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?