Student depression

University terms are starting all over the country. When I was an undergraduate, the Cambridge term started late, in early October, and our terms were only eight weeks long. That first one was seven weeks six days too long for me.

I have had several responses from students to my blog on dysthymia – low-level persistent depression, or what is now called persistent depressive disorder. The people who contacted me are just the tip of the iceberg. In your class of a hundred fellow students it could be that as many as nearly twenty of them are mentally ill, to some degree, right now. That’s a lot of sick people; imagine a class where twenty people were sneezing and coughing non-stop. Who are these people? Can you tell? Are you perhaps one of them? And a couple of lecturers are probably depressed right now, too.

What’s the leading cause of death for young people aged 20-35 in the UK? Those risky boys speeding round blind bends in their sporty cars? Drugs? Falling under a bus blind drunk? Being mugged and murdered? No, by some way, it’s suicide. Suicide is also the leading cause of death for men under 50. And most people kill themselves because they can’t take the hopelessness and pain of depression any longer. And if suicide doesn’t kill you, depression is associated with a host of disorders, such as heart disease, cancer,  and dementia, which might get you later.

Depression and anxiety are closely related, and usually go together. Epidemiological studies show that anxiety and mood disorders are remarkably common: it’s estimated that one in three people will suffer in their lifetime, and between one in six and one in ten are ill now. The reporting of mental illness has increased, but whether that’s because of better understanding of the disease, better diagnosis, reduced stigmatisation of the ill, increased pressure of contemporary life, or, most likely, all of these, is unclear.

When I was young (under twenty, say), I didn’t know what depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder were, although in retrospect I suffered from all of them. I was aware of something my relatives talked about in rather hushed tones called “a nervous breakdown”. I’m still not entirely sure what one of these was, but I think it was a sudden mental illness requiring some kind of treatment, and even incarceration in an “asylum”. Treatments were very limited back in the 70s; remember that chlorpromazine wasn’t released to the market until 1953, the first benzodiazepine, Librium, in 1960; and the first antidepressants in 1957 (iproniazid, a MAO inhibitor) and 1958 (imipramine, a tricyclic), although these drugs have many serious side-effects. The relatively more benign Prozac (fluoxetine) wasn’t available until 1987. I don’t think I knew about these drugs until I switched as a student from Natural Sciences Physical to Psychology. Indeed when I was a teenager, I thought of treatment as shock treatment; that’s about all there was.

Attitudes started to change when Prozac became widely available; perhaps that’s generally true – diseases only begin to lose their stigma when there is some hope. When I was young “cancer” was another dirty word, sometimes just called the “c word”. Don’t ask my younger self about swearing though; when I was ten, I thought the filthiest word in English was “pub” (where my father went Sunday lunchtime).

I was the first person in my family to go to university, and I had no idea what was involved, no idea really what a degree was (although I knew students “read” for it on University Challenge), no idea how to manage money (fortunately credit cards weren’t available then), no idea how to manage my time, no idea how to study independently, no idea how to live, no idea how to make use of what was available, no idea what a girl was, and no idea of how to cope when I was a raving loony without realising it. I was extraordinarily shy, which didn’t help. I wasn’t lazy; I tried my best, but I had no idea how to organise my time. I expected university to be like school, which of course it isn’t.

I stuck out the first year, mostly because I drift through things and staying was the easiest thing to do, and I was just clever enough to get by in spite of my deficits. The turning point was joining a society where I met other people. I still can’t say that I felt at home, and at the end of the first year I got a summer job where I did. I was earning good money, I had friends of sorts, I seemed to have some purpose, I felt like I was part of a community, and I wondered why go back to Cambridge. At that point I nearly gave up.

I don’t really know why I didn’t; it was easier to stay than not. And when I went back to Cambridge I discovered psychology, and things started to look up.

If I knew then what I know now I would have got professional help. I would have started with meta learning rather than learning. I would have been bolder about asking questions. Mostly I would have realised that I was ill, I wasn’t alone, and that I should talk to people.

Just do it

“There may be some writers who contemplate a day’s work without dread, but I don’t know them. … It’s a bad business, this writing.” (Mary Gordon, American writer)


I am suffering (again) from what is usually called “writer’s block”. I have things I have to write and I just can’t settle to doing them.

