Teaching Depression

H.E.A.R.T.: An Introduction to Human Rights at McMaster

“There are many types of disability,” she explained, “including visible disabilities and invisible ones, like mental illness.”

This was a brilliant, (seriously) amazing, articulate, and engaging Program Officer talking; she works for the office of Human Rights & Equity Services here at McMaster. I had attended a presentation that she and a colleague gave a few years ago. In only an hour or so she was able to engender in her listeners a deep understanding of the difference between accommodation & accessibility, the difference between focusing on accessibility vs. disability, and with both words and body language was able to communicate the important point that rather than being based in fear (of giving offense, or of looking bad or closed-minded), in pity (for people with “problems”), or simply in trying to avoid awkward or tense moments, accessibility is about creating a positive, open culture, wherever you are.

So I emailed her when I knew I had a week to prepare for a workshop I had volunteered to lead, titled, “Creating Safe & Open Discussion Environments in Tutorials.” (Catchy, eh?). I wanted to communicate that sense of positive excitement to workshop participants. I wanted to be able to emphasize that working towards greater inclusion is a positive, creative process, and not just a question of fearfully avoiding exclusion.

Isn’t that nice and warm and fuzzy? The people at Human Rights & Equity Services do the topic better justice than I do. In any case, this is all by way of explanation for my involvement in a discussion of visible and invisible disabilities. Not to mention my response to the statement that opens this entry.

That response was: “Huh.”

With that  sage utterance, my eyes slid from respectful, attentive eye contact until they hit the ceiling–the point at which my eyes could not have gotten any shiftier without rolling right back into my head. So yeah, they kinda just slid to a stop there, staring vacantly at the perforated ceiling tiles.

Let me try to transcribe the incisive analysis that was going on inside my head at that time:

Visible and invisible disabilities. Got it. Check. Mental illness can be seen as a form of disability. Right. Makes sense.

Hey, isn’t depression a mental illness?

Wait. I have depression.

Sitting there slack-jawed and all thoughtful, all I could come up with was:


Protected Grounds

Everything the Program Officer was saying made a lot of sense. She did not offend me. She did not say anything offensive, or exclusionary. In fact, everything she said was helpful, and insightful, and she was able to effectively and carefully communicate that the protected grounds that Ontario & McMaster recognize in their anti-discrimination policies are in many ways limited and limiting.

It’s a familiar catch-22. Recognizing “difference” creates space for those who might otherwise be excluded. But it also implies that there are those who are “normal” or “average,” who are the norm from which all others who are different deviate. Difference becomes deviance. Thinking about difference in this way is problematic because it requires accommodation on the part of so-called normal, healthy, regular people. However, creating labels or categories surrounding identity allows some people to be legally or professionally recognized for who they are, at least in part. It gives people the legal framework by which to assert themselves as whole persons, as legal subjects, as worthy human beings. But, labels are also notoriously ill-fitting.

If I understood the Program Officer at HRES correctly, I think her point was not only that people need to recognize difference and protect it, but that we also need to recognize that difference is everywhere and ever-present; difference can be small or invisible but it can also be noted and stigmatized; that we are different people, even, from one day to the next; and that, finally, difference doesn’t exist so much as ubiquitous diversity does.

So what made me go all strange, then? I did not feel like I was being called a name, or was being forced into a category. I did not chafe at the idea that having depression might be thought of as a disability. Because there are times when I am most certainly disabled by depression. There have been times in my life in the past few years where I have literally been unable to emote. At all. Happiness, anger, interest, gratitude– I recall meetings where eye contact was nearly impossible, and where focus certainly was unattainable. This was the case only last week. In fact, the past few weeks have been a bit difficult. At times in the past few days I’ve felt great. At other times, I feel alien in my own body. When I get feeling like that–foreign to myself–it can be incredibly uncomfortable being with people. I can recognize the people around meke as people I like, and as people I would like to engage with. I can also recognize that I’m in a social or professional environment, which demands certain behaviours from me–smiles, nodding, uh, you know, all those tricky things like verbalization, acting like a human being, whatever. I can recognize these things, but I cannot act on them. My body seems to disconnect from my mind; at the same time, my mind disconnects from my body and the moment it’s living in; it might decide to take a wander or go ’round in squirrely circles much like this.

