Academia + Depression

Dedicated to a wonderful soul [you know who you are!]. 

You see them as the ‘high-flyers’: the happy, motivated, successful, ‘productive’ ones. The ones with neatly organised planners; a systematic revision process; smiles upon their faces for days… Mental health conditions are not, by any means, a personal failure. But sometimes, to the ones who are known as the ‘academic’ ones – the scholastic geniuses, the kings and queens of the classrooms they inhabit – depression can make them, and to a great extent, feel this way. 

A number of people have messaged me regarding their personal experiences of depression. I feel honoured with the knowledge that they have entrusted me with such sensitive attestations, and I find that I can truly empathise with them, as I have been there, too. It is a rather unique thing to go through – these paradoxical parallels between academic success, and inner feelings of rottenness. Doom, gloom, demotivation, heaviness, headaches: these are just some of the words that come to mind when I think about depression.

Thankfully, many of the people who have told me about their experiences find themselves in a period of ‘healing’. I, too, Alhamdulillah (praise be to God) find myself in such a favourable state. I have had enough time and space to combat the far-reaching issue at its sources. Stress (and burn-out), unhealthy views of myself in relation to my educational statuses, and childhood traumas… these have all certainly played a part. For others too, these factors, in addition to things like financial and other at-home stresses, make for some very stressful and depressing behind-the-scenes situations indeed.

“You’ve… been through depression too?” I find myself asking certain people when they open up to me. This is slightly hypocritical of me: I know what it is like to have people question your experiences. Many people knew me as the ‘bubbly’ one, the ‘try-hard-in-the-classroom’ one, and the one that was predestined, somehow, for perfect grades. Deep down, I now know not to question other’s recounts of their experiences of the same (as aforementioned) ‘paradoxical parallel’. The ‘quietly brilliant’ ones are often the ones who have suffered the most. And I salute you, each and every one of you. Some of you have been unable to catch a break: you have many siblings you are essentially a primary caregiver for; you work part-time to provide for your family; you have to wake up extremely early to carry out all your responsibilities, even though depression pushes you down every morning like a heavy weight upon your chest. Your to-do list is an additional hefty burden that sits atop your shoulders. All the while, you may be fantasising about taking your own life, to escape all the darkness.

And, let’s face it, we paradoxical parallel-ers – we, the academicus depressus ones – have many things in common. We are the ones whom, after in-class test results are handed out, people (many of whom we do not have actual connections with) eagerly ask us, “so what did you get?” “An A*, I bet!” We wear smiles upon our faces but, when we are given the chance to decompress, the darkness reappears. Well, it was always there, to be honest. But in certain contexts, we need not pretend anymore.

I cannot truly speak as if I am an expert, for whom these issues are firmly ‘in the past’. I am on this journey too. And please pardon my natural inclinations toward a rather didactic manner of writing, but when I write to you, dear readers, know that I am also very much writing to myself.

Across these personal anecdotes that have been relayed to me, and also in light of my own rather lengthy and complex experiences (in conjunction with some bits of research I have carried out) I now know, firstly, how extensive the general issue is. This is a hidden epidemic, but an epidemic nonetheless. And I know about what some of the crucial contributing factors are; how we can go about truly healing – and not just artificially (i.e. with here-and-there spa days, and the like).

  • The early years: For me, and for many others who face similar struggles, academia used to be a source of joy. Nursery, Reception, the early key stages… school was simple. You went there; you excelled at the work you did; you went home, without giving any of your day’s scholastic activities a second thought. School was a place of creativity; novelty in terms of world-related discoveries; a place in which you could excel, almost effortlessly. What has changed, since then?
  • Early traumas: Now, almost certainly in temporal coexistence with the joys of school, there may have been some emotional traumas that you faced, as a child. Most people – 99%, perhaps – have faced childhood traumas. They are practically inevitable. A traumatic experience is defined subjectively to the individual; it refers to any distressing experience that resulted in a shift in your thought and behaviour patterns. Sometimes, the human mind suppresses its various traumas; they rise to the surface at a later, rather inconvenient, date…

The emotional residues they leave in their wakes can affect so many thoughts and behaviours that we find ourselves mindlessly succumbing to, today. These issues need to be resolved at their core. But since actual time travel is impossible, more mental forms of time travel will have to suffice. Therapy and the like. We cannot change what happened to us, but we can change what we do about these things, from here and now.

