academics and depression

There's an interesting article in this week's Chronicle about a history professor who retired from his tenure-track position while he was suffering from major depression. His early retirement deal included seven years of part-time teaching as a lecturer. During those seven years, after getting to the point of a suicide attempt, he sought treatment for his depression and is now restored to what he thinks of as his fully functioning self. Now, at the end of the seven years, his university has declined to renew his part-time teaching agreement. He first was fighting to have his part-time teaching renewed, but now also is fighting to have his tenure reinstated.

On the one hand, I have a lot of sympathy and understanding for someone who has suffered major depression. Although I've been mildly depressed most of my adult life, I had my most serious period of depression last year and I'm still getting out of it. I look back over the past two years and wonder about some of the things I did, or didn't do.

Yet most jobs you can't just resign and then ask for them back. So I don't really see on what grounds he can argue for his tenured position back. And, quite frankly, the way his comments are presented in the article is sort of insulting --

When, in 2001, Mr. López found himself on the edge of his bed, unable to pull the trigger on his .22, "I saw that this was a no-exit situation and I really broke down," he says. That's when he began taking antidepressants. His doctors experimented with combinations of drugs and finally hit on the right one in 2002. "Within a few weeks, I was kind of breathing again," Mr. López says. He reconciled with his wife and began to enjoy work once more. "My teaching had come back, and I was having a great time," he says.

It was then that he realized he never should have given up his tenured position. "Anybody who resigns from this type of work at 55 has either won the lottery or has some problems," he says. "This is not a factory job where you get up in the wee hours of the morning. It's a very comfortable job, with enormous amounts of free time. We get very hefty salaries for things that are very enjoyable: reading and thinking and writing."

Mr. López says now he should simply have taken a medical leave. But no one suggested that at the time, and he didn't ask. According to Sylvia M. Hall, director of human resources at Binghamton, administrators take professors at their word when they say they want to retire. "I don't see it as our job to challenge their thinking," she says. If Mr. López had requested sick leave, she notes, he probably would have qualified for a whole year's worth.
Mr. López says he is stunned that after his more than 30 years on the faculty, the university will not allow him to continue teaching, even as an adjunct. "They turned me down so brutally and arrogantly, without explanation, it just took me aback," he says. He is so angry that last month he changed his tactics and began asking not just for a part-time position but for the return of his tenured job. A couple of former students who are now lawyers have urged him to sue the university on the basis that his early-retirement contract is not legally binding because he was mentally ill when he signed it.

Basically, as I read this, he's suggesting that because it's a "comfortable job" he must have been "mentally ill" to give it up. And that the university owes him something after 30 years, at least part-time teaching. As the article describes his career, he was a very productive if sometimes erratic scholar and administrator early in his career, followed by a 15 year period in which he withdrew from departmental service. Some of that withdrawal might indeed have been caused by his depression, but should that mean he gets his job back?

I guess my gut response is that he shouldn't. Now, whether the university "ought" to hire him for a few more years of part time teaching (he's in his 60s) is a separate question, and one I don't have enough info to evaluate -- is he a good teacher, are his courses needed, what is the budget situation, etc.

But I thought it was interesting because it's the first case I've heard of in which depression is coming into play as a factor. Because the medical understanding of depression and the popular understanding are often at variance, this makes any legal arguments that might come out of this case potentially interesting.

I'd estimate that at least a third to half of my colleagues have had or are currently experiencing some form of depression. Are academics more prone to depression than other professionals? (Certainly there might be some factors that might come into play with someone's individual internal tendencies/chemistries: solitary reflective work habits, intense competitive pressure with little social or financial rewards, high cultural status combined with low social status, few opportunities for positive feedback, etc...) How could or should this be considered in our employment evaluations and histories?