‘Portraits of Resilience’ destigmatize depression at one of the world’s top universities

‘Portraits of Resilience’ destigmatize depression at one of the world’s top universities


JUDY WOODRUFF: It is a particularly tense
time on college campuses these days with final exams. Many universities are trying to deal more
explicitly with depression and anxiety among their students. One school, the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology, or MIT, found itself in the midst of a so-called suicide cluster several years
ago that took the lives of six students and a faculty member. Jeffrey Brown recently went to MIT to meet
a professor and some students who are making a difference with their own efforts to bring
mental health issues out from the shadows. Here’s part one of Jeffrey’s report. JEFFREY BROWN: Bright, accomplished, ambitious,
also, at times, anxious, deeply depressed, sometimes even hopeless. They are students at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts,
now part of a project to give a face and voice to a growing mental health crisis. DANIEL JACKSON, Massachusetts Institute of
Technology: It’s a global epidemic. It was this huge, pervasive problem, not just
at MIT, but I believe in all kinds of places like MIT, that we needed to address. JEFFREY BROWN: Daniel Jackson is a computer
science professor at MIT. Several years ago, he began seeing a phenomenon
on campus that took him out of his area of expertise. DANIEL JACKSON: More and more students were
coming to me, usually telling me that they wanted to talk about a problem set or an assignment. And when I sat down with them and talked to
them, I would discover that the real problem was that they had some mental health issue
that was holding them back and preventing them from doing the work. And it was tragic and pervasive. JEFFREY BROWN: Do they say it to you, or you
intuited, or how did that come out? DANIEL JACKSON: Well, normally, we’d start
talking about the problem set, and I would ask them a question like, how much time have
you spent on this? Why is it proving so difficult? And then often, they’d say something like,
well, actually, I haven’t spent any time on it because I can’t motivate myself, or I can’t
get out of bed in the morning, or I don’t feel like life is worthwhile. And then the bells would start ringing in
my head, and I realized I would need to chaperone them over to mental health and try and help
them. JEFFREY BROWN: MIT is one of the world’s most
prestigious universities tough to get into, tough to succeed at. But what was happening here was part of something
bigger. According to a 2017 study of American colleges,
nearly 40 percent of students said they felt so depressed in the prior year that it was
difficult to function; 61 percent said they’d felt — quote — “overwhelming anxiety.” And suicide remains the second leading cause
of death overall for college-aged people. Jackson also felt a deeply personal loss with
the suicide of a friend on the faculty. He decided to turn to his outside passion,
photography, to help bring a stigmatized, private problem into the open. DANIEL JACKSON: It struck me that the people
who were suffering from depression and anxiety were still, as it were, in the dark. We have made great strides in destigmatizing
depression, but we still really just talked in terms of numbers. We talked about abstractions of mental health
issues, and we would say, this is normal, and there are so many people who suffer from
it. JEFFREY BROWN: Jackson put up posters around
campus asking people to share their stories, and eventually interviewed and photographed
some two dozen students, as well as faculty and staff members. Emily Tang is now finishing her junior year,
after depression forced her to take a two year leave of absence. EMILY TANG, MIT Student: I would just sit
there wrapped in a blanket. The achievement of the day was, I got out
of bed. And I wasn’t eating. It was like one meal a day, and then that
was usually like, you know, somebody had bought something and come home, and been like, eat
this, please. Everything felt like there like was like a
layer of cotton, or fog, or something wrapped around my brain, and I just — like, everything
was just so blah. JEFFREY BROWN: The essays and portraits were
first published in the campus newspaper, The Tech. They’re now collected in a book, “Portraits
of Resilience.” DANIEL JACKSON: I hoped to capture the personality
and charisma of the person that I was interviewing, the strength and the vulnerability. And I wanted to make photos that weren’t sensationalist,
but that captured something of the depth of the individual. JEFFREY BROWN: The black-and-white portraits
reveal a range of emotion. Haley Cope is a senior in women and gender
studies. HALEY COPE, MIT Student: I can look at my
experiences through the lens of my faith, and I can look at the experience of depression
as a cross that I bear. And that gives a completely different view
of the experience that I’m still grappling with. JEFFREY BROWN: Victor Morales battled depression
as a student and after graduating. VICTOR MORALES, MIT Student: Depression, you
know, whether it’s the good or the bad, whether it’s the happiness or the tears, for me, my
depression was numb. It — I felt nothing. JEFFREY BROWN: The essays tell of different
experiences and potential causes: genetic predisposition, traumas in their lives, a
chronic health condition. And then there’s the stress on today’s students. DANIEL JACKSON: I think life is much harder
for students today than it was when I was a student. There’s so much pressure to perform. There are so many reductionist, numeric measures
of success. And this isn’t MIT. This is everywhere, whether it’s counting
the number of Facebook likes you have, the number of times you’re retweeted, your GPA,
your internship salary. Kids now have resumes when they’re in high
school. JEFFREY BROWN: Right, measurements of how
they’re doing. DANIEL JACKSON: That’s right. JEFFREY BROWN: And maybe failing. DANIEL JACKSON: That’s right. Well, in fact, I believe it’s not possible
to succeed in this environment, because if you’re measuring yourself day by day by all
these short-term ratings, eventually, you won’t measure up. JEFFREY BROWN: Jackson’s answer, focus on
the strengths and perseverance of people battling sometimes crippling depression, and the importance
of friendships and loved ones to help them get through. DANIEL JACKSON: Well, I thought of it as a
way of making a gallery of people who could stand up and say, this is me, and I’m proud
of my experience. Not only am I not ashamed by what happened
to me, but I’m proud to tell my story and to show that it’s possible to struggle with
depression or anxiety, whatever other mental health condition, and reach the light at the
end of the tunnel. JEFFREY BROWN: Jackson’s book was recently
given to all first-year students. For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown
on the campus of MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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