  • Class: I would say that class is a major contributing factor to this issue. I am not saying that it is impossible for wealthy upper-class individuals to be classified as (to use my earlier neologism) academicus depressus, however there seem to be trends that indicate that the issue mainly affects working-class students. Various factors likely contribute to this – financial pressures, lack of available at-home support, numerous domestic stresses, and more. There are many factors that interact to make this whole academia thing a very individual-based experience indeed. With all due respect, some may have much support available for them in the form of university-educated parents, and financial ease, daily home-cooked meals served to them, and so on. Others have siblings to take care of; entire houses to clean; meals to cook; have to always be at public libraries since there is little space to study at home… We need to be mindful of this, and we need to come to view ourselves as well as others on a more human level. We need to give people – and ourselves- perceptive justice, rather than perceptive equality. 
  • Familial Circumstances: And, on the broad issue of at-home factors, familial circumstances and such certainly come into play. The thing is, you cannot really look at people and be able to tell what is going on within their households. You do not know about the familial pressures that are they are being subjected to every living moment: the pressures of being the eldest son, for example, of a, say, single-parent immigrant household… You do not know about some people’s extremely emotionally abusive extended families. Or about the grief some people are still going through, two years after their beloved grandmother passed away. You may not know about the stresses that many second-generation immigrant students face, since education is a source of great economic and societal anxiety, in the eyes of their parents. The bottom line is this: you do not know about the stories of others, unless they tell you about them. Likewise, people do not fully know you. Success is a very subjective and individualised thing. So is struggle. Let there be perceptive justice.
  • Gender: Boys don’t cry. Especially not about school, surely? Well, the truth is, depression does not discriminate against one gender or the other. And boys do cry. Are they not human too? Collectively, we often expect males to be inherently ‘alpha’ – always egotistical, always winning… We erroneously assume that they do not have the capacities to form potent emotional attachments to abstract things like their academic profiles. The truth is, just like girls can experience childhood emotional traumas, and how we can possess warped self-images and such, boys can suffer from depression too. They may be high-flying academics; they might be the boy who sits silently at the back of the class, who smiles at everyone. Suffering from academicus depressus does not equate to failing as a man (or a woman) or to failing as a student, or to failing as the child of ambitious immigrants… It means this: you are human. You are hurting. And there are things that need to be fixed, beneath the surface of it all. The numbers and letters on your test sheets can wait for a little while; your entire being – mind, body, and soul – can not, really.
  • Reframing academia: What does academia mean to you? We have to be honest with ourselves. Is it very enjoyable to us anymore? What must change in order for us to regain this sense of wonder and joy we once brought with us, through the school gates? The truth is, the modern world has commercialised – marketised – the entire experience. Parents anxiously hire tutors for their children; are deeply disappointed in them if they slip up at school. We see ourselves as academic brands;  we compete with each other, subtly albeit relentlessly, and so do our parents, through us; we need to secure certain degrees, in certain subjects, at certain institutions, in order to succeed in this grand game. We are often prone to forfeiting our humanity, in order to be ‘productive’. Look at how we venerate this label. “How are you today?” often gets unfavourably metamorphosed into “How productive have you been today?” and “Did you get enough sleep last night?” often becomes, “How many hours of work have you done today?” We have come to see ourselves as grade-getting, qualification-acquiring, productive machines, (LinkedIn robots; our purposes here are to wear constrictive suits, and to walk around networking) as opposed to being holistically human… This is a Rat Race, and most of us find ourselves blindly running in it. There is some distant promise of… cheese… somewhere, maybe at the end. But for now, we must…sacrifice our humanity and just keep running (?)
  • Rest: The truth is, we all need to take a lot of time (spent consciously resting and healing) so as to actually rest and heal. Exit the Rat Race, if only for a little while. True resting involves absolutely shutting off all notions of work from these racing, relentless minds of ours. If you are Muslim, for instance, I would recommend spending an entire day at a mosque. Just chill, read, pray, read Qur’an, sketch… Rest. You may well wish to do this in a natural setting, or even in your bedroom. Put all considerations of work away. Go to the planetarium, and watch the stars be magnified… Do something enriching. The world will not end if you do not manage to sit down and ‘bang out’ three hours of work today.
