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Depression and an Invisible Community
By: Ed Hendrickson
It’s common debate parlance to say that a tournament is depressing. We joke that it’s killing us, running us threadbare—that is, the continuous cycle of cutting cards and debating, weekend after weekend, month after month, year after year. Admittedly, debate is a highly time consuming activity. Many debaters complain that between the sleep deprivation, malnourishment, and mental competition, they can’t seem to feel much else besides fatigue. At the end of the year, there’s the usual chatter of quitting, but most everyone serious returns next year to endure the grind again. The soul-sucking exhaustion doesn’t seem stratified, either: people from the lowest brackets of tournaments and highly seeded grandmasters stagger like equals through this haze of debate-weariness, but for most, I think the struggle is largely metaphorical. The frustration and depression of debate take on no realized form and are cast off soon after the tournament is over. But this isn’t the case for all of us.
The trouble with depression is that it can be made invisible so easily by those afflicted. When asked, “how was your day?” the depressed person need only say “fine” to immediately dismiss any suspicion that, in fact, their day was not fine. This is made especially easy in debate room chatter, where words like depressed and exhausted and dead and beat are all tossed together in a mélange of pseudo-psychiatric self-evaluations. Here, the depressed person can blend in. For me, blending in was an effort to avoid detection—to go under the radar of nosy friends and adversaries and teachers so that I might avoid the public humiliation of being labeled a downer or a loser. Culturally, we treat mental disorders like they’re something to be ashamed of. Worse still, the word itself, depression, has been cheapened by overuse, where everything from a losing record to a lay judge is depressing. Stuck in the language, I lost sight of whether I was actually depressed or not—whether I was sad all the time only because debate was emotionally demanding or whether I had developed a legitimate disorder.
I have since confirmed that I am not alone in this regard. I couldn’t tell you whether debaters have a particular depressive streak or not (this, however, would be a very interesting bit of research, perhaps for some time in the future), but my purpose here is not statistical; I’m only speaking to my personal experience. I’ve met many debaters who are struggling with or have struggled with serious depression, though countless others remain unfamiliar to me, I’m sure. Some are undiagnosed or refusing treatment, while others are self-diagnosed and self-medicating (through counterproductive mediums like alcohol), and others still are receiving medication and struggling. They’ve experienced a range of reactions, from familial exile to warm embraces to moments of quiet solitude—some are lucky, others not. Sources of anxiety and stress are just as varied: some are the survivors of abuse, some are struggling with their gender identity, some can’t see themselves getting out of bed tomorrow, some never feel smart enough, some can’t begin to see themselves as pretty, and some still don’t have a reason—they just know that something is missing. Some are suicidal; some are not.
I would also like to make note of the fact that, although I’ve been speaking strictly of depression, many of the same conditions of silence exist for those who suffer from other, legitimate psychological disorders. Depression has been my experience, so I’m speaking to it specifically, but I know people who regularly struggle with dissociative disorders, anxiety, OCD, ADD, ADHD, among others. I’m sure there are more still who I will never know.
The problem I wish to address here, to be absolutely clear, is the twofold problem of silence: there are those who remain silent about their depression, and there are those who refuse to acknowledge the invisibility of their peers, and thereby participate in its continuity. What’s important to recognize is not that depressed people exist, because to most people, especially in a liberal and open community like debate, that’s just a fact of life; rather, we should direct our attention to the pervasive unconsciousness to the emotional and psychological well being of other people. We need to be good to one another in a way that transcends phatic conversation in the hallways, and we need to have at the forefront of our minds the idea that the subjects of our conversations (be it online on a blog, in a post-round rant about and RFD, or in an actual debate) are very real, often vulnerable people. Anyone could be depressed. The moral of the story is not ‘be nice,’ but instead ‘be aware.’ Consciousness begins with openness and dialogue.
This can be hard, most definitely, and I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not always available myself, and I know for a fact that an activity like debate can be trying for a lot of people, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Of course, that’s when our awareness is needed the most. When it’s quiet is when it’s important to listen.