The Lonely Path
Depression at Georgetown
Published: Thursday, December 6, 2012
Updated: Friday, December 7, 2012 12:12
Common misconceptions about depression made it difficult initially for Elmendorf to discuss her personal experiences with students, but over time that became a motivation to share her story.
“The fact that I had to think to myself, ‘Woah, would I really tell them this?’ made me think, ‘Well now that’s part of the problem, isn’t it?’” she said. “I became even more committed to sharing it with my students because I thought that that was the exact sort of thing [in which] you need to tip the scales toward openness.”
Lydia Valentin (COL ’16), who took a year-and-a-half-long leave of absence after experiencing a severe depressive episode during her first semester at Georgetown, took Elmendorf’s class in fall 2010 and recalled being shocked by Elemendorf’s discussion of her own illness.
“It was so remarkable because you would never know. She’s there every morning with so much enthusiasm and so much eloquence. It’s just incredible to hear that she’s struggling with this thing that takes such a toll on so many people, that takes such a toll on me,” Valentin said.
According to Elmendorf, many of her students’ reactions are similar to Valentin’s.
“I think it’s because I don’t look like many people’s perception about what it’s like to be depressed,” she said. “People somehow see depression as the thing the successful person is not, and there’s a misconception that if you’re depressed, you’re just getting by.”
For Perotin, the opposite is true. He believes his drive stems largely from his depression.
“I always say the reason I’m successful is that I have this insatiable desire to succeed and this crushing weight of expectations,” he said. “A lot of successful people are very troubled. And it’s not like I want to be depressed to be like them … but I do I really want to relax and just be okay with my life? … How can you be successful if you’re happy — ever?”
Michelle Johnson (COL ’15), a psychology major who went through a period of depression and anxiety during midterm season this semester, said that a lack of dialogue about these illnesses is part of what makes them so isolating and dangerous.
“At Georgetown, people joke all the time about how stressed out they are [or] how little sleep they got, but it’s sort of taboo to talk about your actual stress. It’s taboo to say, ‘This is affecting me seriously,’ and that’s really dangerous,” she said.
When her mother pointed out how much she had changed and persuaded her to ask for help, Johnson turned to professors and her dean — all of whom reassured her and offered their support — but she never sought professional counselling.
“I think I saw CAPS as an extreme that wasn’t necessary for a case like mine, and that might have been a mistake,” she said. “We don’t want to be associated with … ‘psychiatric services.’ We don’t want to admit to ourselves that we’ve gone that far.”
Elmendorf said that this attitude toward CAPS is common.
“Going to see CAPS feels like … a formal declaration that you’re officially struggling,” she said.
Instead, many of Elmendorf’s students come to her asking for advice, just as Johnson sought help from her professors. Elmendorf says her own depression makes her a particularly appealing “sounding board” for students trying to figure out what they are feeling.
“Depression gives me challenges in life, but the silver lining is it has given me empathy and capacity to be there for my students, which I think is the job of adults on this campus. … In that way, I think of it as a gift,” Elmendorf said.
Donovan and Perotin both went to see CAPS, but neither had particularly positive experiences. Both agreed that counselors at CAPS were well-intentioned but ill-equipped to handle the kinds of severe depression they described.
Perotin said that his counselors at CAPS pressured him to take a medical leave of absence during the spring of his freshman year when they saw that his illness required more extensive therapy.
“I can understand from their perspective why the whole medical leave of absence might be an appealing option, but it needs to be handled in a better way, because it makes the student feel like they don’t have a choice,” he said.
Donovan, who first visited CAPS during his junior spring after struggling with depression for almost two years, also said that the counseling was not hugely helpful.
“[The counselor] basically told me ‘I have no idea what is wrong with you.’ And I was looking for direction at that time, so to hear someone say that they didn’t know what was wrong was not a comforting thing,” he said.