  • Working smarter, not harder: I remember, in GCSE season, religiously watching YouTube videos produced by ‘academic YouTubers’, and then I found myself embracing some of their habits and such. They seem like healthy, good, habits, when presented in the form of edited and lighthearted video clips. Eight-hour (incremental) study sessions, for example. It started to give me anxiety if I did not manage to study for six to eight hours on any particular day, during exam season. I now realise, however, that it is truly not about working ‘harder’ in terms of hours and intensity. It is more about working ‘smarter’ – making each hour really count… and taking heed of such things as the ‘Parkinson’s Principle’, which dictates that work ‘spreads to fill the time you allocate towards it’. So, if you allocate an entire day to get a task done, the work will ‘spread’, and you will not work particularly efficiently. A lot of precious time may be wasted. Rather, it is, according to this principle, better to go about your usual ‘real-life’ activities: breakfast with a friend, a nice bike ride, followed by some free time to draw… and then a dedicated two-hour slot to complete the work-related task at hand.
  • Being ‘the best’: Many of us are attached to this obsession with ‘being the best’. We think that if we are not Number 1, we are… nothing at all. This is, of course, a rather unhealthy idea to possess. And such convictions are usually rooted in childhood – in constantly being called a “child genius”, and from forever being complimented on our academic performances, and so on. School, grades, academics… these became defining factors for us; a source of tender validation from well-meaning adults. But now, we find ourselves unhealthily attached to them. And what a vicious cycle this produces: unhealthy attachment to academia leading to damage to our health and general wellbeing, which, in turn, affects how well we are able to perform scholastically, and so on, and so on… The aim, I think, needs to be re-engineered: from the aim to ‘be the best’ to the aim to just be excellent. Do they sound like synonymous concepts? Well, being the ‘best’ entails one’s goal being to outdo all others; to achieve the best grade possible. Achieving excellence would entail bringing focus and flow to each task; focusing more on the given task, and being content and careful while carrying it out. Excellence is not about sacrificing everything for grades. It is about bringing about extremely good functionality to all parts of life – nutrition, sleep, academia, socialising. These things, generally, interact with and affect each other. 
  • Our relationships with the past: Temporally, the present is all that can be fully experienced, well, here in the present. And yet, our tyrannous minds taint our presents – these gifts – with recollections of yesterday, and of last year, and of things that happened a decade ago. I know it is not easy to instantly ‘let go’ of it all; these things now hold permanent places in our psyches. But we can work on healing our relationships with our pasts. Again, I would recommend journalling for this: journalling helps us to ‘see ourselves’, in a true light. Write about your experiences, as well as any remnant emotional states and such. Now, we are going to take a two-pen (and, hence, two-perspective) approach. One pen colour will represent the problems – the bad memories, the resulting feelings and thoughts, the seemingly endless detrimental cycles we find ourselves in … Ah, but the other colour will represent solutions – more comforting thoughts, the rational truths that combat the irrational falsehoods that an anxious or emotionally protective mindset tends to generate… For example, an issue of yours may involve ongoing childhood emotional abuse from your older brother. Maybe he was prone to calling you “ugly” and a “loser” very often. Now, and especially since you may have had seen him as an accepted authority figure when you were younger, you may hold the remnant belief that you are these exact things that he told you you were. I want you to take the second pen, and write about the truth. Why did he really say these things? Was he projecting? Perhaps as a result of your parents always pointing out how well you were doing at school, while he was failing? See, insults are usually dished out as a result of the transmitter’s personal insecurities… Another example: maybe you did not do particularly well in Year Twelve. And this prevents you from having hope for Year Thirteen. With the second pen, consider telling yourself that your circumstances have changed: the issues that you had been facing in Year Twelve have (hopefully) been resolved, or have simply changed, now. The determinant factors have changed: you are older now, more wise, more mature. You change all the time. To stubbornly see yourself in light of how you previously were – how you previously saw yourself – is irrational! 

