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University of Michigan professor speaks out on depression in academia

University of Michigan professor speaks out on depression in academia

In Inside Higher Ed, Colleen Flaherty reports on the presence and stigmatization of depression in academia, and specifically on a professor who has become a voice attempting to shed light on a pervasive and increasing problem: the University of Michigan’s Peter Railton, Gregory S. Kavka Distinguished University Professor and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of philosophy:

“As academics, we live in its midst,” Railton said, according to a draft of the John Dewey Lecture he delivered last week at the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association’s Central Division in St. Louis. “We know how it hurts our students, our colleagues, our teachers, our families. Of course, most of us are ‘educated’ about depression — we like to think that we no longer consider it a stain on one’s character. We’ve gotten beyond that. Or have we?”

In the same way that don’t ask, don’t tell policies implied that being gay was something shameful to be kept private, Railton said, the social codes surrounding mental illness prevent many who need help from seeking it. He encouraged those who have struggled with depression and related conditions, such as anxiety, to come out and share their experiences, rather than conceal them for fear of judgment.

Railton is open about his own struggles with depression. He and others, including Syracus University associate professor of philosophy Janice Dowell, point out that those in academia who are affected by mental illness are often afraid to make that known because it can hurt their professional reputations and put their careers at risk. Dowell, quoted in the story from e mail correspondence:

“Many of the questions we hope to answer are highly abstract; a good deal of our research is done just through thinking carefully. It is no accident that rationality and clearheadedness are lionized in our discipline. To admit that one suffers from a mental illness, like depression, is to admit that one is prone to bouts of irrationality. If one’s audience is uninformed about mental illness or unempathetic, that admission is tantamount to an invitation to be taken as a less than full participant in our shared project of answering those questions.

“More bluntly, to admit to mental illness is to risk admitting that you don’t have what it takes to be good at our job. This is why [Railton’s] uttering the words he did, even given his standing in our profession, was an extraordinary act of courage.”

What are the continuing misperceptions about depression and mental illness in church environments? For clergy? For parishioners? How are ministries responding?

More related links:

“We don’t want anyone to know, say depressed academics,” The Guardian

“Episcopalians seek to erase stigma of suicide, inspire church advocacy,” Episcopal News Service

National Episcopal Health Ministries

“Katharine Welby talks about depression,” Episcopal Cafe

Clergy Wellness: The Role of Vestries, ECF Vital Practices

Posted by Cara Ellen Modisett

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