Campus Life in good company

With tenure but not without troubles

Professor Belcher’s experiences handling depression

As chair of the Undergraduate Association Student Support Committee and as part of continuing efforts to have open discussions about mental health on campus, I approached Professor Belcher about sharing his story in a public forum. He graciously obliged with this moving account. For me, Professor Belcher’s piece is a reminder that mental health challenges do not discriminate — they can strike any person at any stage of life, but they need not be debilitating.

We are always looking for additions to the conversation about mental health at MIT, especially from faculty, who are particularly inspiring to students. Perspectives from all other members of the MIT community are also valuable. If you would be willing to share your story, please be in touch at rileyb@mit.edu or ua-wellness-chairs@mit.edu. Note that for at least this semester there are also opportunities to publish through one of our partner organizations, ActiveMinds (see web.mit.edu/activeminds/speakyourmind.html).

— Betsy Riley ’14

UA Student Support Committee, Chair

The April 10, 2012 issue of The Tech carried an article by Grace Taylor ’12 that I greatly admired: http://tech.mit.edu/V132/N17/depression.html.

It was about her depression and how she dealt with it. Her article inspired me to write an article on the same topic from a faculty point of view. Why? Because there is a stigma attached to having been clinically depressed and being on anti-depressants (as I am). That stigma is undeserved, and many people who should embrace such treatment instead avoid it. The more open people like Grace and I are about our experiences in dealing with depression, the more acceptance of those treatments there will be.

Near the end of the 80s, I was doing well. I had a stable marriage and two wonderful children, 8 and 11. I was a tenured Physics Professor, and Principal Investigator on an instrument on the Voyager Outer Planets mission to explore Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, with a Neptune encounter coming up. Then I was diagnosed with a malignant melanoma. Its thickness was such that the chances it would metastasize were about 1 in 4. At that time, metastasized melanoma was a death sentence. I became hyper-vigilant about my health. A bit later, my then-wife and I started a major renovation project on our home, which did not go well. Because of the stress of that situation, and my own preoccupation with my health, our marriage collapsed. At the beginning of the summer of 1989, I was trying to figure out how to get divorced, what the custody arrangement for my children would be, how to prepare for the upcoming Neptune encounter in August, and because of the melanoma, still panicked about my mortality.

It was the perfect storm. My physical coordination went. My thought processes became disordered. I had a hard time, for example, simply reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. I became lethargic, and had a hard time getting out of bed in the morning. Sleeping all the time seemed like a good option. I retained a certain detachment as I was sinking into depression. “So this is what it feels like to become clinically depressed” I would say to myself. You cannot imagine what it is like unless you have been there. I have always had hyper-active thought processes—juggling a million things at once in my head. For the first time in my life I could no longer do that. I soon realized what “living in the day” meant. The best I could do each morning was make a sort of ranked list of the things I had to do to get out of the situation I was in, and then just forget everything except the one on the top of the list. Considering the full list for even a second was just overwhelming.

I started seeing a psychiatrist, who immediately diagnosed depression and recommended an anti-depressant. I was reluctant. I was raised in Texas and had a macho attitude. Real Texans don’t take Prozac. But I sank further into depression and became less and less functional, and I realized that I had no choice. I had to do something. The well-being of my children depended in part on my being a reasonably functioning adult, and I was far from that state. So I started taking Prozac.

I know that there is a lot of popular press these days about anti-depressants not always being effective. Maybe that is true for some people, but nothing could be further than the truth for me. I could immediately see the difference in my mental processes two days after I started taking Prozac. I would describe it as like being in a room full of a huge amount of static background noise, that makes it impossible to think, and then someone walks into the room and turns the volume way down. I could think logically again. I could recite the Pledge of Allegiance. My physical coordination returned. Life became tolerable. Not great, but tolerable. That made it possible to slowly start dealing with the situation I was in.

These events took place more than 20 years ago. I am now happily remarried. My children are now 34 and 37. I am permanently on Prozac, as a prophylactic. Since I am a Texan and by definition should be able to whip depression all by myself, I have on two different occasions in the last 20 years gone off of Prozac. In both cases after about six months I lapsed back into clinical depression. I think once having been depressed, your body chemistry is such that you are more susceptible to a recurrence. Watching my descent into depression again those two times was really enlightening. I would do fine with a certain level of stress, but if one additional, not so big, stressor was added, I went from flying high above the waves to being right at sea level, and then even the slightest additional thing could cause me to go down. And it could be really fast, like stepping off a cliff. My body chemistry could change in a few days from more or less normal to clinical depression, with all the symptoms I mentioned above. So I just stay on Prozac. Luckily for me, it has always remained as efficacious as the first time I used it.

This term I am teaching in and co-administering 8.02, a class with 830 students, along with Peter A. Dourmashkin ’76. We both know from long experience that it is statistically inevitable that a handful of our 8.02 students will get into trouble this term, with their own perfect storm, and that clinical depression is one of the possible outcomes. I am no doctor, but I do recognize the symptoms of depression. If a student comes to me with troubles of any kind, I always tell them to go to S3 or Mental Health. In case depression is the cause of the trouble, I also share with them that I have been clinically depressed and am on Prozac, and that there is no shame in that.

We should all be thankful that we live in this day and age, when these medications and treatments are available. We should not avoid them. In the words of Grace Taylor, “It’s not you, it’s a disease.”

John W. Belcher is a Macvicar Faculty Fellow and a professor in the Physics Department.

