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‘Portraits of Resilience’ destigmatize depression at one of the world’s top universities

Editor's Note: On Monday night, we aired our story about the recent book "Portraits of Resilience" by MIT professor Daniel Jackson, in which he shares first-person accounts by students and photographs of students challenged by anxiety and depression. On Tuesday, three students share their individual experiences with Jeffrey Brown, including discussion of treatment and their own stories of resilience, plus a discussion with a mental health expert.

Students at MIT are now part of a project to give a face and voice to a growing crisis across U.S. campuses. When a computer science professor noticed more and more students were coming to discuss their mental health issues, he turned to photography to bring the stigmatized problem of depression into the open. Now that project is a book, “Portraits of Resilience.” Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    It is a particularly tense time on college campuses these days with final exams.

    Many universities are trying to deal more explicitly with depression and anxiety among their students.

    One school, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT, found itself in the midst of a so-called suicide cluster several years ago that took the lives of six students and a faculty member.

    Jeffrey Brown recently went to MIT to meet a professor and some students who are making a difference with their own efforts to bring mental health issues out from the shadows.

    Here's part one of Jeffrey's report.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Bright, accomplished, ambitious, also, at times, anxious, deeply depressed, sometimes even hopeless.

    They are students at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, now part of a project to give a face and voice to a growing mental health crisis.

  • Daniel Jackson:

    It's a global epidemic. It was this huge, pervasive problem, not just at MIT, but I believe in all kinds of places like MIT, that we needed to address.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Daniel Jackson is a computer science professor at MIT. Several years ago, he began seeing a phenomenon on campus that took him out of his area of expertise.

  • Daniel Jackson:

    More and more students were coming to me, usually telling me that they wanted to talk about a problem set or an assignment. And when I sat down with them and talked to them, I would discover that the real problem was that they had some mental health issue that was holding them back and preventing them from doing the work. And it was tragic and pervasive.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Do they say it to you, or you intuited, or how did that come out?

  • Daniel Jackson:

    Well, normally, we'd start talking about the problem set, and I would ask them a question like, how much time have you spent on this? Why is it proving so difficult?

    And then often, they'd say something like, well, actually, I haven't spent any time on it because I can't motivate myself, or I can't get out of bed in the morning, or I don't feel like life is worthwhile.

    And then the bells would start ringing in my head, and I realized I would need to chaperone them over to mental health and try and help them.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    MIT is one of the world's most prestigious universities tough to get into, tough to succeed at.

    But what was happening here was part of something bigger. According to a 2017 study of American colleges, nearly 40 percent of students said they felt so depressed in the prior year that it was difficult to function; 61 percent said they'd felt — quote — "overwhelming anxiety."

    And suicide remains the second leading cause of death overall for college-aged people. Jackson also felt a deeply personal loss with the suicide of a friend on the faculty.

    He decided to turn to his outside passion, photography, to help bring a stigmatized, private problem into the open.

  • Daniel Jackson:

    It struck me that the people who were suffering from depression and anxiety were still, as it were, in the dark. We have made great strides in destigmatizing depression, but we still really just talked in terms of numbers. We talked about abstractions of mental health issues, and we would say, this is normal, and there are so many people who suffer from it.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Jackson put up posters around campus asking people to share their stories, and eventually interviewed and photographed some two dozen students, as well as faculty and staff members.

    Emily Tang is now finishing her junior year, after depression forced her to take a two year leave of absence.

  • Emily Tang:

    I would just sit there wrapped in a blanket. The achievement of the day was, I got out of bed. And I wasn't eating. It was like one meal a day, and then that was usually like, you know, somebody had bought something and come home, and been like, eat this, please.

    Everything felt like there like was like a layer of cotton, or fog, or something wrapped around my brain, and I just — like, everything was just so blah.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The essays and portraits were first published in the campus newspaper, The Tech. They're now collected in a book, "Portraits of Resilience."

  • Daniel Jackson:

    I hoped to capture the personality and charisma of the person that I was interviewing, the strength and the vulnerability. And I wanted to make photos that weren't sensationalist, but that captured something of the depth of the individual.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The black-and-white portraits reveal a range of emotion.

    Haley Cope is a senior in women and gender studies.

  • Haley Cope:

    I can look at my experiences through the lens of my faith, and I can look at the experience of depression as a cross that I bear. And that gives a completely different view of the experience that I'm still grappling with.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Victor Morales battled depression as a student and after graduating.

  • Victor Morales:

    Depression, you know, whether it's the good or the bad, whether it's the happiness or the tears, for me, my depression was numb. It — I felt nothing.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    The essays tell of different experiences and potential causes – genetic predisposition, traumas in their lives, a chronic health condition – and then there's the stress on today's students.

  • Daniel Jackson:

    I think life is much harder for students today than it was when I was a student. There's so much pressure to perform. There are so many reductionist, numeric measures of success.

    And this isn't MIT. This is everywhere, whether it's counting the number of Facebook likes you have, the number of times you're retweeted, your GPA, your internship salary. Kids now have resumes when they're in high school.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Right, measurements of how they're doing.

  • Daniel Jackson:

    That's right.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    And maybe failing.

  • Daniel Jackson:

    That's right. Well, in fact, I believe it's not possible to succeed in this environment, because if you're measuring yourself day by day by all these short-term ratings, eventually, you won't measure up.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Jackson's answer, focus on the strengths and perseverance of people battling sometimes crippling depression, and the importance of friendships and loved ones to help them get through.

  • Daniel Jackson:

    Well, I thought of it as a way of making a gallery of people who could stand up and say, this is me, and I'm proud of my experience. Not only am I not ashamed by what happened to me, but I'm proud to tell my story and to show that it's possible to struggle with depression or anxiety, whatever other mental health condition, and reach the light at the end of the tunnel.

  • Jeffrey Brown:

    Jackson's book was recently given to all first-year students.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown on the campus of MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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