On the campus of the University of Virginia, where I work, I was recently approached by someone handing out flyers for the university’s counseling services center, which was trying to raise awareness about depression. The flyer sought to destigmatize depression by listing celebrities who suffer from it. Clearly, the intention was to lower the psychic barriers to seeking help, to catch the distraught and the possibly suicidal who might otherwise suffer alone.
This humane purpose harmonizes with pressing institutional interests, as the shootings at Virginia Tech in the spring of 2007 and Northern Illinois University this past winter made clear. Earlier, there was a much-reported case at MIT in which the university failed to prevent the suicide of a student and was successfully sued by her parents. For today’s college administrator, then, risk-management for the institution may take the form of therapy for the student.
The problem is that the mind is a private thing, difficult to know from the outside. The more risk-averse the institution, the more assiduous must be its efforts to penetrate the inner lives of students. Faculty and dormitory resident assistants are recruited as the surveillance arm of this endeavor, encouraged or required to undergo training by the counseling center to recognize the “early signs” of mental illness. In universities as in schools, it would stand to reason that the pressures of institutional risk management tend toward casting an ever more promiscuous diagnostic net. Are we becoming less tolerant of eccentricity, especially that of the “loner”? Is a certain disposition, a normative set of genial manners, becoming enforceable under the rubric of mental health?
Because of the opaque character of other people’s minds, our legitimate concern for the small minority who may be afflicted with serious mental-health problems risks becoming a wholesale experiment in social control and psychic homogenization. As increasingly therapeutic institutions, universities are merely going along with trends in the rest of society. The problem is that such complaisance is at odds with the mission of liberal education.From Unhappiness to Depression
There is no longer any doubt that serious depression is an organic as well as psychic condition, and that its life-destroying effects can often be controlled by medication. Ironically, it may be precisely this shining success of pharmacology that leads us to extend the concept of depression beyond its proper diagnostic warrant, so that it crowds out older understandings of unhappiness.
The semantic shift wherein “unhappiness” is replaced by “depression” has real consequences: Our self-understanding becomes infected by medical categories that may not be appropriate,...