People with more severe depression may experience it in a way that is much more disruptive to their professional and personal lives than this, to be sure.

So recognizing mental illness as a disability does not irk me. That’s not what threw me off during my meeting at HRES. What got me was that in order to ensure that my depression might not become grounds for discrimination, or feel confident that I can seek accommodation for having a rogue mind or a vacant automaton body at work, it’s not just that I would have to claim a disability–that I might be less or differently-abled than those around me, say–it’s that I would have to first claim to be mentally ill.

Not mentally different. Mentally ill. Unwell. Unhealthy. Mentally not-good.

Teaching Depression

It’s funny for someone with I-dunno-how-many years of formal education to be deemed mentally not-good. Eff you, medical system! But why I’m writing today is because talking with the kind and knowledgeable Program Officer at HRES about accessibility has allowed me to recognize both that I’m excited about the shifting discourse surrounding accessibility and equity in North America,  and that there are aspects of this discourse that make me uncomfortable. I think this is what people in the biz (the teaching biz, of course) call “productive discomfort.” I also think this is whay we might refer to as “good teaching.”

My meeting at HRES reminded me of what a strong, competent teacher is capable. She is able to teach and inform, lead and guide, but she is also able to make that learning process open–open in the sense that it becomes multi-directional and open-ended. The Program Officer at HRES  showed me that a strong teacher has the ability to give you the space and the authority to feel discomfort, and to feel it comfortably, if that makes any sense. I left that meeting ready to explore something that has nagged at my for quite some time: not why being called mentally ill might be problematic (that one’s self-explanatory, I think); but why education projects aimed at destigmatizing mental illness make me feel creeped out, and perhaps a little bit angry.

And that’s the point to which I hope to return next week: how could I possibly be against the destigmatization of mental health disorders?


4 thoughts on “Teaching Depression

  1. Thanks for writing this Lisa! I actually feel my blood boil when I have to hear people talk about mental illness as disability, stigma against the mentally ill etc. It’s not that I haven’t had mental experiences that have been disabling (like you, I have). It’s that I believe that these experiences are in no way illness. There is nothing sick or wrong about them, and for me, having those experiences labelled as such was far more debilitating than the experiences themselves. I have come to understand that the madness I have experienced (prolonged sadness, anxiety, seeing things others do not etc) are just experiences, and that they are only disabling because the world doesn’t fit those experiences. (In fact, there’s no good science that says any of these things are an indication that something is amiss with my brain. The chemical imbalance theory of depression was disproved 20 years ago, for example, but medicine hasn’t quite caught up).

    While I appreciate, to some degree, attempts on the part of the university to educate about difference, the way in which they do this is fundamentally biopolitical, limited to medical model understandings of experiences that might be described as madness or mental illness. In order to be accommodated you have to insert yourself into a medical system that will label you, will encourage (or in some cases force) you to be medicated. I personally have been there, and done that, and you couldn’t pay me enough to go back. So what happens to those of use who have been very badly hurt by a mental health system is supposed to protect us, and “give us the help we need”? What happens when we still need to be accommodated, but the discourses and structures that will allow us that accommodation (ie. the mental health system, the university itself) are part of the problem? For me, this means fundamentally changing the way we teach, bringing the affective into the classroom, for everyone, rather than separating it off as disability… what that would look like, or if it is even possible, I don’t know yet. I definitely would like to see the university open up the way it talks about mental difference, and I think Rhianna at HRES is trying to make a start at that…

  2. Well said, Phebe. Thank you.

    I thought I’d add an article that claims to give “abundant” evidence that debunks the “chemical-imbalance” explanation for mental illness. (http://chriskresser.com/the-chemical-imbalance-myth). I don’t exactly agree with this reading, but I think it might give people a good look at the problematic side of what is most commonly used as explanation for the pharmaceutical treatment of depression.

