Campus Life mens et tenebrae

It’s not you, it’s a disease

Professional help can alleviate the weight of depression

We MIT kids are a messed up bunch. Alright, fine, I haven’t been immersed in enough collegiate environments to say that we are more or less messed up than anyone else our age, but still — we have problems. Over the last three and a half years, I’ve met a lot of people who are having a really crappy time and think there’s no feasible way to improve their lives. I’m not talking about your run-of-the-mill, overworked MIT students, I’m talking about people whose relationship with life is tenuous at best. People who are suffering because of their anxiety, lack of motivation, sadness, or whatever else. I’m extrapolating from what I’ve seen first-hand, but it’s a safe bet that there’s a silent fraction of MIT students who are experiencing some kind of depression but not addressing it.

I like to think I’m an okay listener, but when friends approach me to talk about how horrible they’ve been feeling today and every day in their recent memory, I end up telling them to go to Mental Health (or the Yellow Pages) and to seek psychotherapy or psychopharmacology instead of just talking to me. They very rarely heed my advice, even when it’s pretty clear there’s a problem. I’m not entirely sure why. I’ve been living with depression since I can remember, so I have a hard time relating to the “average” person’s perception of mental illness and its treatment. In any case, I want to tell you the story of how I became such a big fan of mental health treatment.

In most respects, I was a pretty normal little kid. I was relatively smart, and very playful. My interests included large mammals and being annoying to my big sister. But sometimes, I would feel sad, anxious, and scared. There were things in my life that would have caused angst in any reasonable child, like having divorced parents, or being taller than all the kids in my class including the boys until maybe seventh grade. But my moods often seemed random, unprovoked by any obvious stimulus. If someone asked me what was wrong, I told them that I didn’t know. This seemed to raise some eyebrows, so my go-to answer became “I’m just tired.”

This wasn’t really a big deal when I was a little kid, because it’s par for the course for little kids to be freaked out about things that adults are unfazed by. But by the time I hit middle school, it became clear to me that most of the other kids weren’t feeling unexplained dread and despair. Other kids weren’t leaving school in the middle of the day because of these feelings, or refusing to get out of bed in the morning. I had no concept that there was something wrong with me that might be treatable. I basically thought I sucked. That was pretty much the extent of my vocabulary on the subject. It’s not that I was terribly uninformed — I had definitely heard of depression. There was even depression in my family. Yet it took three years, two psychiatrists, and a psychologist for us to progress from the realization that there might be a serious problem to actually solving it.

Finally, I was prescribed Prozac. At the time, I thought that the idea of me on Prozac was ridiculous. My fourteen-year-old worldview indicated that drugs were for sick people, and that I was just bad at being a normal, happy kid.

My first few weeks on Prozac were like a prolonged version of that scene in the 2002 Spiderman movie where Tobey Maguire wakes up and, instead of being a skinny, weak nerd, he’s buff and can fly through the skyscraper canopy of Manhattan. For the first time ever, I felt like life was a pretty good time. The pervasive feelings of sadness, anxiety, and fear that had plagued my life subsided almost completely. Besides the actual relief of my symptoms, I felt incredibly relieved by the fact that my symptoms could be relieved. It’s not me. It’s a disease. It’s treatable. Feeling horrible is not an inherent quality of my character. There have been ups and downs since my initial Spiderman moment, but things will never be as bad as it was for those first fourteen years, because now I know I have the ability to get better.

That’s what depression is for me. I’m talking about it because I managed to stumble around totally handicapped by it for two-thirds of my life, even though I’m a pretty smart and informed person in an environment of smart and informed people. When you’re trying to assess something as fundamental as your mood, it can be like the proverbial frog who won’t jump out of the pot if the water slowly increases in temperature. You’re used to it. You don’t know it’s bad or think to change it.

MIT students by and large are not particularly invested in taking care of themselves. We’re not waking up every morning and thinking about what we can do to feel good today, we’re thinking about how to get through whatever mountain of work we have before us. You don’t have to be a textbook depressive to be someone who would benefit from being more mindful of his or her mental health. I’m still in therapy (I figure I might always be), and sometimes, even if I’ve been feeling completely fine, it’s really good to spend fifty minutes thinking and talking about how things are going.

Supportive friends are incredible, but no friend in the world could have changed my life the way that good therapy and good medication did. The people who have helped me have PhDs and MDs and only one purpose: to get me mentally healthy. That isn’t possible within a friendship. Talking with friends is enough for some people, but I need the big guns.

So if feeling bad is your baseline, if you haven’t had an awesome day since high school, or if you don’t think you can talk to your friends about how you’re feeling, please consider talking to someone who actually knows what they’re talking about. I didn’t believe in therapy or medication when I started, but that didn’t stop them from changing my life.

I hope you have a good day. For real.

Anonymous about 12 years ago

Any advice how to start getting help? I no longer have MIT Medical, just private insurance. And my primary care doctor doesn't know any mental health providers to recommend.

Anonymous about 12 years ago

Very well written article with some great advice! My mother suffers from bipolar disorder and her lithium medication can take her from being a manic-depressive wreck to a functioning human being in the span of a few days. I think it's important to note that not only can treatment improve your life, but also of all those who care about you as well.

Kathy almost 12 years ago

I also suffered needlessly until my early twenties before I sought treatment. There is help out there and take advantage of it! A good place to start is a community health center near you. It does get better.