Writer’s block is notorious; it’s a favourite subject for novelists, in a rather incestuous way. It’s a specific example of procrastination – putting off until later what you should be doing now. There are whole shop-loads of books on writer’s block specifically (which I find rather paradoxical) and procrastination generally. I have read them all very carefully and learned nothing whatsoever useful from them. Examples of the advice can be found here, here, and here. Enjoy.

Essentially they all come down to the advice “stop messing around and just do it; just make a start, no matter how small”. Well, if I could do that I wouldn’t be procrastinating. They are also keen on eliminating distractions, but when you’re severely proscratinating, after you have eliminated all the obvious ones, you will create new ones.

Now at this point I know what some of you are thinking. The kinder among you will say we know about procrastination; the only solution is indeed to make a start and just get on with it. He’s said he knows that, so why can’t he do it? Surely he could bring himself to write a word, even a little rubbish one? The less kind will say what is he talking about – he can write this blog, so why can’t he write his book? Shut up moaning. You will have no sympathy with me, you say, while you get on with writing your thirty-six volume autobiography.

On the other hand I have discovered in writing this blog that there are many people out there who are a little like me, but are too frightened to say so. Some of you, sadly for you, are even a lot like me, and are terrified to say so. Procrastination is very common. After many years teaching I know countless students who have left things to the last minute – they only start that essay or report the night before the deadline; sometimes well into the night. They know their behaviour is bad, just as I do, so I really do share their pain. They know that at best it will be a bit rushed and that they won’t have time to put it aside and think about it and check it, that they will make mistakes and miss sources, thereby most likely losing precious marks, and at worst they’ll miss the deadline altogether and get zero. So why do they do it? It’s not helpful to say that it’s because of bad planning and laziness when it happens so often; it’s not helpful to say we should just have done it.

As I have said before, we should also be wary of pathologising everything. Am I being slow because I’m ill, or is it something less sinister? Am I just very, very lazy, or is something more complicated going on? A very few people really just don’t care about what they’re doing, but most of us do, so I think when something happens repeatedly it is at least worthwhile considering possible deeper causes. Looking deep into myself I see:


Fear of a deadline. After twelve years of being head of the psychology department at Dundee and then dean, I am exhausted. I still have nightmares about writing reviews and reports and plans and strategies and completing financial spreadsheets, and being sent emails at 5.01 p.m. Friday asking for something FIRST THING Monday, before the 8.30 meeting. Burnout need not be restricted to middle-aged executives: the average undergraduate will now have undergone years of assessment, even before the GCSEs and GCES (or Higher equivalents in Scotland). It’s assessment after assessment – one damned thing after another, for years. Until you can’t take it more.

Milder versions of exhaustion abound. Many studies show that many of us are on the edge of exhaustion, or simply don’t get enough sleep. A period of prolonged rest might be best but not many can take it easy for more than a weekend. So I don’t know what the best way is to cope with deadline fear, and welcome suggestions. However I have resolved to try to deal with the exhaustion and the following might help. I hope that with more energy the fear will recede.

Sleep – I have vowed to sleep whenever possible. I have long thought too much sleep to be a waste of time (we know that some sleep is essential), but what is “too much”? What is the point of forcing yourself to get up 30 minutes earlier if you then only function at 75% efficiency?

Multi-tasking – doing two or more things at once is not effective. I found myself making tea this morning while trying to pack a bag. Not good. I need more mindfulness in my life.

Saying no – partly I commit to annoying little jobs that then have to be done, and which I like to get out of the way before the big jobs. I find it quite difficult to say no when I see the hurt on a person’s face, but I must learn to get over it.

Stop rushing around – leave plenty of time for things. The possibility of saving three minutes by leaving just a bit later for the gym is outweighed by the damage perpetrated by the additional stress of the journey.

Relaxation – I can distinguish between physical and mental exhaustion, although I find they are correlated. The brain uses a lot of energy, and many argue that glucose levels in the brain can be rapidly depleted – so that we have limited willpower, although controversy rages about this subject (see here and here, for example).

