Ten Discoveries From The Portraits Of Resilience Project

1. Millenials are unusually generous in sharing their experiences

One full professor I interviewed told me: “It’ll be easy to get people like you and me whose careers are set, but students have too much at stake to divulge these things.” The opposite was true. Krista Tippett, in a recent NPR interview, noted that “younger generations present themselves to the world with a fullness and a lack of inhibition that is new in human history” and that transparency and integrity are “new moral values for a new generation.” This was my experience. A student with obsessive-compulsive disorder told me about his urge to insult people; one described his first same-sex encounter and the opprobrium he suffered after; another told of her suicidal intentions and involuntary hospitalization.

2. They’re ordinary people but with extraordinary insights

My subjects had, in the words of Kay redfield Jamison, “felt more things, more deeply; had more experiences, more intensely; loved more and been more loved; laughed more often for having cried more often; appreciated more the springs for all the winters.”  Depression and the degree of pain it inflicts has made these subjects into extraordinary people with deep and unusual insights not just about mental health but about friendship, community, and life purpose. So while we should destigmatize mental illness, we should not downplay the impact it has on those who suffer from it—both negative and positive.  

3. Medication can help, sometimes profoundly

This is true for many, but one of my subjects said that taking Prozac was such a profound experience that she “felt like herself for the first time” and that the “darkness and sadness and anxiety that I thought was me was actually changeable.” Another told me his family tried to persuade him not to take medication, but he came to realize that without it he wouldn’t survive. He said: “I told my psychiatrist recently that I don’t think I could make it through another depression.”

4. Depression can come on suddenly, but often has deep roots

Almost all my subjects reported major depressive episodes starting unexpectedly. But all of them had earlier life traumas that seemed to predispose them to depression in college. Some had abusive parents; one was threatened by his father with a gun. Several experienced rejection due to sexual orientation. For some, a single traumatic event caused life to spiral out of control.

5. Overcoming inertia is key

Several of my subjects reported that they overcame their depression or anxiety only when they began to systematically “act against it”—to seek out friends and go to class when their depression was telling them to stay in bed. But they also recognized that this is rarely enough, and that therapy and medication were necessary too.

6. Even smart people can’t “fix” depression

Tragically, the first thing depression robs you of is resilience—the one thing you most need to overcome it. Friends or family members may think they can help “solve” the problem. In my own family’s experience with depression, I had the mistaken impression that I could “fix” it with enough effort and careful thinking. One MBA student who had been suffering from Bell’s palsy for six months told me how she finally decided to make peace with her pain and the possibility of never regaining her smile. She stopped trying to fix her problem and started meditating instead. To her surprise, her condition began to resolve itself within days.

7. Spirituality or a belief in something bigger than oneself can help

Medical help is essential, but many of my subjects commented on the importance of religion and spirituality in their lives. They noted how MIT culture fails to recognize the positive value of traditional religious practices. One professor reported that being brought up in a religious family is one of the most significant factors protecting against suicide.

8. You’ve won the prize!  And now you’re depressed. A depression paradox?

Faculty and administrators often think that recognizing achievement with prizes and awards will foster an energetic and positive atmosphere. In a highly competitive environment like MIT, it often seems to have the very opposite effect, fueling feelings of inadequacy and increasing anxiety. Many of my subjects explained how being measured by grades—and getting the inevitable B or worse—undermined their sense of self. The most frequent recommendation to other students was to have other things in your life beyond academics.

9. Peer support is vital

Students provide extraordinary support for each other. Two stories stand out. In one, a student told me he decided against suicide because he felt he couldn’t let his friends down: “How could I take my own life when so many people had invested so much in me? So many people saw—I don’t know what—in me, and I guess they cared or loved me. In that way they communicated to me that they thought it should be worth it for me to survive.” The other was the story of the student ambulance crew who picked up Sean Collier the night he was killed by the Boston Marathon terrorist and sat together for a week after in mutual support.

10. The upside of depression

Almost all my subjects said that, while they would not wish they’re suffering on others, they don’t regret that it happened to them. They described how it made them stronger, more sensitive and more self-aware. And it focused them on what matters most in life. As an eminent 70-year-old professor told me: “One of the things that was good about my travails was that if I hadn’t had them, I would have been trying to climb that ladder until the day I dropped dead. In some sense, I am still trying to climb that ladder, but it’s balanced by a realization that there are much more important things, like being able to walk and get out of bed in the morning.”