The Lonely Path
Depression at Georgetown
Published: Thursday, December 6, 2012
Updated: Friday, December 7, 2012 12:12
CAPS, however, would argue that Donovan and Perotin are anomalies. Meilman declined to comment on Perotin and Donovan’s experiences, but according to a CAPS survey of students who have used their service, 90 percent of students said they benefitted from counseling and half said that the guidance they received helped them academically.
Valentin said that counseling from CAPS has been a critical component of addressing her depression. She regularly met a CAPS counselor before taking her leave of absence in the middle of fall 2010 and resumed therapy with the same counselor upon returning to Georgetown this fall.
“It’s hard to connect with anyone, but he’s been really helpful,” she said. “He listens … but at the same time he helps me discern my behaviors. … He helps me to see the qualities that I never see in myself. He gives me that vicarious strength.”
Nearly every student who suffers from depression must find his own way of cobbling together a coping strategy. Donovan, Perotin and Valentin all take medication that helps them deal with their illnesses. They seek outside support as well — from friends, family and professors but also through hobbies like writing and music.
“I am still struggling with this, but the thought of doing it all without my family, without my support system … I’m incredibly lucky to have that,” Donovan said.
Valentin stressed the importance of unexpected acts of kindness in hedging against her depression. She recalled an afternoon in O’Donovan Hall when a girl she didn’t know smiled at her as she walked by. Valentin was so surprised by the anonymous smile that she started smiling back.
“Smiling at a stranger makes a world of difference,” she said. “We’re all going through something. Maybe that’s the only smile someone will see in their entire day, and people who are suffering so greatly inside can have at least one positive thing happen to them.”
Perotin said he tries to keep his mind occupied in order to prevent negative thoughts from seeping in.
“If I give myself too long without anything to think about … these interior voices always crawl back up and are like, ‘You’re worthless, no one likes you, you have no future, you’re always going to feel depressed,’” he said.
To keep out these thoughts, Perotin listens to music constantly — while walking to class, while waiting for a bus — and immerses himself in schoolwork and mock trial.
“I think that the times that I’m most happy are during finals week,” he said, laughing. “I don’t do vacation well.”
Even so, Perotin said there are days when determination is all that keeps him going.
“Sometimes I can treat [my depression] as an invasive organism ... like it’s a bully in my head and I have to actively defend myself. ... But emotionally and personally, I’m more afraid it’s just a part of me. And then it’s pure willpower. You can argue all you want, but in the end, you have to will yourself on and continue living your life and use that as a way to spite it.”
Johnson emphasized the need for a broader conversation about mental illness on campus. She said she’s amazed sometimes to find out that some of her friends who never seemed to have a problem are actually struggling with depression.
“It’s shocking how good we are at concealing these things,” she said. “But this is an issue that spans kids our age, and we need to be able to talk about it.”
“Dealing with pressure is something that is, if not universal on this campus, then close to that. But no one talks about it. ... Everyone puts on that mask, and then it becomes easy to feel isolated,” he said. “A lot of the conversations about these things tend to happen on a one-to-one basis. … But if the conversation was brought into a group setting, then it becomes a community issue, and that’s how we can start to have an institutional change.”
According to Elmendorf, Georgetown has made efforts to expand discussion about depression on a more institutional level during her 14 years teaching here. Her “Foundations of Biology” course is part of the Engelhard Project, an interdisciplinary program initiated in 2005 to bring discussion of mental wellness issues into Georgetown classrooms. More than 50 faculty members in 25 departments teach Engelhard courses each year, incorporating discussion of mental health into their syllabi in a variety of ways. Elmendorf said that the Engelhard Project has helped launch a broader conversation about mental health on campus.
“I think having brought the discussion into the classroom makes it feel like it’s a part of who we are in an important way,” she said.