Hyperbole and a Half Tackles Depression (Again)

Allie Brosh, creator and author of the blog Hyperbole and a Half, has recently returned after an extended absence from the blogosphere. Before her unplanned hiatus, she published a post about her experience with depression; and now, upon her return, she has published a follow-up on her continuing struggle with the mental illness. Brosh’s posts are as insightful as they are entertaining. I cannot recommend them enough. For those who are suffering, or have suffered, from depression, you will find much in common with Brosh’s experiences. And, for those who haven’t been touched by depression, you will find it very eye-opening; Brosh does an amazing job of describing this often frustratingly ineffable experience. Follow the links below to Brosh’s blog, and prepare for a take on mental health like you’ve not seen before.

(WARNING: Both posts contain coarse language.)

“Adventures in Depression”

“Depression Part Two”

Follow all the links


Am I Disabled?

disability word

Application forms are a nuisance, no matter who you are. But, for me, there is one question in particular that I dread each time I fill one out:

“Do you have a disability?”

I have never once answered ‘yes’ to this question. But should I? Is my mental health condition a disability?

Am I disabled?

Before I continue, a brief aside: today’s post will be rather more informal than those previous. I want to share my thoughts on this question, but I am woefully short of answers. As always, I have cast about for other material on the subject, but have found precious little. However, while this week’s piece is little more than a collection of musings, I hope it will still resonate with some of you, and perhaps inspire more conversation on the topic.

To Declare or Not To Declare…

disability declaration application question form

I find myself in a difficult situation where this question is concerned. My mental illness is not so serious that I am unable to work; indeed, I am fortunate that it has hitherto not disrupted my work. And yet, it is serious enough that it can at times be a very real challenge requiring professional attention. This middle ground in which I find myself makes answering the question above complicated at best.

There are two different reasons why declaring my mental illness gives me pause.

Equal Treatment

First, I loathe the thought of receiving special treatment on account of my mental health. Does my application really deserve special attention because of my condition? In my case, I am convinced that it doesn’t. After all, my condition hasn’t compromised my work. It seems unfair to plead special circumstance when those circumstances were not so challenging as to adversely affect my results. And what is more, I should like to think that my place at university or my offers of funding were granted on the merit of my academic excellence alone. Indeed, it is for this same reason that I also never declare myself to be a member of a visible minority; but of course, the two questions are not quite analogous. And so-called “positive discrimination” is a topic for another day.

Who am I?

My second concern, however, I find far more compelling than the first. To me, the more challenging question is this: Am I prepared to adopt the label ‘disabled’? More than a question about legal definitions, it is a question about my identity. Do I see myself as a person that is disabled?

On the word itself, the OED offers the following:

adj; …2. Of a person: having a physical or mental condition which limits activity, movement, sensation, etc….

But I do not feel less able than my colleagues; my scholarly activities aren’t limited. I attend talks, teach classes, write papers. In all the relevant ways—that is, all the ways relevant to being an academic—I am equally able as my peers.

And yet, there are nevertheless days when emerging from my room is an ordeal, and days when my anxiety erupts into full-blown panic.

So am I disabled…?

I suppose my activities are indeed limited on the days described. But there are equally days on which I experience no such distress. Unlike many other disabilities that pose a constant challenge, my mental health difficulties are intermittent. And it is unclear to me what degree of limitation constitutes a disability.

Finally, I am particularly fearful of the label because I am an academic. Qua academic, I am my mental capacities. So, to say of myself that I have a disability on account of my mental illness feels like a threat to that identity. But this, I recognise, is an oversimplification.

And perhaps so too are many of my concerns. After all, we are none of us reducible to the conditions that we suffer. But knowing this, I find, does not make answering the question any easier.


Do you declare your mental health condition when completing applications? Do you have concerns about the label ‘disability’? How has declaring/not declaring affected you? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments below.

On Impostor Syndrome

Impostor hiding in group. Impostor discovered.

The experience known as “impostor syndrome” has been a topic of increasing interest in recent years, featuring in many blog posts and newspaper articles. I have found it reassuring to read the experiences of so many academics who share this experience, and so would like to add my own contribution in the hopes that others might take some comfort in it. As such, at the risk of repeating much of what has been said by others already, I present to you my thoughts on this pervasive phenomenon.


First, though, a note about terminology: although called a “syndrome,” impostor syndrome is not a medical condition. It is rather a convenient expression for referring to a quite common experience in academia—that of feeling that one is a fraud. (NB: the phenomenon is not restricted to academics, but is alarmingly common among them.) I have my qualms about referring to the experience as a “syndrome;” it is, I think, indicative of our growing desire to pathologise the entirety of the human experience—a trend to which I am staunchly opposed. Clinical psychologists Pauline Clance and Suzanne Imes (1978), the first to identify the experience, named it the “impostor phenomenon;” and so, in what follows, I shall use Clance & Imes’ terminology.

