Calvin, Hobbes and Mental Health in Academia

Depression is a toxic soup made out of poisonous ingredients: sadness, despair, hopelessness, worthlessness and guilt, stewing together over long periods of time. For some, this emotional soup takes the form of a chaotic mix that wreaks havoc on their body and mind. For others still, this turbulent soup generates a clear realisation that they are not destined for happiness. Since all life has to offer is never-ending pain and sadness, the reasoning goes, what is the point of continuing to live? In some cases, that clear realisation sometimes translates into a small voice with a single and sinister message that says: ‘you do not deserve to live.’

The impossibility of a life that is not full of interminable pain, as is the feeling of not deserving to live, is a bleak conclusion, and one that is surprisingly hard to refute even when one’s profession involves working on a daily basis with the fundamental idea of equal respect for all individuals and their equal moral worth and dignity. This, however, often seems like the only logical conclusion in a professional world in which depression teams up with the impostor syndrome, one of academia’s most permanent features and least favourite ghosts.

Impostor syndrome, for those fortunate enough never to have experienced it, is that deeply seated conviction that one is a fraud and will soon be unmasked as such. Accomplishments are attributed to pure luck, timing or deception, rather than to genuine competency, skill and expertise. Self-perceived ‘fakers’ - being women, highly educated and in a high-level position serve all as risk factors - live with unrelenting feelings of inadequacy, anxiety and guilt. Where things get really ugly, however, is when the impostor syndrome joins hands with depression, within the ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short-’ (or sometimes long-) term realities of today’s academic job market.

Depression tells you that ‘there is no happiness in this world for you’ or even that ‘you do not deserve to live’. The impostor syndrome tells you that ‘you are a fraud’. And in today’s academic world, this ugly marriage between the two actually makes a perfect, if twisted, sense. Every unsuccessful grant or job application, every rejected manuscript, every negative teaching evaluation – all work together as a a kind of an accumulating database of empirical evidence showing that one is, truly and genuinely, incapable and unworthy of being an academic, and, at a deeper level, of being. The academic vocation often constitutes a huge part of one’s sense of identity and agency in the world. The logical leap from ‘the professional self’ to ‘the self’ is therefore pretty much irresistible.

Academic Calvinism’ in a Hobbesian reality is playing with fire. The tendency in academic culture to regard mental illness as ‘weakness of the (moral) will’ leaves too many people with burns, too often serious ones, and sometimes even terminal ones. It doesn’t result in better research, teaching or collegiality. The underlying logic of this system, financial and otherwise, seems to be working very hard to affirm the twisted logic of a depressed individual struggling with an impostor syndrome, which equates success with moral worth. It seems implausible that such a twisted and self-defeating reasoning could fuel academia for too long. It also seems like an open betrayal of the very principles that it claims to be standing for.