If your past experiences involve something like extreme abuses, seeking professional therapy would be a very good idea. But journalling can also be quite useful with this, too. This may sound very strange (and lame, even) but it is possible to communicate, via journalling, with one’s child self – with five-year-old, or six-year-old (and so on) you. One pen colour can be current you. The flashbacks you get; the emotional hurt, and so forth. The other colour: child you. And a third pen: current you, again, but a more mature and reassuring form. A version of yourself that has grown; that has the benefit of hindsight now; that is able to truly and rationally and empathetically comfort a little child – your child self – the first colour.

NB: traumatic experiences are very subjective. We need to try not to belittle others’ traumas. What they suffered from trauma as a result of, you may think you would have psychologically responded differently to. But they are not you; you do not get to dictate to them whether their ongoing resultant suffering ‘makes sense’ or not. 

  • Our relationships with the future: And, of course, in addition to the unfavourable relationships we may have with our pasts, we may also experience a great deal of apprehension with regard to the future. What if I don’t succeed? What if I do succeed but then find myself still unhappy? What if… What if I don’t get into that course I really want to get into? What if, what if, what if. It’s enough to drive us all insane! Worrying about our futures does nothing to benefit them.

“Forever is composed of nows” – Emily Dickinson 

The future is composed of ‘nows’. All we have control over is this very moment. Oh wait, that moment’s now gone. Now, this one. No, wait, this one. Time moves on so quickly…

All we can really do is tend to the things we actually have control over: our moment-by-moment decisions. What arises from them is not directly up to our current selves… If you are a theist, the outcomes of the decisions we make out of our free will is contingent upon God’s supreme will. If you are not a theist, well then, life is intrinsically chaotic and unpredictable. So why bother trying to predict, even negatively? If anything, negatively predicting can bring about numerous unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecies…

  • Emotional health: Physically, humans are more or less water-based beings. When we have too little (or too much) water within our corporeal systems, various aspects of our bodies suffer. Metaphysically, we are also emotion-based beings. When our emotions are in a state of chaos or crisis, various aspects of our bodies, minds, and lives suffer massively. What is it that is persistently harming your emotional health? Could it be your relationships with certain loved ones? Certain bad habits? There are myriad types of issues that can prove extremely detrimental to one’s emotional health. Many people who excel academically are also chronic over-thinkers. An absolute recipe for disaster, if you ask me. But we can flip this around: we can make over-thinking benefit us. Let’s over-think about solutions! Anxiety is a type of creativity, so, rather like how our minds tend to be creative when it comes to our problems, we must try to be creative in thinking up good solutions. The questions and problems are within you. So are, I think, given the right amount of time and thought, the answers and solutions. 
  • Reconnecting with our true selves: During my extended period of darkness, I really think I lost that necessary sense of self-connectivity. I really needed to reconnect with my true self. Something that helped, with this, was hanging out with – offering to babysit – some of my little cousins. Children are wonderful, especially in how they do not give a damn. They simply wonder, and they have fun. Consider this: who were you before, and during, the prime age of seven? What did you enjoy doing, back then? Drawing, perhaps? Playing football? Writing? Swimming? Were you loud and outgoing? Were you quite introspective; a fan of quiet time? Helping your aunt with baking? It is highly likely that this is all indicative of that true self that you must begin to reconnect with. Work can wait a while. Your true self yearns to be rediscovered!
  • Romanticisations and Gratuitous Degradations: It is not your job – was never your job – to live up to others’ romanticised versions of you, nor was it ever your job to work towards disproving their degrading remarks and ideas about you. They are speaking and thinking from a very personal perspective – through the lens of their own worldviews, insecurities, experiences, and more. And people talk too much, and judge too much, anyway. So if they want to see you as the ‘academic girl who never fails’, let them. If they want to see you as the ‘square boy who only reads and does not know how to have fun’, let them. All that matters is how you view yourself. And if you want to be that person – the happy person who waltzes into the classroom or lecture theatre, binders in hand, work completed early, then know that you can grow into becoming him or her. It will likely not be an overnight thing, but life is a giant game of (spiritual and otherwise) self-development. Failures, wallowing, jumping up, succeeding, failing a little again… This is life. Human life. You are human.

People will always speculate; judge; generally think things… I know it can be hard – heck, it can even be conducive to an extreme crisis of identity – if you have always been known as the ‘academic smart one’ and then to witness yourself decline, in this sense. Bad mental health, for example, causes bad grades and demotivation, which also puts negative pressures upon your mental health. Another vicious cycle. Let’s disrupt it, right here, now and for all. You do not need to maintain a facade of being ‘okay’, just to appease these people’s expectations. This is not good for you. You need not cling to others’ perceptions of you in order to ensure a solid sense of identity. The best, most solid forms of identity are the ones that are self-arising, and self-regulating. On any given day, a person (person A) may think you are the smartest, most wonderful person alive. The next day, A may think you are the definition of stupid and undesirable. You must know who you are, in order for this to have no effect on you at all. A is looking at you through their own eyes. We must see ourselves through our own eyes.