It is worth noting that some mental health professionals also share my reticence to apply the term ‘syndrome’ to this experience. In an article in Nature, Dr. Mayada Akil, Director of Outpatient Psychiatry at Georgetown University Hospital, Washington DC, is quoted as saying that while the experience certainly occurs, it is “not a disorder or a syndrome;” Dr. Akil feels that much has been made of the so-called syndrome for “commercial purposes.”

Now, it might seem odd to devote this amount of space to a terminological discussion. The point, however, is not a minor one; there is power in words. In labels. In this case, I think to pathologise the experience is to absolve the academic environment of too much responsibility—an environment that, as I wrote last week, allows phenomena like this one to thrive.

So much, then, for terminology.

Hiding in Plain Sight

I’ve just pulled the wool over their eyes…

This line, and many others like it are a constant refrain in my internal dialogue. Worse than a doubt, I harbour an unfaltering conviction that I have not earned my place here in the hallowed halls of academia. A conviction, I hasten to add, that is utterly irrational—one that is dogmatically impervious to all assurances and evidence to the contrary. And yet, as much as I’m aware of its irrationality, it is a belief from which I seem unable to divorce myself.

What is more, the impostor phenomenon is not just a belief about one’s own unworthiness. It is also the constant fear of being exposed. The fear that the next question you ask, the next presentation you give, the next page you write will be the one that gives you away. It is the fear that you are surrounded by people who can smell deceit—by, as Colonel Pickering might have it, “impostorologists.” Indeed, combined with the combative atmosphere that prevails in academia (see “Shame and Academic Darwinism”), the impostor phenomenon makes one feel like a sheep in wolf’s clothing. One who is amidst many hungry wolves.

The tragedy of it is, the impostor phenomenon is strikingly common. And yet we each feel alone in our experience; we don’t realise that we’re in what amounts to a fancy dress party—so many supposed sheep in wolves’ clothing.

As many of the articles on this topic explain (see “References and Further Reading” below), one of the most effective ways of combating the impostor phenomenon is to talk about it. This is why I felt it important to add to the already sizable literature on this all too common experience. That being said, I must admit, it is with no small amount of trepidation that I confess to feeling this way. Despite having met numerous students and peers who have expressed fears very similar to my own, I cannot help but think, “their beliefs may be mistaken, but I am in fact a fraud.” A truly laughable thought! And one that demonstrates the self-reinforcing nature of this troubling phenomenon.

Cognitive Distortion and Negative Self-Image

I take my experience of the impostor phenomenon to be part and parcel of my mental health issues (namely, anxiety and depression). Indeed, in my experience, all three feed into one another, each reinforcing the deeply negative beliefs engendered by the others. The worse my depression, the more I feel an impostor, and so the more anxious I become. This often leads to a deepening of the depression, thus completing the circle.

One of the most notable symptoms of depression is the possession of a negative self-image and the cognitive distortions that accompany that image. There are many different kinds of cognitive distortion, among them one called “disqualifying the positive.” As the name suggests, it is typified by a tendency to explain away positive experiences. For instance, dismissing compliments as merely polite gestures, or attributing successful results to luck.

Sound familiar?

The impostor phenomenon is itself a product of this cognitive distortion. To be certain, not all who experience the impostor phenomenon suffer from a mental health condition. While cognitive distortion is common to both depression and the impostor phenomenon, this does not imply that all who experience the latter necessarily suffer from the former. As with so many symptoms of mental health conditions, cognitive distortions admit of degrees of severity, not all of which suffice for clinical diagnosis. However, what this overlap does explain is why those suffering from depression are particularly susceptible to the impostor phenomenon. It suggests that the two experiences are deeply related.

Fighting Back

So, what can we do to overcome the impostor phenomenon? To answer that, I will point you to a marvelous article at GradHacker entitled “Banishing Impostor Syndrome.” In her article, author Andrea Zellner outlines four main strategies for combating this phenomenon:

     (1) Share how you feel.
     (2) Be kind to yourself.
     (3) Fake it ‘til you make it.
     (4) Help others.

See the full article for more details.



Do you have experience with the impostor phenomenon? Have you overcome it? What do you think causes it? Share your thoughts in the comments.



