Portraits of a University:
As part of a brand-new weekly Journal column, Nathaniel Dunaway meets with Western Oregon University students to discuss their lives and their experiences in the world of higher education. In doing so, he hopes to find an answer to the question what does it mean to be a college student in the 21st century?
This week, Psychology major Adam Pettitt offers his thoughts on the value of the college degree, and the stigma surrounding depression in America.
I’m a dual major in biology and psychology. This is my fifth year here. I actually went to University of Idaho for a year, then I took two years off, and I realized after those two years off that I wanted to be a psychiatrist. I knew that I wanted to help people. So because of that, I came here. I applied a week before school started.
There are six grad schools I’m applying to this year. But I honestly don’t expect to get in, just because clinical psychology programs are notoriously hard to get into. They have a one-percent acceptance rate. So they have about three-hundred people apply, and three people get in. I want to go to Yale, Harvard, UNC, University of Texas, UCLA and Duke. But honestly, the number one place I want to go to is Yale, but it’s not because it’s Yale. It’s nice that it’s Yale, but… the way these programs work is that you’re not applying to a program, you’re applying to work with a person, in their lab, doing research. I want to look at the genetics of depression.
My first year here, all of a sudden, I just got slammed with depression out of nowhere. I was twenty-one at the time, and either you’ve been through depression and you understand what it entails, or you haven’t. I think that before, when I thought about it, I thought “oh, somebody’s just sad,” but it’s so much more than that. It’s a way of thinking. It’s a descent into someone you’re not. When I was down there, there was no being happy. It’s something that if you don’t have the right tools -and even if you do have the right tools- it can be so hard to dig yourself out of. It’s incredibly devastating to the people who encounter it.
I made an appointment with a psychiatrist, and he told me everything would be fine. I went through ten different anti-depressants for a year before anything ever worked for me. It was the worst year. Anti-depressants work in the way that you have about a four to eight week window before they can even have an effect. Finally I found one that worked, and it was like magic. I actually had a graph on a big whiteboard, for my own edification, where one was the worst that I’d ever felt and ten was the best and five was completely apathetic and neutral. So every day I’d say, “ok, this is where I’m at,” and slowly the graph would get higher and higher, and all of a sudden, five wasn’t my top anymore, and at the six or eight week mark, I realized “oh, this is how life is supposed to be. This is how I used to be.” It was like waking up from a dream.
The way anti-depressants are prescribed is… basically it’s a flow-chart. Basically, if you’re lethargic and depressed, then you get prescribed this kind of anti-depressant. And what ends up happening is that when one doesn’t work, you switch to another kind, and switch to another kind, until you finally find the one that works. There’s actually a flow-chart in one of my textbooks, literally a flow chart. And I was at the end of the chart, right before MAOI’s, which are the oldest type of anti-depressant, and electroshock therapy. So I’m really glad I stopped there. I thought… it’s 2014. How do we just have a flow-chart for prescribing this? There has to be a better way. So I started looking into the genetics of depression and the genetics of anti-depressant response.
On my mom’s side of the family, my uncle killed himself. A lot of people on that side of the family suffered from depression. There is a genetic basis to it. I started doing research on how certain people with certain genetics will favorably respond to certain anti-depressants. That’s when I realized that this is what I want to do. What I went through, nobody should ever have to go through. I would not wish that on anybody. If I could be the one who helps people, to prevent people from becoming depressed, from getting down there… and also using the genotype of people who do suffer to discover which anti-depressants will work for them and which won’t. I think that it can be done. It’s going to take a lot of collaboration across the disciplines, from psychology to biology to neuroscience, but I think that it can be done, and that it should be done.
There’s a general lack of knowledge about mental health in this country. If there is this genetic basis, if there is –as it’s simplified in the media- this chemical imbalance in people, then it’s not people’s fault that they’re depressed. It breaks my heart that people have to endure depression while there are all these stigmas against it. Things are starting to shift and change, but it’s going to be a battle before depression becomes something that’s acceptable and understandable as an actual health disease rather than a purely mental disease.
We should be able to tailor and individualize treatment for people, so that after one anti-depressant doesn’t work, one treatment doesn’t work, they don’t give up. I didn’t make the choice to stop trying, but there are people out there who do. It’s not going to be one-hundred percent figured out, but it’ll be better than a flow-chart.
By Adam Pettitt, edited by Nathaniel Dunaway
If you’re a Western student and would like to be interviewed for the Portraits of a University column, contact Nathaniel Dunaway at email@example.com