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I recently ran a simple Google search for instances of the word 'depression' on this site, and was shocked to see how frequent they were.

Does anyone else finds it surprising? Is it just an artifact, or does our site somehow attract depressed peoples? Despite what some say, I'm unconvinced that the prevalence of clinical depression amongst academics is higher than usual. I'm ready to change my mind when confronted to hard evidence of the contrary.

Questions where OP mention their clinical depression always make me uncomfortable, because they are often borderline off-topic and I sometimes don't have the hart to mention it. On the other hand I really think it's a bad idea to rely on random internet posts to handle serious nervous issues and don't want to be a part of a community that does that.

So I'm interested in your opinions about it. Should we do specific things in terms of moderation, or do we need a tag for it?


List of question mentioning depression (I stopped after 2 pages of search results)

Explicit mention of clinical depression:

Borderline questions:

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    Due to the "stigma" normally associated with depression, A.SE offers an anonymous enough out that allows users to ask questions they would consider as taboo in the workplace. – Compass Feb 19 '15 at 16:59
  • I am always up for a tag. (As a taxonomist badge holder.) – Piotr Migdal Feb 19 '15 at 19:17
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    Remember, these are all self diagnosed. – Raystafarian Feb 23 '15 at 10:23
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    @Raystafarian Not all of those are self-diagnosed. You might think about deleting your comment. – mkennedy Feb 23 '15 at 23:04
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    No idea if it's true, but I have heard claims that depression correlates with high intelligence — perhaps there are more depressed people in Academia — or perhaps this correlation is a myth. – gerrit Feb 24 '15 at 4:46
  • @Raystafarian At least one of the listed OPs says diagnosed, and other people have as well. Why not give them the benefit of a doubt? – mkennedy Feb 24 '15 at 14:25
  • @mkennedy it's that the "seemingly high prevalence" is self-reported, it has nothing to do with individuals. My point is that the data may be skewed. – Raystafarian Feb 24 '15 at 14:39
  • What?! Are you suggesting to discriminate OPs (or their questions) by moderation actions, just because they mention suffering from a clinical depression? I see nothing bad about the questions in your list, and I dont see why you classify some of them as "borderline". I thought Academia is meant to be helpful for people who look for advice concerning academic life, including negative aspects and difficulties. The answers of questions about how to deal with difficulties of different kinds (including personal difficulties other people may have too) are among the most helpful. – Dilaton Feb 27 '15 at 22:21
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    @Dilaton my question is more about the reason for this high number of depression occurrences. I wanted to know what other users think about it. But yes I think we should keep an eye on this. I don't think this site is the place for personal advice and certainly not about medical conditions of any kind. – Cape Code Feb 28 '15 at 7:53
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    @CapeCode I agree that the site can not give advice from a medicine point of view, but people here on Academia can obviously give better advice about how to cope with certain issues with respect to everyday academic life. Psychologist who are not academics themself often dont know how academic communities work. So I see nothing wrong with such questions who ask about things that are specific to the academic life, conversely to general questions focused on the medical condition as such. Also, the community of Academia consists of highly qualified people who are capable of moderating themself – Dilaton Feb 28 '15 at 10:59
  • and decide themself what kind of questions they appreciate and want to answer. The questions you listed, including the ones you call "borderline", and their answers are largely upvoted and appreciated by the community. So they should just been left alone and nothing has to be done. – Dilaton Feb 28 '15 at 11:05
  • @Dilaton gathering opinions was the point of this question, please compile yours in an answer. – Cape Code Feb 28 '15 at 13:30
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    @gerrit that sounds phony. Plus I doubt that there more intelligent people in academia than outside. – Cape Code Feb 28 '15 at 13:31
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I think that there is probably a lot of selection bias in the questions that we see. There are a lot of depressed people out there, and people who are struggling with something (depression or otherwise) are a lot more likely to come and ask a question on this site. I'm not surprised that depression is one of our themes. I agree with ff524 that reasonably covers it, though it's worth wondering whether we should add as well.

It is also worth distinguishing between two major classes of depression:

  • Chronic depression is a condition that is long-term and people who suffer from it generally need some form of ongoing professional medical support. We cannot and should not help with this, other than to recommend that people take their depression seriously and seek help, and to make recommendations on professional actions that can help limit the damage that is a byproduct.
  • Situational depression is a common response to situations of major and unusual stress, and graduate school is simply full of major and unusual stress. Just like with chronic depression, people experiencing situational depression can benefit strongly from professional help. Here, however, there is also a likelihood of significant benefits just from learning that their experience is common and hearing how others have gotten through similar difficulties---much like and strongly linked to imposter syndrome.

In short: I don't think depression is over-represented, and there are some ways that we can help, but we must not succumb to the temptation to play consequence-free internet doctor.

