I’ve had three episodes of depression that stand out in my life. One was toward the end of my undergraduate career. I was an EE major at Georgia Tech. When people would take their minor classes in easy topics, I took nuclear astrophysics and stellar evolution. I was taking six EE and physics classes and doing several extracurricular activities. It was insane. I managed to finish number two in my class. The guy whom I’d tied for number one in high school became number one.
I loved my work but I became a working machine. I thought I needed only enough sleep to stay awake. I used to fall asleep in my history class after lunch, which was bad. I made a B in history. I thought that’s why I lost my number one spot.
I had no idea that anything was wrong with me, until the end of my senior year, when my closest friend and roommate pulled me aside and said, “I’m worried about you.” I was sliding down a scale from being somebody who is usually very joyful and happy to being somebody who wasn’t feeling much joy, and who was very irritable.
Anyway, it was close enough to graduation that I got through everything and felt great again. I came to grad school at MIT in EECS. I loved it here. I was not grade driven; I was much more driven by wanting to learn new things. It was paradise. I worked as hard as ever, loved it as much as ever, and things were really going well.
Then I got married. I was certainly happy to get married, and my marriage is fabulous. But that first year of marriage was the toughest year of my life. We were living up in Wilmington, so I was spending all the time in a car, instead of walking and biking, and I took the hours of commuting off my sleep.
I became really depressed that year. I had every logical reason to be happy. I actually loved my work, but it’s like there was no joy; I would wake up angry for no reason and wonder why I could not make myself feel happy.
I had the first thoughts ever of suicide during that time. That’s when I started really worrying about myself. I had this image of approaching a cliff, and I would get near an edge and I would feel this panicked feeling. I felt like I was getting so close to it that if I looked over it I could fall, that I was going to let myself slip. That was a very scary feeling.
As an undergrad, I had become a practicing Christian, and I thought that killing oneself was wrong, and my husband also thought it was wrong. I remember that, at that moment when I didn’t care any more, there was a little voice tugging me a little bit away from the edge. I felt that no matter what I wanted, there was a greater source of knowledge saying, “This is wrong,” and that I would benefit by listening to that.
To my husband’s credit, he was wonderful and supportive, and I had amazing good friends who helped me through this too. This was the first time I got counseling. One of the things the therapist suggested was that maybe the hormones I starting taking when I got married were making a difference. I stopped taking the pill, and I started feeling better almost instantly. I started feeling like my old happy self again.
I got my PhD, I got hired by MIT, I got promoted, I got tenure. All was cool. We started a family. Son number one, great. Son number two, great. Son number three, I’m laying there over at MIT Medical, and they’re checking on me, and I’m blessed with healthy children, healthy marriage, everything’s great. Doctor says, “How are you doing?” Tears just start rolling out of my eyes.
Once, a friend of mine who was going through a really tough situation said he felt like he had been asked to climb Mount Everest, and only been given a bathrobe and slippers. I felt like I was being asked to climb a little personal Everest at this point, and I just didn’t know what lay ahead or how to prepare for it.
The doctor said, “You know, I think it might do you some good to talk to somebody in mental health.” I went to talk to a therapist a couple times and it was wonderful. She laid out the emotional trajectory of what was likely to happen. It’s as if somebody asks you to sing a song you don’t know, and they don’t give you the lyrics. You’re kind of stumbling through, but then if they give you the lyrics and you can read them first, and then sing it, you do a little better. I could now see, “Oh, yeah, it would be normal to feel that at this point.” Instead of just being broadsided by a set of feelings, I’m suddenly able to step back and say, “Oh, I know now what’s going on and I can manage it.”
It was resolved within weeks after I went to talk to her. It was amazing. In that case, it was just a cognitive thing. Perhaps the hormones were bringing it to a peak, but it was more that I had not prepared myself mentally for what I was getting ready to go through.
Depression isn’t just one thing. Sometimes it’s biochemical. Sometimes it’s exercise and sunlight. Sometimes it’s sleep. Sometimes it’s cognitive thinking that you need a little help debugging, ideally by somebody who has the words to what you may have to sing.
Now I see it as this juggling act of figuring out what my priorities are, keeping them straight, and, also, having really great friends that help keep me accountable to that. My Christian faith has made a huge difference in my life, too. It’s not just a set of beliefs. It’s a set of practices.
I’m this extreme introvert. I would be very happy just curling up with a book and the Internet permanently by myself. But the Judeo-Christian scriptures tell you to put others before yourself, and to go out and love other people, even those who we think are unlovable. I fail a lot, but when I have those momentary successes, it’s amazing for my mood and my well being, as well as perhaps making the world a little better. I don’t want to think I’m doing it for selfish reasons, yet I feel like I benefit more than I deserve from some amazing relationships. Social relationships are good, even for introverts like me.
Often we’re focusing on ourselves—on our own sleep, our own health, our own mental thinking, and all of this is important. Taking care of one’s mental and physical health is number one in order to succeed at anything. But, to exclusively focus on yourself is unhealthy. For those of us who would just live in our own worlds and do our own work, being strongly encouraged, even admonished in some cases, to get out of that cocoon and reach out to others is incredibly beneficial, not only for our community, but for our own wellbeing.
I do a lot of research with neurologists and psychiatrists, and I was meeting with the chief of pediatric mental health at a major hospital in the UK. After we finished a discussion of neurophysiology, I was rushing to my next meeting. He says, “Wait. Do you know the most important thing for children in preventing suicide?” I stopped in my tracks and said, “No. What?” He said, “It’s having a family with strong religious faith.”
After that, I went back to the people who did the Healthy Minds nation-wide survey and I said, “It had a couple questions about religion. Did we have any significant difference there?” They said, “Oh, yes. It’s well known,” and sure enough, the MIT numbers and the national college numbers show huge statistically significant differences. Students who have regular religious practice are more mentally healthy.
I grew up as an atheist, and I know religion is not a comfortable topic. And religious practice is not the only protective factor. But at MIT, we have to talk about all these pillars of wellbeing. It’s time to do the science to really understand what regulates mood – up and down. We don’t want to take away Everest: That wouldn’t be MIT. We want to climb something even bigger than Everest, but we want to succeed and help people succeed in doing it. So how do we do that?
Rosalind Picard is Professor in the Program in Media Arts and Sciences, and Faculty Chair of the MIT Mind+Hand+Heart initiative