    I really like your insistence on “bringing the affective into the classroom.” I agree wholeheartedly. I think we need to let entire bodies into the classroom, and into workplaces, and public spaces. Bodies that have personal lives, emotions, disruptions, eruptions–okay, maybe I don’t wanna go that far…. ;).

    One thing I can’t help but share: on the way through campus this morning I found myself walking on chalk scrawls in support of World Suicide Prevention Day (which happened on Sept. 10). Pastel bubble letters claimed, “It gets better!” The best one was “Hakuna Matada!” People should take note. Who knows when you might need to call on The Lion King to save a life.

  3. Pingback: Learning How to Talk | Dry-Erase Writings

  4. I found this post very amusing because it was so very similar to my reactions to learning that being “crazy” in very similar ways. Honestly, I only became really interested in disability theory once I had a physical disability that I knew would last my entire life – it’s much more “in your face” than other invisible disabilities like suicidal depression, anxiety, or other fun kinds of fun crazy that I could have identified with earlier in life. Aah, to be crip and mad, let me count the ways.

    In the disability theory, and mad/crip pride and culture worlds, (according to the social/constructionist/spectrum model predominant in such fields), the standard definition of disability is one of cultural construction, something created through institutionalized ideology, through attitudes, environment, cultural representation, legal and governmental policy, etc. “Impairment” is usually defined as a physical/bodily actuality, or one’s embodied experience of a condition, ie. the physical fact of losing an arm and a leg, dealing with hallucinations or suicidal tendencies over a long period of time, being anxious to the point of not being able to leave your house; in other words, the day to day experiences of one’s own embodiment. The medical model creates the notion that “illness” = disability, and that disability is a very specific set of things these notions ends up being detrimentally individualizing and isolating. People rarely consider that there are other people who deal with the same problems in terms of bodily and mental experience as well as bureaucratic and attitudinal crap.

    Also, I’m really interested in Phebe’s comments re: “the madness I have experienced (prolonged sadness, anxiety, seeing things others do not etc) are just experiences, and that they are only disabling because the world doesn’t fit those experiences” in relation to the difference between disability and impairment. The vast majority of people who not only self-identify as disabled or mad, but those with impairments that do not and/or are hesitant or afraid of self-identifying don’t always consider this major difference, despite the fact that it’s at the core of crip and mad pride and activism. In relation to Phebe’s comment, disability is how the world doesn’t fit or take account for specific experiences, and marks them as “different” and not as part of a natural spectrum of human variability. Thus the notion of “mental illness” as “chemical imbalance” is really amusing to me, because it’s so obviously depoliticizing and pathologizing, but it’s extremely pervasive as you note. This is part of why I dearly love the Mad Student Society as a bunch of people, crazy in a vast amount of different ways, that talk to each other about experiencing being bananas, and about having to deal with so many things that create barriers for us because we are medically identified as crazy in one way or another.

    I really like the way HRES does their accessibility/disability workshops, but there’s a lot of things that they can improve. Only recently has the Accessibility & Accommodation Action Committee bothered to get MSS in and consider mad students, faculty, and staff under policies that desperately need changing. Mad Pride is a relatively recent thing, and the notion of ‘madness’ as cultural construction (and as a unique part of disability theory) is even more recent, let alone theory engaging madness and pedagogy. We all have our different periods of “coming out” as crazy, and the academic world is one where few seem to be out as mad, but that’s changing hopefully. I can tell you from my own experience and from talking with other people in MSS and to students I’ve taught as a TA, students do not feel safe talking to others in school about these issues, especially not teachers – students always seem stunned when I’m forward with these issues, because they have never experienced a safe and open atmosphere in this way at school, or anywhere else.

    Sorry for the super long comment – I’m impressed that you do so on this blog and take up a major pedagogical issue in a personal way. 🙂

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