Doing if for myself – My fear of a deadline goes hand in hand with being evaluated afterwards. If you don’t hand something in, you can’t get a poor mark, or unpleasant feedback, can you? It’s bizarre reasoning I know but I am falling foul of it. I find that I become lost in things that I enjoy and that aren’t going to be evaluated, so one strategy is to try to turn evaluated things into things we’re really doing for ourselves. We’re doing it to learn, or to write our great life’s work (in my case), and the deadlines and feedback are things on the side – things that might even help us, by ensuring progress and making it a better work. We call this type of approach recasting our thinking. I don’t find it easy: to make it work we have to make ourselves believe it, deep down.

What else is there?

The job is too difficult. I missed this out of the “first edition” of the post, but I don’t know why: the more I think about it, the more important it is. It’s easy to get going on small jobs where you know what you have to do, but much of good writing isn’t like that. Writing a whole book on the science of consciousness, in my case, isn’t easy; the material is complex, difficult to understand in places, and even more difficult to synthesise and evaluate for a reader who hasn’t spent more than thirty years in the area. Sometimes I start work, look at my screen, and I don’t know what to say. Students might start writing a lab report and realise they don’t have a clue about the statistic used or the design of the experiment. No wonder we put our laptops aside and make a nice cup of tea.

Somehow we have to make difficult tasks easier. It’s difficult to do the research and thinking while looking at the screen trying to write the final document, I find, so that means it has to be done before. That means reading multiple sources about a topic, and perhaps making notes, drawing diagrans, even mind maps if that’s your thing; and thinking and organising. All that takes time. I can write a thousand words in an hour, easily, if I know exactly what I’m talking about, am enjoying myself, and have a modicum of focus. If I don’t know (as is usually the case), or have to remind myself, that rate plummets. If you leave your writing to the last minute, so you’re up against the deadline, there often just isn’t enough time. No wonder we procrastinate when facing the impossible!

If you’re doing something difficult and you’re up against a real deadline, you’re a bit screwed. You just have to learn the lesson and resolve to leave research time for the next deadline – plenty of it. Fortunately (although it might be a curse) many writing deadlines are in fact a bit flexible, so if you’re a little late it’s not the end of the world. It’s not good form though so again lessons have to be learned.

Doing research with plenty of time left seems less intimidating to me; all I have to do is convince myself that the pleasant reading in the conservatory really is work. You do though need to be clear about you’re researching and why, which means planning what you have to do and finding out what you don’t know first. You need to read for a purpose, trying to answer a question, and to do that you need to be clear about what the question is first.

The job is unpleasant. Then one has to ask why are you doing it? Let’s think about what “unpleasant” really means. You might be doing a psychology agree, and enjoy it all apart from statistics. In that case if you think the overall aim is worthwhile you have to contextualise the problem – relate the subtask to the whole. You can’t understand behaviour without understanding how we should study behaviour. I think mostly though we confound the unpleasantess of jobs with their difficulty – I don’t really think that writing a book on consciousness is an unpleasant task, I’m just finding passages of it difficult at the moment. Students would enjoy statistics if they found it relatively easy. In which case see above.

Perfectionism. I can’t bear the thought of seeing something with my name on it that isn’t perfect. But the first draft doesn’t have to be perfect; in fact unless you are peculiarly gifted the first draft will be far from perfect. You are more likely to produce something imperfect by leaving it late and little time for checking and revision. And the first draft might be rubbish, but it’s easier to turn a thousand words of rubbish into something better than start with no words at all.

Too big a task. This is an important factor in my fear, and of course is easily solved by splitting it up into smaller tasks – as small as it takes to stop being daunting. Splitting large jobs up and listing the components takes time, and there’s always a concern that you’re wasting useful time carrying out useless tasks – that you’re just engaging in just another distraction activity. But spending time working out how you’re going to do a big unpleasant job and then doing these small chunks is much better than doing nothing at all related to your most important job.

Something immediately at hand is more immediately satisfying. Note I’ve said immediately twice: it has to be instant and easy gratification relative to the big job. If you’ve split a big job into lots of little jobs then you can have the instant gratification of ticking them off your list as you complete them. Some people suggest turning off your internet connection, using special software and apps to cut off temporary access to distraction, or smashing your router on the floor, but I will still manage to find something else to do. That washing is piling up, or perhaps needs sorting. Better to deal with the root cause than use gimmicks. (Believe me, I’ve tried them all.)


I will try my own medicine and report back. Meanwhile I hope this help ssomeone else. Please feel free to comment or contact me.


(Note to readers: I’ve revised this blog a few times as things occur to me. No more. This version is final.)