12 Comments
1
Anonymous almost 5 years ago

You are a wonderful person and professor to be so personally open and understanding of your students. Thank you.

2
Anonymous almost 5 years ago

Thank you for your openness, you are a great man for sharing this. As a person who has had some mental health issues of his own I really hope the stigma will fade sooner rather than later so that more people become open to seeking help.

3
Anonymous almost 5 years ago

Thank you.

4
Anonymous almost 5 years ago

Thank you so much for this, Professor.

5
Anonymous almost 5 years ago

Thank you. I believe this is one of the most important things that can happen on this campus around mental health - letting people know that they're not alone, and that they are not somehow permanently broken. Thank you.

6
Anonymous almost 5 years ago

This has increased my respect for MIT professors.

7
Mazhar Khan almost 5 years ago

Professor I salute your courage and steadfastness to defeat all odds and moving on to a very fulfilling life.

8
Anonymous almost 5 years ago

This is awesome, but I would add that you don't need something identifiable as a "perfect storm" to become depressed. Part of my reaction to this is "wow, he has far, far better reasons for his depression than anything I had". Sometimes, it's just how your brain is wired. Just being at MIT, or just being _human_ is enough to end up there.

9
Anonymous almost 5 years ago

Thank you for sharing this. I was an undergraduate at MIT, going through some of these perfect storms you describe. I buried my energies in (the then existant) Nightline, which led to me (hopefully) helping some people, but also realizing how pervasive these stigmas can be.

Thank you so very much, for taking the stand, and admitting your humanity. I think one of the hardest thing for people to face is that achieving ones' academic/social/life dreams does not mean they have to be perfect, flawless, without help, all the time. It's so easy to think you need to be perfect to "deserve" to be in such "higher ranks."

My time on the hotline, and then my time training others to be on the hotline, and then my time hearing about the tremendous hurts that they heard about on the hotline... really solidified to me how scary it was to be "at the top," and how it feels like any slip would cost you "everything." And how so many (MIT students, and many many many other people) think that's true. The most frightening part about that myth is how seldomly it's taken as anything but the truth.

Thank you, so very much, for being someone who has matched the societal expectations (and in my opinion, the good, wonderful, kind person expectations as well) of "success," who came out so loudly to admit you're not perfect.

It is tremendously brave, and inspiring, and most of all, tremendously valuable.

Thank you for being a role model, not only of exemplary science, thought, teaching, and insight, but also of genuine humanity. And vulnerability. And the need, sometimes, to need, and get, help.

You are a real inspiration, both in your journey and your courage to share your story. Thank you very much, for all of it.

10
Anonymous almost 5 years ago

Thank you for being real. As a parent of an MIT student, I believe that rather than being less than perfect, those who suffer from depression are often more perfect. They often internalize the pain that others either don't have the capacity to feel or inflict on others. Keep fighting for yourself.

11
Anonymous almost 5 years ago

Thank you for sharing, Professor.

I am not an MIT student or alum, but this was forwarded to me by a graduate student friend who has seen me fall down an ever-deeper spiral over the past few months.

Your descriptions are right on target. I feel like there is so little we can do to learn about other people's battles- there is such a social stigma attached that I fear going to any sort of group discussions, so I am ever lonelier in my experiences. Trying to describe it to someone who hasn't been there is unmistakably hard.

I would love if we didn't have to keep this secret. But until I manage to get established in academia, manage to get a job, I am afraid I can't do anything to help to voice of the depressed. Thank you for doing it for me.

12
annag almost 5 years ago

Thank you. Depression is tough, especially when paired with an uncompromising need to produce useful work, whether that need is internal, external, or both. I hope it becomes easier for people who need it to recognize that fact, seek treatment, and get help in a manner they can accept.

It was that same Peter Dourmashkin whom you mention, who first told me I was having a panic attack, during a much smaller (fewer students) 8.022 final at ESG. All term, I had been one of the top students in a class full of "top students", grasping connections quickly and easily despite my troubles completing the homework on time. During that test, and even during the hours he allowed me after everyone else had finished the test, when I had extended time to continue to think about the answers, all I could think about was my own personal inadequacy. I simply could not finish that test, and at that point effectively "washed out" of any chance at physics. When I later attempted 8.03 (as an extra class I knew I shouldn't have taken) the next term, it was my most challenging, and possibly my most interesting, class, until I ended up dropping it because I simply couldn't focus on the labs and the homeworks that everyone else seemed to either find tremendously easy, or work on in a group that met at a time I couldn't attend. One time, I tried joining a group homework session and got so stressed out I had to go to my room to take a nap. Looking back, I now see that panic, anxiety, and depression were a large part of my difficulties in physics, and, more generally, at MIT.

I have since finished my degree, in another department, at another school. I have acquired some amount of "bragging rights", though I still wait for confidence. I have been on more medications than I care to count (more than 10), but cannot really tell a difference yet. My parents claim I'm happier this way, so I continue to take my daily pills and vitamins and maintain good so-called "sleep hygiene", but I remain skeptical, doubtful as to whether any of it really helps. Like my 20/30 vision impairment, my depression-etc., while real, is subtle-yet-persistent. I doubt I will ever truly be rid of it, even with the daily dosages. I am jealous of people who have so little experience of melancholy as to not even recognize its humbling, if devastating, beauty.

Thank you again for writing and posting this. In hopes that I, too, can help, I am (uncharacteristically) posting this comment under my name.