References and Further Reading

Beck, J., 2010. Do you have the imposter syndrome?. Huffington Post. 22 July 2010. Available from: <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/judith-s-beck-phd/the-imposter-syndrome_b_656252.html> [19 April 2013]

Carey, B., 2008. Feel like a fraud? At times maybe you should, 05 February 2008. New York Times. Available from: <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/05/health/05mind.html> [19 April 2013]

Clance, P. R., & Imes, S. A., 1978. The impostor phenomenon in high achieving women: Dynamics and therapeutic intervention. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 15(3), 241-247. Available from: <http://www.suzanneimes.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Imposter-Phenomenon.pdf> [19 April 2013]

‘Cognitive distortion.’ Wikipedia. Available from: <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_distortion> [19 April 2013]

“I was crippled by impostor syndrome”: one woman’s story, 02 February 2012. Geek Feminism. Available from: <http://geekfeminism.org/2012/02/02/i-was-crippled-by-impostor-syndrome-one-womans-story/> [19 April 2013]

Kaplan, K., 2009. Unmasking the impostor. Nature, 459, pp. 468-469. Available from: <http://www.nature.com/naturejobs/science/articles/10.1038/nj7245-468a> [19 April 2013]

Kasper, J., 2013. An academic with imposter syndrome. Chronicle. 02 April 2013. Available from: <http://chronicle.com/article/An-Academic-With-Impostor/138231/> [19 April 2013]

Rippeyoung, P., 2012. The imposter syndrome, or, as my mother told me: “Just because everyone else is an asshole, it doesn’t make you a fraud.” (a guest post). 11 December 2012. The Professor is In. Available from <http://theprofessorisin.com/2012/12/11/the-imposter-syndrome-or-as-my-mother-told-me-just-because-everyone-else-is-an-asshole-it-doesnt-make-you-a-fraud-a-guest-post/> [19 April 2013]

Rivero, L., 2013. Face your imposter. 07 April 2013. Psychology Today. Available from: <http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/creative-synthesis/201304/face-your-imposter> [19 April 2013]

Zellner, A., 2011. Banishing impostor syndrome, 02 September 2011. GradHacker. Available from: <http://www.gradhacker.org/2011/09/02/banishing-impostor-syndrome/> [19 April 2013]

Good article from the blog Depression’s Collateral Damage on the persistence of stigma and the value of openness.

“People are hurting.  They’re looking for a chance to talk about how mental illness is affecting their lives.  Too often the stigma prevents them from discovering that others are living in similar situations. Loneliness, isolation, abandonment abound.  One simple act of sharing can change all that.”

Find complete post at “Exposing the Stigma of Living With Depression”.

Shame and Academic Darwinism

An angry group of white figures standing in a circle, pointing finger at a dotted figure in the middle.

The relation between shame and mental health is an obvious one, and it manifests in so many different ways. Less obvious—or, as I shall suggest, less explicit—is the role shame has to play in the world of academia. I’m certainly not the first to observe the culture of shame in academia—a quick google search pulls up articles at Pittsburg PhD, Legally Sociable, Anne Brannen (who’s written a how-to guide on coping with this culture), The Chronicle, and JAC (articles from 2005 and 2006). Nevertheless, I’d like to take a moment to reflect on the role of shame in academia, and more specifically, on its impact on our attitude towards mental health in the academy.

What is shame?

No self-respecting academic (and certainly not a philosopher!) could proceed much further without defining her terms, so let’s sort out what we mean by ‘shame’. I found a number of different definitions in my search, but all shared a common theme: shame involves a judgement of the person we are. In this way, shame is often defined in contrast to guilt; according to Fossum and Mason (1986) where “guilt is a painful feeling of regret and responsibility for one’s actions, shame is a painful feeling about oneself as a person” (my emphasis). Similarly, according to Brene Brown, Ph.D., LSMW, “the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between ‘I am bad’ and ‘I did something bad’ [respectively]” (2012). In other words, shame concerns a judgement about our identity, whereas guilt concerns a judgement about our actions.

Identity and Darwinism in the Academic Jungle

Unsurprisingly, this action-identity distinction figures in academic life as well. In my experience, there are broadly two kinds of people who attend university: (1) those who regard themselves as persons engaged in academic activities, and (2) those who regard themselves as academics. People belonging to the second category wed their identities to their academic achievement. (Indeed, we seem to romanticise such individuals—the tortured intellectuals who live for their work.) What is more, among academics, there is a tendency to judge peers in just the same way, i.e. to identify the person with their academic contributions. Add to this the highly adversarial approach to our practice, and you have the recipe for a severely destructive environment.

