The Lonely Path
Depression at Georgetown
Published: Thursday, December 6, 2012
Updated: Friday, December 7, 2012 12:12
Ben Perotin (COL ’14) was depressed for four months before he realized something was wrong. “I had an extremely lowered mood, lack of appetite, hopelessness, suicidal ideation [and was] completely withdrawing socially,” he says, speaking with a sort of clinical precision. He taps his fingers on the desk as he enumerates each symptom of the illness that struck in full force during his freshman year.
“There were some times two years ago that I didn’t leave my dorm, other than to maybe eat … for maybe a week at a time. It was completely debilitating,” he said.
And yet, for a long time, Perotin never realized that the feelings that kept him from eating, from engaging with his friends — even from getting out of bed — were signs of depression.
“I was thinking, ‘Maybe I’m just in sort of a funk,’” he said. “I don’t think anyone really realizes when they have something like that. It’s very hard to self-diagnose when you’re actually in the situation to put two and two together and be like, ‘Oh, I am depressed.’”
The realization came when he was at home over winter break. His parents noticed that he was different physically — he had lost 20 pounds — and emotionally. They asked what was wrong, and he told them.
“[My mom] was like, ‘This is more serious. … This is depression, what you’re describing. And we’re going to get you help. This is not something you could or should handle by yourself,’” Perotin said. “And I cried. Because it felt good at some level, because I was like, ‘Okay, they’re supporting me. They’re going to help me. They’re not mad at me.’ … But at the same time, it was just, ‘Oh my god. This is really horrible. This is worse than I thought it was.’”
Isolating as his depression may have been, Perotin is not alone in his experiences. A survey conducted by the American College Health Association in spring 2012 found that almost 11 percent of college students had been diagnosed or treated for depression within the previous 12 months. Nearly half of respondents also reported having felt as if things were “hopeless” during that period, and 86 percent reported feeling overwhelmed by all they had to do.
These numbers are roughly the same as at Georgetown, where about 10 percent of the student body goes to see Counseling and Psychiatric Services each year, according to CAPS Director Phil Meilman. Most students are seeking help for depression and anxiety.
“Throughout the day, I’ll have moments where I just feel overwhelmed with anxiety,” Joe Donovan (COL ’13) said. “Everything tightens up. … I’ll be walking down the street and I’ll just want to curl up in the middle of the street.”
Donovan has dealt with depression since his freshman spring — for nearly three years. He attributes the depression mainly to the academic and extracurricular pressures he felt in college.
“Georgetown has not been a healthy place for me. There are these pressures to succeed that only fit within a very narrow definition of success,” Donovan said. “It’s a way of living that fits some people, but it doesn’t fit me.”
Donovan said he interpreted the exhaustion, disappointment and slipping grades that accompanied his anxiety as signs he needed to work harder. He forced himself to buckle down on schoolwork, but the self-imposed pressure just worsened his depression. By his junior year, Donovan found himself unable to get out of bed some mornings.
“There’s this disconnect between my thoughts telling me what to do and actually doing it,” he said. “Trying to translate thought into action is like trying to crawl out from under a heavy curtain. It’s a lot easier to lie there and let it trap you.”
Like Perotin, Donovan had trouble identifying his emotions as depression. He felt he had to have a particular tragedy to justify his depression, such as a grave illness or a death in the family.
“It was easy for me not to accept my own struggling as legitimate,” he said. “It took a while before I was able and willing to look at what was going on inside.”
According to Meilman, this struggle is typical of the students that go to CAPS.
“People have different capacities for recognizing emotions. Part of our job is to help students achieve a better self-understanding, recognize issues and engage in problem solving,” he wrote in an email.
Once students realize they are depressed, the prospect of asking for help can be daunting. This can be particularly difficult at a school like Georgetown.
“There’s a stigma at Georgetown for not being perfect … and an exceptional pressure to to keep the facade up,” biology professor Heidi Elmendorf said.
Elmendorf, who herself suffers from depression, teaches a “Foundations of Biology” course that centers on mental health issues. Every student in the class writes a research paper about a particular aspect of mental health, and Elmendorf devotes a full day of class to discussion of her own — and her students’ — experience with mental illness.