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    I am very much against a mental-health tag, just because I am concerned about contributing to the misconception that mental health issues are somehow not "real" medical issues. – ff524 Feb 19 '15 at 3:52
  • @ff524 I was proposing it as a subcategory of health issues, but I can see your point as well... – jakebeal Feb 19 '15 at 4:17
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    I like this answer a lot, especially the 'consequences-free internet doctors' bit. – Cape Code Feb 19 '15 at 11:58
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    I like Jake's differentiation between chronic and situational depression. Great answer. – RoboKaren Feb 19 '15 at 14:54
  • How about psychological-issues (alike interpersonal-issues)? It does cover a similar topic, but it does not sound as serious (or authoritative) as anything with mental, medical or health. Especially as we really don't want to diagnose people ("A real depression, burn-out, low mood, impostor syndrome or laziness? Should you change it with drugs or changing your life situation?"). – Piotr Migdal Feb 19 '15 at 19:33
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    @PiotrMigdal I don't see how "you have a psychological issue" is less diagnostic than "you have a health issue," and "psychological issues" has some stigma attached that "health issues" does not. – ff524 Feb 19 '15 at 19:50
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    @PiotrMigdal Also: We tag questions based on the OP's self-assessment ("I am depressed" -> gets health-issues) not our own assessment ("You sound like you may be depressed" -> no health-issues). (We do also have emotional-responses for situations where the OP says "I am sad about X" but not "I am depressed.") – ff524 Feb 19 '15 at 19:50
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    @ff524 When I cannot bring myself to work (because of my mind, not - my body) then I would eagerly classify it as a psychological issue but not necessary as a health issue. psychiatry is a subset of medicine but psychology isn't. To get a direct example - being in love is a psychological thing but (usually) not - psychiatric. When it comes to A.SE - impostor syndrome classifies as a psychological issue but not necessary as a health issue (at least IMHO, or rather - IMHTerminology). – Piotr Migdal Feb 19 '15 at 19:59
  • @ff524 Well, tagging is based on the content of the question, but we DO correct them to comply with A.SE taxonomy, standards, etc. When it comes to "depressed" it is unfortunate that in English it does not differentiate between "being sad" and "having depression" (correct me if I am wrong). Plus, more than often psychological problems (in questions) are being implied rather than being written explicitly. – Piotr Migdal Feb 19 '15 at 20:04
  • @ff524: While this may be an unfortunate side effect, I do not think this should play into such decisions. Also, I would consider the effect negligible against other effects leading to that decision. That being said, I do not think we need a separate tag, because there are sufficient communalities and we do not have so many questions of this kind that they need a substructure. – Wrzlprmft Feb 19 '15 at 22:50
  • @ff524 I've never thought of it that way and would like to learn more offline of this thread. Do you have any resources you can link me on this point? – user18072 Feb 22 '15 at 14:06
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I don't think this is academia-specific. Depression is a common human condition. Evidence: Google search for Workplace.SE mentions of depression (10 pages of results).

I don't think we need a separate tag; seems adequate to me.

I also don't think we need to handle it differently than we currently do: close questions that are about depression itself, and answer questions that are about academic problems related to or caused by depression.

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    Depression is a common human condition really? – Cape Code Feb 18 '15 at 22:22
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    @CapeCode I can't tell if you're being sarcastic, so here's the NIMH estimate of prevalence in the US, which sets it at 6.7% of the population. – jakebeal Feb 19 '15 at 3:21
  • @jakebeal No, I 'm genuinely surprised. I haven't been confronted with depression in people I know since my teen years. – Cape Code Feb 19 '15 at 12:01
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    @CapeCode You are probably not aware of when people are clinically depressed. Depression is not just when people kill themselves - lots of people are depressed and only their closest friends and family (or nobody) knows it. – xLeitix Feb 19 '15 at 13:09
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    @CapeCode: in addition, depression is heavily stigmatized. People will go out of their way not to disclose it. (In addition, note that jakebeal refers to point prevalence - lifetime prevalence of MDD in the US has been estimated at 17%.) – Stephan Kolassa Feb 19 '15 at 15:11
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    As far as the health related questions are less than 35 questions on this website and separating questions to mental and physical health issues is so hard and not so productive; I also think that the current health-issues tag is enough for our website. This site is not a medical website to have precise tags for questions about health issues. – Enthusiastic Engineer Feb 19 '15 at 20:51
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    @CapeCode: Even for health issues that are not stigmatised, people communicate these issues less than you would expect. Also, many health issues are less obvious than most people think. For example, epilepsy has a prevalence of 1 %, yet I know of nobody I know that suffers from it – and that’s despite me doing epilepsy-related research. – Wrzlprmft Feb 19 '15 at 23:08
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    @CapeCode: You’re seeing people’s public fronts. My experience is that those of us who are chronically depressed and willing to talk about it with acquaintances soon learn that we have lots of company behind those public fronts. – Brian M. Scott Mar 1 '15 at 9:09
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Does anyone else finds it surprising? Is it just an artifact, or does our site somehow attract depressed peoples?