Listen and watch carefully the next time you’re at a conference, or in a seminar. Listen to the chatter after the official goings-on have finished. The discourse can be ruthless. Indeed, I’ve attended some seminars that have been Darwinian in their atmosphere. One is tempted to remind everyone, “We’re all on the same side here!” From the rhetoric and the posturing, one often gets the impression that there is a battle being waged, rather than a mutual pursuit of knowledge. As Professor Linda Hutcheon writes in her excellent article on the topic, “[t]he academy rightly values critical thinking, but increasingly we seem to define that quality in terms of the wolfish belittling and even demolishing of opposing positions” (2003: 43). And is it any wonder, when we take our performance to be reflective of our worth as an academic? And, for too many of us, our worth as a person? The more threatened we feel, the more threatening we often become, in defence. It’s the academic equivalent of a porcupine’s quills.

(Of course, I don’t believe for a second that this is a problem unique to academia; after all, it is a basic capitalist assumption that competition encourages productivity… but that’s a topic for a different blog.)

Define ‘Fittest’…

If academia is, as I’ve been suggesting, a community that behaves according to the principle of “survival of the fittest,” how does that community define ‘fitness’? Who are the fittest among us? Naturally, we take those demonstrating excellence in critical thinking, analysis, and so on, to be among the best of us. Indeed, these traits are part of the everyday discourse. But there are unspoken measures, too. The fittest, it’s assumed, are the ones who can “handle it”, who can “hold it together”, who can tolerate the stress without “falling apart.” These are all expressions I’ve heard students and peers alike use in conversation. And, if I’m quite honest, they’re expressions I’ve used in my own internal dialogue, too.

To be sure, it’s not explicit discussion that leads to this attitude; I’ve not heard anyone say that, to succeed in academia, you have to “hold it together.” No, it’s a sin of omission that is to blame. How many professors can you think of that made it a point to mention university counselling services at some point in a class? I’ve had two such professors. Two. In the six years I’ve spent at university. And that’s still more than many of the people I’ve asked can think of.

So now, we have an environment in which,

     (a) many individuals wed their identity to their academic achievements and mental prowess;
     (b) antagonism among its members is all but encouraged; and
     (c) mental health is seldom, if ever, discussed.

We’ve created an institution in which we are spurred on by shame, but are unwilling to acknowledge shame’s consequences on our wellbeing. And this, predictably, inspires yet further shame in all who suffer those consequences. It’s nothing short of poisonous.

Towards a Solution: Inspiring Collaboration

As members of this grand institution, it is incumbent on us to change this poisonous atmosphere. So, what can we do, as individuals within the system, to move things forward?

1. Start the conversation.

Teachers, talk to your students about mental health. Start a dialogue about the prevalence of mental health issues and the resources available for coping with them. It’s been written that it can alleviate feelings of shame “if the person can admit them openly to others, and feels respected instead of judged by [those people]” (Dr. Thomas Scheff, cited in a 1987 New York Times article). Take steps to create that safe space.

2. Be aware of your approach.

Antagonism escalates by feeding into itself, so don’t be part of the problem. Pay attention to how you phrase your questions in discussion. Be aware of your tone. Try to change your own attitude toward the purpose of critique. We don’t have control over the way others act; the best we can do is to change ourselves. If we each make a conscious effort to approach academic discourse with a collaborative attitude, we can start to change the tenor of that discourse as a whole.

3. Separate the person from the work.

Try to maintain this separation with respect to yourself and with respect to others. We can still identify as academics without reducing our identity to that part of ourselves. And similarly for our peers. Compare the difference between the following two comments: (1) “What you’re doing there is _______”, versus (2) “The issue with that argument is _________”. One makes a remark about a person while the other remarks on an argument or position. Be aware that in discussion, we aren’t fighting a person, we’re considering an idea. And, with respect to your own work, recognise that very clever people can have very bad ideas. Remember the difference between action and identity. Try to think, “I made a bad argument,” instead of “I am bad at argumentation.”



What are your experiences with shame in academia? Do you have any strategies for shifting away from our present atmosphere of academic darwinism? Share your thoughts in the comment section below!




Academic conformity or what I learned from Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer21 January. Pittsburg PhD. Available from: <http://pittsburghphd.com/tag/shame-based-culture/> [12 April 2013]

Brannen, A., 2013. Surviving (and thriving) in the academic shame culture, 18 March 2013. Anne Brannen: Life Coaching. Available from: <http://annebrannen.com/2013/03/surviving-and-thriving-in-the-academic-shame-culture/> [12 April 2013]

Brooks Bouson, J., 2005. True confessions: uncovering the hidden culture of shame in english studies. JAC, 25(4), pp. 625-650.

Brown, B., 2012. Daring greatly. New York: Penguin.

