Personal Philosophy

A prominent professor uses a disciplinary meeting to discuss his struggles with depression -- and encourages others in academe to talk about mental health issues.

February 25, 2015
Peter Railton

It's not every day that respected academics reveal their personal struggles, especially to a big audience of colleagues and strangers. So a recent talk by Peter Railton, the Gregory S. Kavka Distinguished University Professor and Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, is making the rounds on social media -- along with accounts of multiple standing ovations and even open weeping from some of those present. Railton’s topic? His battle with depression, which he says he's hidden for too long.

“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.

“Some already have, but far too few adult men (big surprise!), and especially far too few of the adult men who have somehow managed to bear the stamp of respectability and recognition, and thus are visible to hundreds of students and colleagues,” he said. “Perhaps if enough of us, of all ages and walks of life, parents, children, brothers, coworkers, spouses, relatives, deans and directors, tinkers, tailors, soldiers, sailors, can be open about our passages through mental illness, a shadowy stigma will fade away into the broad light of day.”

Likewise, Railton advised those who suspect friends or colleagues are suffering to inquire as to their wellness, especially by sharing any of their own experiences with mental health issues. Reflecting on his own major depressive episodes throughout his life, he said, “I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t say, ‘Look, I’m dying inside. I need help.’ Because that’s what depression is -- it isn’t sadness or moodiness, it is above all a logic that undermines from within, that brings to bear all the mind’s mighty resources in convincing you that you’re worthless, incapable, unlovable, and everyone would be better off without you.”

Railton continued, “I know what has held me back all these years. Would people think less of me? Would I seem to be tainted, reduced in their eyes, someone with an inner failing whom no one would want to hire or with whom no one would want to marry or have children? Would even friends start tiptoeing around my psyche? Would colleagues trust me with responsibility?

“I’m now established in my career, so some of these questions have lost some of their bite for me. But not all of them. And think of those who are not as well-placed as I have come to be. Think how these questions can resonate in the mind of a depressed undergraduate or graduate student, trying and failing to do his work, trying to earn the confidence and esteem of his teachers, worried what his friends and parents will think, afraid to show his face in the department, struggling to find his first job. Will he feel free to come forward and ask for help?”

Railton said that children, students and “young faculty forced to live for years with insecure or term-limited jobs” are under “unprecedented levels of stress, and this is showing in rising public health statistics for depression and anxiety.”

Railton’s assertions are backed by a recent study suggesting that incoming college students’ mental health is at an all-time low, as well as common accounts from graduate students about feeling isolated and anxious, especially as they move away from course work and toward more solitary pursuits. Experts say that professors traditionally haven’t been a high-risk group for mental distress. But some of the protective factors for mental health that many professors used to enjoy, such as a relatively low-key lifestyle and flexibility to spend time on pleasurable activities, are disappearing with the changing shape of higher education. And of course mental health issues transcend all social and professional groups.

Possibly for those reasons, among others, Railton’s speech hit a nerve. On social media, audience members described giving him two standing ovations, and even crying.

“It was easily the bravest and most moving talk I have ever attended,” Janice Dowell, an associate professor of philosophy at Syracuse University, wrote in the Daily Nous philosophy blog. “Our profession owes him our deep gratitude for his selfless courage.” Daily Nous also reposted, with permission, Dowell’s personal Facebook post saying, “Peter Railton’s Dewey Lecture was mind-blowing. I am completely unashamed to report that I openly wept.”

Dowell explained in an e-mail why she thought Railton's speech was so moving for philosophers in particular. 

"Many of the questions we hope to answer are highly abstract; a good deal of our research is done just through thinking carefully," she said. "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."  

Dowell added, "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."

Another blog reader called it “bravery in action,” while Annette Bryson, a graduate student in philosophy at Michigan, said Railton’s speech was an “experience that has marked my life -- and that clearly marked the lives of everyone in the room. ...[W]e responded to Railton’s lecture with two standing ovations and tears all around. His coming out as someone who suffers from deep depression was deeply moving, and there was not a dry eye in the room as he made his plea for the need to overcome the stigma associated with such illness.”

Railton said via e-mail to Inside Higher Ed that his "greatest hope is to stimulate wide discussion and visibility" of mental health issues.

“What does it say to our students or colleagues, how does it contribute their ability to seek care, or to escape a sense of utter loneliness and inability to make it out the other side,” he asked in his speech, “if even gray grown-ups like me with established careers and loving families can’t be open about the depression that has so deeply shaped our lives, and who can make it clear by our very selves, ‘There’s real help, you can make it, it’s worth it, you’re worth it.’”


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