Depression, Shakespeare and the Madness of a Taboo

The idea that we are all blissful at this stage of our lives is ludicrous, ludicrous. To think of all the breakups that take place, the identity-searching that is adolescence, the existential crises I experience on a daily basis. I wrestle with the realization that my youth is running out, the uncertainty of what lies ahead, who my real friends are, who I am. We are all engaged in an identical struggle, played over the span of our lives, to be and to become our best selves.

The problem I have with this depression stigma is that it’s nonsensical. We are humans partaking in the game of life. No good song, no good film, is without intimations of the fear and insecurity that we all struggle with. No good literature, not a single book, is written about people who are happy all the time. Would you watch a movie about happy people? What’s remotely interesting about that?

Depression sounds very dark and brooding and clinical, but really it’s quite simple and quite natural. Some of the greatest actors, artists, comedians, scholars, poets and writers have suffered from depression. Abraham Lincoln was famously afflicted with melancholia, and some experts think it was his resulting introversion that made him so deeply thoughtful and visionary a leader. People like Winston Churchill, Eminem, William Faulkner, Jon Hamm, Demi Lovato, Lupe Fiasco, Ann Hathaway, Beyonce, Mozart, Isaac Newton, Nietzsche, J.K. Rowling, Gwen Stefani, Mark Twain, Kurt Vonnegut, Van Gogh, Reese Witherspoon and Oprah – yes, even Oprah – have suffered from depression. I don’t mean to glorify depression (though I do believe it’s an individual’s decision to address depression in the way they see fit). What I mean to do is point out how normal this supposed syndrome is.

Depression is, at its simplest, the affliction of coming to terms with life’s inherent unanswered questions: the losses that have no point, the relationship that was not to be, the failure of parents we expect to be invincible and upstanding. We are left, at every turn, with a mini identity crisis and a larger one: the disillusionment that accompanies an awareness of our parent’s fallibility and the flippancy with which the universe dispenses out bad luck.

Once you scratch the surface, I’ve found much everyone I’ve talked to at Stanford has their own set of insecurities and angsts and medication. And why not? We are at college, prime time for the nitty-gritty of self-exploration. It’s a beautiful thing, a painful thing, but above all, a process that is central to our very humanity. How could there be shame in that?

The university experience is much more than four years of academics and intellectual questioning. For many, it is the messy but fundamental period where we shape the trajectory of who we are. Stanford has a responsibility to honor not just the former side of the coin but also the latter. I applaud Vaden’s efforts, but the university has fallen short in other crucial areas. Its close-lipped attitude in the wake of student suicides was shameful.

What may be contributing to the problem is Stanford’s growing emphasis on job recruiting, a pressure felt by many students. It may lead to an attractive endowment, but it causes students to fixate on getting that lucrative job at the end of the tunnel, an ambition that distracts from the deep, if unspoken, purpose of a well-rounded liberal arts education: learning who we are and getting an inkling of how we fit into the larger picture. College is not a means to an end.     It is a journey in its own right, a voyage replete with trials so commonplace they are rites of passage. It is life in motion, and here I find myself back to sentence one. Depression is the result of living life. It can be overcome, but never, for any reason, should one feel the need to repress it. Stanford needs to do its part in validating the real truth of adolescent angst beyond just offering services to students. If the stigma is to really fall away, the administration itself needs to make a vocal and brave declaration about the normalcy of depression and the “myth” of the impossibly happy Stanford student.

To be, or not to be. Why does Hamlet’s line captivate us so? For so concise a line, it encapsulates the infinite. The infinite questions that nip at our feet, the doubts that haunt our every step. Have no shame in dealing with depression or fear in disclosing it. Rest assured that you’re in the company of not only luminaries, but all of mankind.

Contact Alex at abayer@stanford.edu.

About Alex Bayer

  • lpk

    The paragraph starting in “What may be contributing to the problem is Stanford’s growing emphasis on job recruiting, a pressure felt by many students…” is absolutely perfect. Thank you.

  • Nikhita

    I think this just made my day! Fabulous article :)

  • Daniel

    Outstanding—so true