The Sad Science: Depression is an illness; you can’t fight it with “success”

I wasn’t really going to comment on the sad passing of comedian and actor Robin Williams. But just yesterday, at the Ecological Society of America’s annual meeting in Sacramento, the Chair of our Student Section momentarily “dressed as a student” by taping a sign that said “Impostor” on her forehead. (In reference to the “impostor fallacy/impostor syndrome”, which especially occurs in women, graduate students, and minorities–the sneaking idea that you, secretly, are FAR less qualified than those supposed peers around you, and you are a fraud, an impostor, always on the edge of being “found out”.)

Depression and the impostor fallacy are not the same thing, but they have an overriding similarity that compels me to discuss this in light of Williams’s apparent suicide. The issue is this: depression is an illness, and the impostor fallacy a psycho-social effect, that are NOT due to personal weakness, to a lack of ambition or competence, or anything else one can “fix” just by working hard, accomplishing, or just pushing yourself to be better or happier. In any serious manifestation, they require help, therapy, and appropriate support from friends, families, and mentors. Williams is a sad example that success, acclaim, hard work, “paying your dues”–they’re not enough to get you through, because the afflictions are not some logical error, they’re deeper than that and must be faced as such.

You will not “success” your way out of most depression, or the impostor fallacy. Williams was arguably one of the most successful men alive–an innovative and acclaimed comedian, an acclaimed actor, and a beloved public figure. His death shows us that mental illnesses and serious issues of self-doubt cannot and should not be swept away easily as something to barrel through, as something that working harder, succeeding, or excelling will fix–they are afflictions that require help and can, and so many cases, be improved and significantly relieved with appropriate help. We should remember that any person, in any position, may need this help and may be suffering. We can’t wave it away as undeserved self-pity or an argument to be countered with evidence. We need to help and support those in our own lives, and as a graduate student of color once said in a conference, just because someone is excelling, “don’t assume we’re okay.”

I say all this as I’m surrounded by hundreds, thousands of scholars in a competitive and often dispiriting set of professions. (One booth had a “paper rejection bingo” coaster.) Everyone who is here is, by all measures, already in a very rarified air of scholarship and achievement in global (and national) terms. But many or most of us feel like we’re at the bottom of the rungs, or an impostor amongst real achievers.

If this is a feeling you commonly have–not just right before a poster or presentation or work outing or some such–you owe to yourself as a person (and if you’re a scientist, as a scientist) to know that your deep feelings of inadequacy or sadness, no matter how strong, have no relationship with your true worth, your accomplishments, and say nothing about your potential. If you consistently, persistently doubt yourself, feel depressed about your life or career, please reach out to find the help–from friends, therapy, mentors, family–and DON’T STOP until you DO find those that can truly help you rise out of the self-reinforcing spiral. Don’t rely on the thought that simple hard work and accomplishment will “fix things” (especially if it then guilts you into feeling like your feelings of inadequacy or depression are rational self-evaluations!!!!) The most important hard work you can do is to find sources of support and of therapy or medication that help you start to shift your mindset. (Remember: peer-reviewed science says that you can. Yes, YOU. Yup, that’s right, you. Yes, even you, who’s thinking “except for me.”) Don’t forget–or become a tragic reminder of–the fact that “success” won’t cure sadness, and no amount of accomplishment and recognition from the outside world will “fix you”–you will need to find and get the support to see your value in yourself. That is the most important and most valuable work you can possibly do, for yourself, your career, and your loved ones.

“You are a [person] of infinite kindness, and infinite wisdom.”

–J. Michael Stracyznski, Babylon 5

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