Not surprising at all. You get rants and voices of frustration on most Internet places. And I don't think that A.SE attracts more of such than other places for people related to academia.

I'm unconvinced that the prevalence of clinical depression amongst academics is higher than usual.

@JeffE would say, ex cathedra, No. (vide Why do PhD students complain so much?).

But I think that it might be:

or do we need a tag for it?

I did introduce tag for situations where someone is quitting (whether dropping out or not continuing academic track) or considering doing so (for whatever reason). It may be worth to add a tag (there is already one for problems between people: ).

And for reason mentioned in comments on other answers, I am in favor of (or something similar) rather than putting everything in bag (as not all psychological issues are psychiatric).

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Based on your sample, most of these questions seem to be coming from students in graduate programs, not from faculty. In my mind, this rules out the pressure due to publish-or-perish hypothesis.

However, getting through an advanced degree program can be hard, particularly at the PhD level.

Something else may be at play, too: take your average PhD candidate. Chances are this individual has largely excelled in academia – otherwise, they wouldn't be in a PhD program. But not all who enter these programs emerge with a degree, and that can be a tough pill to swallow, particularly when one has had 16 or more previous years of success. (The same is true for a master's candidate, too, though the failure rates probably aren't as high.) In short, some are dealing with failure in academia for the very first time. Throw in some other factors, too – students may have moved away from their hometown to go to school, they may be caught in the crossfire of departmental infighting, etc. – and it seems like a recipe for the blues.

Given that environment, I'm not surprised at all to find no small number of questions that at least mention some form of depression. In fact, I might have been surprised to find the opposite.

7

I think there could be another factor. Academia (especially in the US, I guess, but everywhere) is an highly competitive industry. There is publish or perish, seeking grants, fast moving disciplines, an overwhelming tide of new papers and results everyday. Research is hard. There are many people who struggle in academia.

This site is specific. It regards academia, and is full of clever people. All questions and answers are written correctly and there is a lot of work from everyone in choosing words. This make it valuable, for both Q and A.

The other point is that this site is welcoming. I see it as a positive thing, of course. I feel (and I can be refuted) that people find here a safe space and so they ask, because they know they will be answered politely. Politely and correctly.

All these things together make me think that there will be a good share of questions related to the emotional life of people in academia. Depression/discouragement is definitely a good share of that life.

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    As I read elsewhere on this site, outside academia there is the equivalent of 'publish or perish', it's called 'do your job or get fired'. – Cape Code Feb 19 '15 at 15:31
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    @CapeCode There is often a difference, however, between pressures that are directly and indirectly imposed. Research-focused academics are fundamentally intellectual entrepreneurs, and have a lot in common with artists and company founders. There is, at least in US culture, a sense that if you fail as an academic, it's a personal failing. If you're unhappy in a "normal" workplace, it may be easier to externalize onto "your crappy boss" than when you are your own boss. Both can certainly cause mental health issues, but the mechanism of action is a bit trickier for entrepreneurial careers. – jakebeal Feb 19 '15 at 16:08
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    @CapeCode: is it typical that you either get promoted to a manager level (associate professor) or you get fired? – Blaisorblade Feb 22 '15 at 9:36
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    "Publish or perish" is not equivalent to "do your job or get fired". It's equivalent to "do a bunch of stuff that we won't actually pay you for, and do a bunch of other things that we ostensibly pay you for but refuse to respect whether considering when to fire you, or get fired" – Suresh Feb 22 '15 at 23:07
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I dont find it surprising at all for two reasons:

  1. Internet is where people go to complain, rant and whine...
  2. Academia does leave a lot of people frustrated, sad, angry or depressed.

As a matter of fact emotional/mental health problems is rather prevalent in academia. I want to take a specific paragraph out:

A 2015 study at the University of California Berkeley found that 47% of graduate students suffer from depression, following a previous 2005 study that showed 10% had contemplated suicide. A 2003 Australian study found that that the rate of mental illness in academic staff was three to four times higher than in the general population, according to a New Scientist article. The same article notes that the percentage of academics with mental illness in the United Kingdom has been estimated at 53%.

Also I think it's rather disturbing or insulting, when someone who's not having difficulties claims that there are no problems and PhD students (or any other generalized group of people) complain too much. The fact that you, specifically, do fine does not invalidate anybody else's troubles, worries or difficulties.

I have more than a couple of colleagues and friends that ended up with rather severe problems through-out their graduate studies, some still suffering from these problems after therapy and medication.

Without any intent to sound offensive, I suggest you revise your thoughts regarding the prevalence of psychological problems in academia.

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