This logic insists on uniform, instrumentalist procedures and gives little thought to the people who must slot around those procedures. If you’re looking for reassurance or affirmation in such an environment, it never comes. Instead, it delivers you the opposite: a list of more demands.

The marketised university keeps demanding more because that is how markets work: they don’t accept limits and they go on forever. Just as capital can always accumulate more capital, an academic can always strive to be more excellent, more world-leading, more impactful, more income-generating, more responsive to customers and stakeholders. The one true faith of the modern university is work without end. When there is not enough work, and even when there is, more will be invented.

We become depressed when something destroys our sense of ourselves as capable of being loved. The modern university makes us feel unlovable like this because it implicates everyone. It demands that we all follow its unowned, unexamined protocols and it forces us to fit into competitive metrics that we have no faith in and that we know will make others unhappy as well. So we feel guilty.

One of psychoanalysis’ basic insights is that feelings of guilt have little to do with actual wrongdoing, and much to do with the fear of losing the love of others. Hence, like love, guilt is a contagious, replicating and reality-distorting phenomenon. It can be passed around interminably and uselessly, leaving much mental havoc in its wake. The modern university is an ultra-efficient factory for manufacturing this sort of guilt.

Stop expecting things to make sense

What I have just described is no different from many other workplaces, of course. But academics are unusual, perhaps, in being both rationalists and romantics about their work. They expect their institutions’ procedures to make logical sense and to be supported by argument and evidence, not cant and groupthink. And they expect their work to be not just gainful employment – an exchange of labour for money – but a source of existential meaning and personal fulfilment. In the modern university, both these expectations are optimistic.

So my advice to the depressed academic is to stop expecting the university to make this kind of sense. See it instead as a stage set for the human comedy, a site of unacknowledged superstition and word sorcery, a culture of idiosyncratic rites and customs, albeit one in which good people still make good things happen in spite of it all.

Beneath its quasi-rationalist vocabulary, the modern university is deeply ritualistic. Indeed, the quasi-rationalism, with its bizarrely macho language of “drilling down into the data” and “driving forward”, is part of the ritual. Those lines in university vision statements about the unceasing pursuit of “quality” and “excellence” can seem, to the depressive who is already trying to fill a bottomless pit of self-demands, especially tin-eared and cruel. But, really, they are just hocus-pocus spells: bits of primitive word magic that are trying to make something true merely by incanting it. My dad, a retired academic, told me that the best way to respond to these content-free incantations is to “nod sagely and ignore them”. Good advice: I wish that I could follow it.

It’s good to talk, sometimes

Universities have begun to embrace today’s default message about mental health: it’s good to talk. Well, yes. But this is also an easy option that suggests that solving the problem is mainly a matter of removing the “stigma” surrounding it. It absolves universities from having to address the structural causes of such an epidemic of anxiety and depression.

Given that there is no sign of universities addressing these wider factors soon, here is the depressive’s dilemma. We recognise that we need to let others know when we are failing to cope. But we also know that constant complaining solves little, and can make something feel more significant than it deserves to be. A problem shared may be a problem halved, but it may also be a problem made real, brought out into the world of communal meaning, where it feeds into a general sense of hopelessness.

Twenty years ago, the social psychologist Jack Katz studied Los Angeles drivers who suffered from road rage. He was struck by how often they used phrases such as “I can’t believe that asshole!” or “Would you look at that jerk! How can people do that?” Katz called this “the routine production of a sense of incredulity”. It was as if the road induced temporary amnesia, obliging drivers to learn all over again the reasons for their rage. “Given that nothing has been done to reform the driving public since one confronted the last unpleasant incident,” Katz asked, “why be amazed when one confronts yet another asshole?”

The same question might be asked in academia. For here we have the same asymmetries of communication, as we fail to compute the motives of remote senior managers and policymakers and complain about it all on an endless loop. Why be amazed when one confronts yet another example of the frustrating and futile? Should it not have stopped being a surprise by now?

It can be energising to vent, or it can be depleting. The depressive must preserve her strength, must recognise what is worth being productively angry about and what is just aggravating noise, the routine production of incredulity. The shop talk static of social media can be an especially enervating dead end.

As for the media and politicians who regularly pummel the self-esteem of academics by calling us slackers and traitors, I try to ignore them. Academics are hard-wired to think that arguing every issue out reasonably, in Socratic tutorial mode, leads to mutual enlightenment. I wish that I could still believe this. But some unmeetings of minds are so definitive that trying to bridge them is a waste of spirit. Instead, I like to sing to myself the old terrace chant of fans of Millwall FC: “No one likes us, we don’t care.” It seems to help.

George and the Dragon

Help others

Being depressed has gifted me some insights that I can use to help others in distress. This in turn has helped me, drawing me out of self-absorption and making life feel more meaningful.

Not that I always know what to do. I have had students slumped in front of me in my office looking so haunted and lost that I have been clueless as to how to help. On reflection, this was a blessing. When the person opposite is sunk in unreachable misery it is best not to say too much, even when they don’t say much either. Your task is both simple and hard: listen to them fully and switch off that part of your brain that worries about what to say next.

I know that the counselling guides say that you should demonstrate “active listening” by um-hmming and nodding your head. But when this is done to me and it feels like a technique, I find it distracting. If you are listening with your whole body and being, it will be evident even if you don’t lift an eyebrow.

