Depression and an Invisible Community

By: Ed Hendrickson

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
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.