What depression takes from you.


As depression recedes into my rear view window, I’ve been reflecting more on just what exactly it took away from my life. Obviously, I was a lot less vital as Andrew Solomon so eloquently put it. And there’s the not enjoying life, feeling lethargic all the time and being otherwise frozen in place unable to muster much motivation (you want to do things even things you don’t feel like doing…but just can’t) or energy for much of anything not to mention the black suicide thoughts.

But there’s one aspect of it that I’d like to write specifically about and that’s the impact on learning and getting experiencing things. I’m not just talking academics either (after all some very successful, smart people also deal with depression who got good grades). My sense is that depression was severely impairing for me with respect to learning new things or feeling like anything I tried represented progress or moving forward. The things I have learned still seem hazy in my brain some how. It prevented connection.

I did a brief Google search for studies on depression and how it affects learning and didn’t come up with much other than the obvious– depression is a factor in people leaving school all together, but for those who stay, they aren’t any less likely to graduate, go onto college, work all of the normal things people do in life; except they’re hiding their depression a lot of times.

It takes a lot of effort to appear normal; depression is isolating and what I often told myself was “I’m keeping this hidden because no one else should have to deal with or see this, it’s just too dark”. So to be able to get up and out the door despite the forceful depressive voice saying “you’re not worth the space you take up” really does take a lot of mental strength. It doesn’t take much to go from functioning to lying on the (often metaphorical) floor. The brain alone uses 25% of the energy we consume and if a good portion of that is taken over by depression, other functions suffer.

Because learning well requires an engaged and vital mind, depression is a huge impairment of that process. The only possible upside is that depressives apparently see the world more accurately than non-depressives who are overly optimistic in their estimates of things. Even though I’m not a depression researcher, I’ll relate what my feeling is for what I’ve lost in terms of learning which of course as someone who believes that learning and education are keys to advancement makes me feel terrible at how much potential I’ve lost over years of being depressed.

Before getting into this more, I’ll just say if you or someone you know is showing signs of depression, get help or ask them to help. No one is alone with depression. I repeat, you are not alone.

In the Brain Pickings review of John Rottenberg’s new book “The Depths” (that I look forward to reading), I ran across this quote:

“Perhaps what we call depression isn’t really a disorder at all but, like physical pain, an alarm of sorts, alertingus that something is undoubtedly wrong; that perhaps it is time to stop, take a time-out, take as long as it takes, and attend to the unaddressed business of filling our souls.”– From Lee Stringer “Fading to Grey” 

For me, learning is one of those unaddressed businesses to fill my soul. So here’s how depression affected my learning.

Less than

For many years and even still now, I felt less than anyone else; everyone else’s advancement was more important than my own, after all, they’re worthy of existence. I wasn’t. Some of this isn’t necessarily depression related; it has to do with people pleasing, perfectionism and the fixed mindset that can certainly contribute to depression, especially if you don’t want to learn. Taking calculated risks was for other people to do, not someone like me. Feelings? Those were for other people too. Mine had to be kept inside.

I don’t deserve _______.

Related to feeling less than is the feeling that I didn’t deserve anything, including knowledge or expanding skills. I have done some of that, but it wasn’t as if I felt I deserved any of it. The great resources available to me to learn new things weren’t for me. They were for the aforementioned people who did & who’d use them to do great things. I didn’t spend money or invest in myself, really. While saving money is good, never spending a dime is not the road to growth, financial independence or a great career. This included simple things like using Evernote or Gmail or anything else. If you don’t get, use and learn the tools of your profession, that’s a very real loss for an individual. It’s not that I did none of it, but it was certainly at what felt like a glacial pace and that’s a problem, especially in today’s world.

The haze

Depression creates a fog over the mind. There’s a flattening of emotions. An emotional connection to a moment of learning helps it stick and concretize in the mind. And even when something is learned or progress is made, in my depressed mind state, it never felt like progress was being made; I hadn’t really learned anything, even if I had at some level. It’s not that there’s no learning, but it doesn’t seem like progress happens and making decisions about what to do with what you learn or even what to learn (having a hard time making decisions is part of being depressed). There’s a fog over everything, a haze that won’t alleviate and it makes deeply experiencing things hard.

Creative flow

The ideal for any creative is to get into a flow state when we’re working on a new idea or just working; independent of motivation to work (don’t wait to be motivated; dive in, even if it’s uninspiring…that’s hard to do but with practice it does happen), the creative mind just gets into a state of flow where time just doesn’t register and you’re “in the zone” just writing, creating, doing. With the depressed brain, the flow state happens rarely. Depression’s narrative is that things will never change. That runs counter to the creative narrative that sees what is and posits what could be. It’s making connections between things that aren’t always obvious. Finding connection doesn’t come as easily with a depressive mindset. Even finding those ideas to connect is harder with the depressed mind.


There’s a lot more discussion about mental health and STEM fields and I think that’s a good thing. I hope this post contributes to that by addressing exactly why it’s a problem to have a depressed scientist or other creative (anyone who is depressed is obviously a problem). Wherever the depression comes from; genetics, circumstance, the academic system that appears to cultivate anxiety and depression, it’s a drag not only on the scientific enterprise as a whole, but particularly tragic for the individuals who suffer and don’t maximize their potential.






Author: Ian Street

Ian is a plant scientist and science writer relating stories of plant science and scientists on his blog, The Quiet Branches as well as other outlets. You can find him on Twitter @IHStreet.

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