Most conversation is turn-taking and information-swapping – fun when you’re in the mood, lonely-making when you’re not. True listening is a rare and virtuoso skill. For a depressive, the feeling of being properly held in another’s head, even for a few minutes, goes a long way, and is much more powerful than some textbook attempt at empathy. Finns have a saying: “One mouth, two ears”. I try to remember it.

And I never suggest to a student that their despair can be solved, least of all by me. If they are at all the kind of depressive that I am, they will not respond well to pep talks and glib prescriptions. They will prefer to face things as they are, or at least as they seem, and to outstare the world.

In the tuition fees era, a university’s reliance on marketing skews reality in subtle ways. We don’t show prospective students around the counselling service on open days, for instance, even though it may end up being a lifesaver for some of them. I often wonder what the bouncy, Tigger-like tone of the consumerist university does to young people who don’t see themselves in its words and pictures. All those website images of smiling students lying on summer lawns looking at laptops. All those jazz-hands-and-teeth adjectives like “inspiring”, “amazing” and “passionate”.

Consumerism always claims to be selling something that will make the buyer happier, even if only by proxy (such as promising them a degree that will give them more earning power and more opportunities). And yet to ask a distraught student if they are “satisfied”, on some sliding Likert scale of a student survey, may feel to them rather tactless and beside the point. We can’t make sad students happy, and to pretend otherwise is lazy, infantilising and wrong.

All we can hope for is that, by learning more about the world and themselves, such students may also make some sense of their freefloating, undirected anxieties. And perhaps they will find that learning about these things is, like all intellectual discovery, satisfying in itself, a little chink of light and hope.

Happiness is not a competition

Depression is a silent, internalised protest. Instead of getting angry about the way that the world works to stop you living well, your mind berates itself. A student working long hours in a McJob and fretting about the debt-laden, gig-economy future in which he will have to live out the consequences of the brainless decisions made by his elders has reason enough to be angry. Perhaps he even suffers from “shit life syndrome”, to use the grimly humorous but unfacetious phrase that doctors use when treating depressive patients. Depression may have no clear cause but it always has a context.

The historian of science, Ian Hacking, argues that all mental illnesses find “an ecological niche” – a hospitable habitat in which to thrive at a particular historical moment. The ecological niche we now inhabit is a world that makes us feel powerless even as its relentless individualism responsibilises us. Tacitly, it persuades us to blame society’s failings on our own lack of talent or effort. And that’s depressing.

But even though depression has a context, it is always unique to the sufferer, and will feel so to them. Diagnosing someone with it should not mean reducing them to a clinical category. “Depression” is a handy taxonomy, not an excuse to shade in all the different colours of human sadness.

Depression now tends to be diagnosed by its manifest and standard symptoms – low mood, dull vocal tone, disturbed sleep, loss of appetite, listlessness – rather than its manifold causes. As the psychoanalyst Darian Leader says, this is rather like thinking that every fever has the same cause because the chills, sweats and aching are the same.

When talking to a depressed person, we should never compare their feelings to something else or extrapolate from them into some general mood. But that is what we instinctively do when we are trying to be kind or to fill the silence. Lots of people are feeling the same way. It’s a bad time of year. I know how you feel. It’s hard to say something that acknowledges both the reality of their condition and its particularity to them, which is why it’s often best to say nothing.

Everyone is differently depressed. I don’t have a student’s shit life syndrome, nor am I one of the burned-out academic precariat, having to jump through multiple fiery hoops to get secure employment or escape redundancy. But I try not to compare my feelings with theirs. After all, depression is partly a mental block, a refusal to let ourselves be healthily unhappy. When lots of other people have worse things to deal with, it can feel as if we don’t deserve to feel this bad. But unhappiness should never be a competition. Everyone has a right to be sad in their own way – including me, including you.

Be joyful

Joy comes from the Latin gaudere, to rejoice. Like rejoicing, finding joy can be a conscious and defiant act. Joy is handy for a depressive because you can feel it even when you feel bad. Joy is unillusioned.

The Orcadian poet George Mackay Brown saw his depression as a dragon, which he could never quite slay but on which he inflicted “bright wounds” by writing poems. University life has many such snatched moments of joy, ways of wounding our own dragons. Just as depression comes and goes without warning or logic, so do the little things that lift the spirits. For me, it might be something as simple as redirecting a student wandering lost in our building, or the surge and press of life in a lecture theatre at the start of the year. Mostly it is in those small acts of kindness and community that take place in the brief gaps between the next hurdle of excellence to be overleaped, the next stage of our non-stop game of academic whack-a-mole.

These small acts tell me that, even in the face of marketisation’s deep antipathy to collective life, collegiality is as tenacious and resilient as knotweed. And who wouldn’t be joyful about that? In these moments, the university makes me feel part of something bigger than my own useless superego. These are the bright wounds that I inflict on my own dragon as, for now, it retires to its lair, whimpering slightly and no longer breathing fire. 

Joe Moran is professor of English and cultural history at Liverpool John Moores University.

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Reader's comments (1)

As noted elsewhere in relation to another article, being awarded a prestigious University Senior Learning & Teaching Fellowship should have been a great honour - and it was. Trouble is that the same university awarding me the Fellowship, had made me redundant precisely one week before (refer 'Unwilling Star of a Campus Horror Story' The Australian Higher Education Supplement 13 June 2012). The subsequent farce through the industrial relations system was sufficient to drive me to the brink of suicide. So the evidence demonstrates that some universities are more than happy to create, promulgate, encourage and perpetuate workplace stress and mental illness - even beyond the workplace itself.