Di Leo, J. R., 2006. Shame in academe: on the politics of emotion in academic culture. JAC, 26(1/2), pp. 221-234.

Fossum, M. A.. and Mason, M. J., 1986. Facing shame: families in recovery. New York: W. W. Norton & Company Inc.

Goleman, D., 1987. Shame steps out of hiding and into sharper focus. New York Times. 15 September 1987. Available from: <http://nospank.net/goleman3.htm> [12 April 2013]

Hutcheon, L., 2003. Rhetoric and competition: academic agonistics. Common Knowledge, 9(1), pp. 42-49

Miller, B., 2012. Argument: “Academia is more of a shame culture than a guilt culture”, 17 May 2012. Legally Sociable. Available from: <http://legallysociable.com/2012/05/17/argument-academia-is-more-of-a-shame-culture-than-a-guilt-culture/> [12 April 2013]

Wherefore a blog: Tackling mental health in academia

Mental illness—I have one.

And I am not ashamed.

I’ve lived with mental illness for the better part of a decade now. And as for academia? I, without exaggeration, eat, sleep and breathe it. (Well, maybe not eat it… though, I did once chew some notes out of frustration! But I digress…) So why now, all of a sudden, have I been moved to launch a blog concerning the collision of these worlds? As with many of our grander ideas, it began with a faint inkling: a firefly against the grey backdrop of the day’s doldrums………

…….Time to mark papers. Dammit! Still haven’t prepared for that class tomorrow. Maybe I should start a mental health blog… Heavens to Murgatroyd! Does Billy know what a comma is?!……….

Or, something like that, anyway… At any rate, vague ideas gathered as dust on a tumbleweed, but even still, nary a blog was…blogged.

Now, because I am a philosopher and so do nothing simply, my inciting incidences were two in number:

(1) teaching undergraduates for the first time

(2) a particularly nasty week of my own.

I’ll take each of these in turn.

1. Teaching Undergraduates

As a graduate student, I’ve experienced my fair share of clashes between my mental illness and my academic career. I’ve also witnessed friends and close peers experience similar such misadventures. Then, upon commencing my doctoral studies, I took on some all-important undergraduate teaching responsibilities. As an instructor—or “tutor”—at Cambridge, I see students in numbers of 1-10. To any teacher, this is nothing short of a blessing. And, while they may not always think so, it is also a blessing for those 1-10 students: no one can hide.

I was—naively—prepared to open eyes and minds to the scintillating annuls of philosophy. Instead, it was my eyes that were opened. Or, more appropriately, re-opened. Standing at the front of the classroom, fresh chalk at the ready, what I saw saddened me: my students were terrified. Terrified of failure.

Now, it is the exception to the rule when a student is forthcoming about the challenges they’re experiencing. Nevertheless, one of my students eventually, and shame-facedly, admitted to having difficulty keeping up.

“You have nothing to worry about,” I told them. “Your work is excellent!”

That was the wrong answer. Or, at least, only half of the right one.

“I understand,” I should have said. “I know how you feel,” I eventually did say.

What I see from the front of the classroom saddens me because I watch as too many of my students—my students—suffer silently, convinced that they are somehow to blame for their situation. Convinced that they are weak for facing a challenge beyond their control. Convinced that there is shame in revealing their troubles.

This blog is my attempt to reach out to more of those students—or, at least, more than I could from the front of a classroom alone.

“Have you heard of University Counselling Services?” I ask one of them.

“No.” I see it in their face: the hackles are already up. I don’t need help!

“They’re terrific,” I continue anyway. “They’ve helped me out a lot.”

2. My Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day 

I said before there were two events that motivated the inauguration of this blog. This second of these is decidedly more personal. The week of April 1st was a week most trying. And if you were to have asked me why, I wouldn’t have been able to tell you. Our minds can be spectacularly opaque to us at times… But, one way or another, the week of April 1st was a no good, very bad week. And because I made the very biggest of mistakes, April 5th was a terrible day indeed.

My mistake?

I didn’t make a phone call.

You might be asking yourself what could possibly be so bad about that? Well, pace Austen, it’s a truth universally acknowledged that when we’re at our worst, we feel the most alone. And it is also a truth—though, regrettably, one less well acknowledged—that our worst decisions can often be avoided if only we would dare to see that we aren’t alone at all.

Thankfully, my decision was rather benign in its consequences. Still, it was one best avoided. And avoid it I did not.

But that’s not the worst of it.

The worst of it is I chose not to make that phone call. I was too ashamed to tell someone.

So, at last, we arrive at the second motivation for this project: this blog represents my promise never again to succumb to shame where shame is not due.

Mental illness—I have one.

And I am not ashamed.