  • Underachieving at school: Some people have the issue of ‘underachieving’ at school: not getting the grades that their parents and teachers expect of them. Being unable to motivate themselves, and so forth. The truth is, this issue cannot be solved cosmetically. You cannot succeed on the premise of pretending to love school, simply to appease people – even if said people are your own parents. Ask yourself, what do I really want? And how can I get this? Academia – university degrees, post-grads – is not for everyone. But you are, by no means, a ‘failure’ if you choose to reject this more ‘traditional’ route. This is your life! And some people’s skills (e.g. being able to comprehend and absorb textbook information) are not the same as other people’s skills (e.g. being able to produce amazing lifelike art, within minutes). This world is a very cosmopolitan one, brimming with different career paths, opportunities, skill sectors, and such. And, perhaps, in order to truly succeed and achieve contentment in your life, it is necessary for you to disrupt a few expectations, and to disappoint a few people along the way…
  • Self-comparison: Isn’t it funny how practically everyone compares themselves to others? The boy or girl you perceive to be the smartest, coolest, most attractive person in your class may covertly compare themselves to somebody else in the class; perhaps even to you. The fact of the matter is that people tend to be rather harsh on themselves, but quite generous when it comes to others. We see of others only the surface; we see of ourselves, well, everything. Nobody is a Greek god or goddess who does everything right, who never needs to relieve themselves in the bathroom… and just because you do not see another person’s flaws, it does not mean that they do not exist. Likewise, just because you choose to – or happen to – focus on your own flaws, this does not mean that this is all there is to you. In the game of academia, this is a personal journey. In the game of mental health, this is also a personal journey.
  • Moving forward: Now, it is time for action. And by action, I do not mean working for fifteen hours a day. I mean being rational; considering the facts of life, and of the professions we are aiming towards and such, as well as our own feelings. What must we do to go forward, and to be kind to ourselves, and to produce meaningful work, and life-based improvements (and so on)? Which habits must we work on resolving? What are we addicted to? Studying? Social media? Binge-eating? Netflix? How are we going to work on resolving our core emotional frictions, which give rise to all the rest of it? Counselling can help; journaling; fasting; scheduling weekly coffee dates or phone calls with a certain friend; choosing a certain weekday to exist as a ‘rest day’… Ultimately, although professional psychological help can be of immense benefit (for instance, you may need some medication, in the short term, to regulate your body’s stress response system while you solve the other issues in your life) you are the only human being who knows yourself as well as you do. If you are a theist, definitely also ask God for guidance. But, chances are, you already know, somewhere, deep down, what will help you. It may involve taking a gap year, or a sabbatical. It might include creating comprehensive checklists, and scheduling all the revision you will do (while being moderate with this!) and promising yourself that you will do fun, relaxing things in your free time.

There are so, so many things I know I need to work on. Spending far less time on Instagram and Twitter, for one thing. Relying far less on other people’s validating comments about me, for another. But often, these things we find ourselves mindlessly doing and relying on are undoubtedly coping mechanisms. But it is never the wrong time to begin. And, if you trip up and fall, it is never the wrong time to begin again. 

At the end of the day, you have the moon. Gorgeous, indifferent, reliable, luminous Mr. Moon. And, if you are a theist, you also have the One who created him. Ultimately, academia is a nice part of our lives, but it is not life itself. And, likewise, depression is an unfavourable part of our experiences of ourselves… but it does not define who we are.

I think, absolutely, that the most important thing here is introspection. Asking meaningful questions of ourselves. What is the root cause of my academicus depressus? How has my relationship with academia changed over the years? Why? How has my relationship with myself changed over the years? What am I doing well? What were the ingredients that ensured my contentment back in childhood? And how can I re-introduce those same principles and activities into my life, now? What can I do better, for myself? What unrealistic standards do I find myself succumbing to? How can I be kinder to myself? Which emotional traumas do I need to mentally resolve? Where do I feel most at ease? How can I alter my routines and living environments to help me with this? What can I build on in terms of my spiritual health? And my psychological health? And my physical health? And my social health? Finally, what might my next academic and professional steps be? And so on, and so on…  

Sadia Ahmed, 2020 

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