Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The Hard Line

One should never take mental illness lightly. But in an age dominated by the "diagnosis", one may be skeptical about people's psychological self-assessments. This goes for their amateur excursions into both normal and abnormal psychology. That is, it goes as much for people who claim to know what what is "wrong" with them as those who, less clinically, claim to know what "type" they are. I have said before that I don't believe there are different kinds of academic writers. In this post I want to talk about why I don't think very highly of mental diagnoses of difficulties in writing. I mean "mental" here in contrast to "moral" and "intellectual".

The theme was suggested to me by an article I read over lunch in a free daily newspaper here in Copenhagen yesterday. It is a first person account of a student's difficulties in "getting help" to deal with her "part-time" depression, which she had posted to the paper's blog. The post is in Danish, but I will summarize her story here.

"Camomilla" is a first-year master's student, and for the past two months she has "not been feeling too well". Like I say, I do not want to take this lightly, but it is important to keep in mind that this is all she tells us about her condition. At the beginning of the story, she does not have a more qualified opinion about how she is feeling. In fact, her story is a complaint about how difficult it is to get others to qualify her low spirits in professional terms.

She begins by approaching student services, but they were very busy and could not give her an appointment until mid-June. So she contacted the student advisor at her own department in person, but she "had barely gotten in the door before the tears began to roll down her cheeks". She now complains (I realize that is my word, not hers) that the advisor "lacked the tools" to help her with her real problem (i.e., the reason she is really "not feeling so good") and that they ended up (uselessly, one may imagine) discussing how she might prepare herself to write her thesis. As for the deeper issues, he suggested student services (which she had already tried) and her doctor.

Her doctor said she "might have a light depression", but that she could not tell for sure on the basis of a 15-minute consultation. She could come back in two weeks to see how things are going, but since there were no signs of "full time" depression, i.e., since the problem did not seem very serious, she could not refer her to a psychologist, at least not in a way that would be covered by health care. If she wanted to talk to a professional, she would have to pay for it. This struck her as absurd and deeply unfair, as does what she describes as the standard advice, namely, taking some time off from one's studies to "find yourself".

The moral of the story, which Camomilla makes quite explicit, is that students with light depressions are being left in the lurch by the educational system and the medical establishment. And this is where I begin to worry.

Education is not an easy or painless process. If you are learning something important, you are going through an emotional, transformative process. You will sometimes feel wonderful because you have finally gotten a point that has been eluding you for months, even years. You will sometimes feel miserable because it is eluding you, and this misery may, indeed, persist for months. Your teachers and counsellors must assume, as a first approximation, that your problems—even those that bring tears to your eyes, or angry words to your lips—are intellectual not psychological (critical not clinical, to play on the title of one of Deleuze's collection of essays). If you feel lost or confused during your studies, the most likely (and most constructive) reason for this is that you are having a hard time understanding the subject matter. So that's where the conversation begins. It is, after all, precisely the set of problems that educators have "the tools" to help you with.

Moreover, before they reach for the tools of clinical psychology (or the limits of their competence to help you), educators are entitled, indeed obligated, to approach you as a fellow human being. If you've been "out of sorts" for a few months, there may be a reason that it does not take a science to understand. You may find the program you are in difficult and have lost your girlfriend. Or someone close to you may have died. Or you may have begun to hang out with radical leftists who have introduced you to marijuana and you are now questioning your Christian faith. That's the sort of stuff that is supposed to happen at a university. It is the sense in which university is a period of both intellectual and moral formation.

Sometimes your moral struggles will take precedence over your intellectual ones and your grades will suffer. Most people for whom this happens end up understanding the necessity of the tradeoff, and some even talk about that semester with pride. It was the time they realized that "there are more important things than school", etc. But it is, of course, possible that there is something truly wrong with your mind. I know people whose problems in school can convincingly be attributed to mental causes, not intellectual or moral difficulty (because they are convincingly intellectually and morally qualified to be in school). My point is just that it will not (cannot, should not) be immediately clear to anyone (from the fact that you are crying or a 15-minute conversation) that your problems are more serious. (Note that if you haven't been able to get out of bed for two weeks, then it is immediately clear.)

The boundary between the "moral" and the "mental" cannot be patrolled by your teachers and counsellors. They can only offer advice at the boundary between the intellectual and the moral dimension of your studies. They can encourage you to work harder to try to understand difficult material. And they can, at the limit, try to get you to see that the program you have enrolled in is not right for you. Indeed, my problem with the shift to clinical explanations is that they avoid the obvious solution to being unhappy in school: find another major, or even another school. Learning is hard, but it should, on the whole, be a satisfying experience. If it doesn't make you happy, don't think there must be something wrong with you.

And if there is something wrong with you don't make it the school's responsibility to deal with it. You may have particular difficulties in your studies because of the way your mind works. Well, get help (outside the program) and if it gives you the tools to succeed that's great. If not, your mind simply may not be suited for the kind of work your studies are trying to prepare you for. There's no shame in that. It's like learning you don't have the hands to be a surgeon or a pianist. Or the eyes to be a pilot. Or the legs to be a football player.

So, yes, take some time off and find yourself. Figure out what you want to do and are able to do happily. Then do it. And when it gets hard, work harder. You may need to conquer some old-school laziness not some newfangled medical condition. That's what I did.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

Hej Thomas:

I had this come up recently with a commenter on my blogs. She said, yes, all the time-management tips work, but what if you whole family and department, and even a therapist, had made you feel bad about yourself and discouraged you from doing research? My response has always been that you have to know you want to do the work first. Then everything else is just an obstacle that you can deal with, working around problems. I've certainly been depressed and still worked, because I wanted to. Motivation only works if you are already fully motivated, and laziness is simply a lack of motivation.