Something’s Always Wrong – Depression and the First Year

I intended to write about something else entirely, but the past two months have been particularly difficult so I decided to share my story now.

To be clear, I am not depressed because I am a first-year librarian; I am a depressed person who is a first-year librarian. I was undiagnosed until my early twenties, but I had been experiencing symptoms of depression and panic disorder long before that. For almost as long as I can remember, both have been a part of my daily life. Now I am a first-year librarian at a large R1 university. So in addition to imposter syndrome, the stress associated with starting a new job in a new city, the crippling weight of student loan debt, and the endemic gender bias persistent higher education, I also grapple with major depression. That said, I know I’m not alone in this experience.

Depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States for ages people between the ages of 15 to 44 and is also more prevent in women than in men. Let that sink in for a moment. Depression is often accompanied with other mental health disorders. In my case it’s panic disorder, which, for me, means that I often experience sudden bouts of debilitating panic and fear. Approximately six million Americans have panic disorder and – you guessed it – women are more affected by it than men.

I’m fortunate enough to be in a position where I have been diagnosed and can start managing my mental health problems with the help of a good insurance policy. I have a treatment plan that includes therapy and an emotional support animal. I also have a very supportive reporting officer who is sensitive to the complexities of my mental health. I’ve begun establishing boundaries between the workplace and my personal life in order to manage stress. I’ve also started doing yoga, which helps.

Despite my best efforts and the resources available to me, depression and anxiety still play a major role in my day-to-day life. Depression isn’t something that is easily “cured,” in fact most of us spend our lives simply trying to manage it. Mental health, especially for women in the workplace, is a complex and layered problem. While awareness of these issues is increasing, it’s still treated somewhat like a taboo. We often talk about depression and anxiety in academia, but it’s often depersonalized.

That’s why I’m writing about this here. It’s very much accepted that depression and anxiety often take a toll on undergraduate and graduate students, but we often don’t talk about how it continues to effect people once they’ve graduated and accepted their first job. What I hope to share with you is the experience of one first-year academic librarian as she struggles to make manage these common mental health problems on top of the stresses of starting a new job.

Academia can be a harsh work environment. Here the myth of eighty hour work weeks still persists, the job search process can be particularly debasing, and new hires often feel overwhelmed by the feeling that they are falling behind or underperforming. Because of the nature of the work, many academics feel like they can never really escape their work. And then there are the pressures of pursuing tenure, which affixes another layer of anxiety and fear.

In the LIS world, Twitter is one of the main channels we use to build networks of support, circulate new or interesting articles, and engage in conversations about our work. But social media comes with its own pressures. I have found that my desire to engage with my online community has led to me Tweeting after working hours and on weekends — time which should be reserved for my non-librarian self and my family.

Lately, I’ve been struggling to balance my intense preoccupation with being grateful for my job, and unsatisfied and ambitious with my work – call it a sort of workplace Stockholm Syndrome. I feel so lucky to have a job, but also unsatisfied with many of the tacit pressures that underlie the job description. This, in turn, triggers panic and worsens my fears that I might appear ungrateful to observers, and that I may not fit into this world after all.

I’ve been reading a lot about mental health in academia. It’s probably too much to list here, but Google “mental health academia” or read some of the stories under the #lismentalhealth hashtag on Twitter and you’ll see how many people are talking about this issue. There are many powerful stories out there, and I’m grateful to be in such a supportive community where we are all bent on raising consciousness in this arena.

I often see suggestions like mediation, yoga, and finding hobbies as suggestions for combating these stressors. While they are great suggestions, I still worry that we are missing the point.

Until recently, mental health in academia was diluted to general statements like “every librarian needs a therapist,” or “we need to support our colleagues with depression or anxiety,” or “imposter syndrome is a real thing.” Of course it is tremendous that we are admitting these facts as community, and awareness is the first step toward a sea change. But, suggesting that exercise or picking up knitting are solutions to these problems is a step in the wrong direction.

But this is just my truth, and part of managing my own mental health is coming to grips with what works for me. Everyone has their own truth, and whatever yours is, don’t ever feel like it’s abnormal.

So, what solutions do I have? For me, navigating my depression in academia means that I set very sharp boundaries on my time. I have never been someone who can work ten or twelve hours straight. I don’t feel guilty about not working on the weekends (when I can help it). If I am not on email duty, I stop responding to email after 5:00-6:00 in the evening, and I’m gradually working on not checking it altogether after that time.

I also vacillate between checking Twitter daily to not checking it for weeks. Social media (Twitter especially) is a precarious place for me. While I find it a great tool for connecting to others in the field, it engenders an overwhelming sense of Keeping up With the Joneses. When that happens, I take a break.

It is also pretty important for me to rely on family and friends who aren’t librarians. I can’t talk about being a librarian all the time and need a social life that isn’t connected to my job. I’m also becoming more comfortable with saying “no” and protecting my time. There’s a lot of pressure to volunteer for everything as a first-year faculty member, but I’ve learned to know my limits. This is both a professional and personal struggle, but I’m getting there.

This is just what works for me.

Mostly, I just think it’s important to keep this narrative open, so I’m taking this position of privilege to do it. So, on those days when I am crying before leaving for work, feeling like a total failure for not measuring up to my colleagues’ success, or comparing my student loan debt to my annual adjusted gross income, maybe writing about it here can help me find out that I’m not alone. Hopefully, it’ll do the same for you.

7 thoughts on “Something’s Always Wrong – Depression and the First Year”

  1. Thank you for posting this. I’ve been a librarian for years, so my situation isn’t quite the same as yours. But it was only yesterday that I admitted to myself that over the course of my career, which was going pretty well for a while, I’ve sank into depression, impostor syndrome, and an inability to detach paired with an inability to focus in any useful way (e.g., compulsively checking work email but not able to organize my time or prioritize tasks).

    I’m going to read over your post a couple more times, and then figure out what steps to take to address my issues. Yes, it’s good to have it reaffirmed that I’m not alone. So, thank you.

  2. Thanks, Callie, for your brave and thoughtful post — it’s so important to keep the conversation going about mental health in librarianship and academia. I’m glad to hear that you’re finding successful ways for you to navigate your mental health and work/life balance. I found particular resonance in your comments about Twitter. One of the things I love most about my work is that I’ve found a strong community of folks in academic librarianship who are dedicated to our work. But a strong community also means that there’s always something to read or catch up on via RSS feeds or Twitter (my preferred social media platform). As much as that community is a source of enjoyment it can also be a source of overwhelm, and that can be a tricky balance for me. I’m glad to hear that I’m not the only one!

  3. Thanks for sharing your story, Thom. I’m happy that we can collectively discuss mental health in our profession, but the narrative needs to be ongoing and inclusive. I hope you find some solutions!

  4. Dear Callie,
    Thank you.
    I was just thinking today how the stigma of mental illness is such that even though I am a medical provider who often speaks to patients with some variation of “Your feelings are absolutely normal/this is nothing you have DONE/you wouldn’t be ashamed about having a broken bone or cancer so why should you be ashamed about being depressed”, I am deeply embarrassed about my depression and anxiety and will go to great lengths to hide it from everyone I know. I can identify with so many things in our post and It’s so comforting to know that I’m not alone. So, again, thank you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *