President Greg Weiner Opens Up About Mental Health Journey
President Weiner sat down with Maureen Lynch '24, Editor in Chief of Le Provocateur student newspaper to discuss his battle with depression. This transcript covers topics such as descriptions of depressive and schizophrenic symptoms, mention of suicide, and hospitalization. Please do not continue to read if you are uncomfortable with any of the topics mentioned above.
MAUREEN LYNCH (Le Provocateur): Let’s jump right in. When did you first begin to feel symptoms of depression?
PRESIDENT GREGORY WEINER (Assumption University): One of the challenging things about serious depression is that it becomes your normal. So, I guess the question I would ask myself is, when did it become a problem; when did I think it was unusual. I would say the most intense period was when I was in undergrad. Looking back it was very serious depression, but I didn’t know it at the time; I didn’t recognize it as such.
LYNCH: What was that period of time like for you?
WEINER: The word I use to describe– of course depression is different for different people– but the word I would use to describe it is heaviness. It’s a huge– weight is not quite the right word, but it’s a heaviness. Lincoln, who I wrote a book on, had major depressive episodes. I would hardly compare myself, of course, but I relate a lot to looking at his face, to pictures of his face because you can see– it’s almost like it’s pulling down gravitationally.
LYNCH: How did you cope with those symptoms at the time?
WEINER: Poorly, poorly, I was– I missed a lot of class, I was not a good student. It was almost by inertia. If you don’t realize it’s an unhealthy condition that you don’t have to be in, then it just gradually becomes your reality. I would say I was inert. I just slept a lot, didn’t do much.
LYNCH: Did you seek help for that treatment at the time?
WEINER: I did not, no. For a couple reasons, one, this is over thirty five years ago. I’m sure I knew people who were in treatment, but I didn’t know they were in treatment. The stigma, it’s still a problem, but it was much worse than now. I’m not sure it occurred to me that it was a medical condition for which there was treatment.
The other thing, and this is completely irrational, and I knew at the time it was irrational, but when I was growing up, I spent some time around my grandparents, summers and stuff, and I had this uncle who had an often untreated schizophrenia. And I had read or heard that most people who develop schizophrenia develop it in their twenties. So my magical thinking was, as long as I don’t deal with this until after I’m twenty-nine, then it won’t be schizophrenia. Now the reality is they are two different diseases that have nothing to do with one another. In fact, one of my kids has schizophrenia, but I think even for me, that attitude on my part perpetuates stigma–you know the idea that I would rather be depressed than have this other illness, when in fact they are both illnesses, no more blameworthy than diabetes or heart disease or whatever else.
LYNCH: What was that stigma specifically that you saw?
WEINER: In my case, I think it was a stigma I put on myself, in other words, there was something wrong with me. I don’t mean something wrong with me like I have a fever, it was something somehow deeply, almost morally wrong with me. There was definitely more social stigma at that time. On the other hand, it would come less from things people would say–although you do still sort of hear things in ordinary language that do evoke stigma–but I think it was more in the silence. Nobody talked about it, when in fact a considerable number of people are living with this disease; you think you are the only one, plus the disease, the depression kind of inclines you to blame yourself.
LYNCH: So, when did you start seeking treatment?
WEINER: I sought treatment when I was thirty, and there are a couple of significant things about that. One, I was past twenty-nine, again, knowing at the time that was irrational, in fact I remember at the time telling the psychiatrist I went to see, ‘I know this is ridiculous.’ We were also expecting our first child, and I was kind of thinking that it was time to get it together. The other thing that happened at the time is that my biological mother– I was raised mostly by my stepmother who is one of God’s true angels on earth– but my biological mother, who had fairly serious psychiatric illness, had an episode that culminated in a very serious suicide attempt. I was living in DC at the time and she was in Texas, and whatever the reasons were, I ended up being the kid who could go check on things. I think that was a wakeup call, particularly working with the mental health system, at that point it was the emergency mental health system, but that was a real wake up call.
LYNCH: How do you cope with depression now after being in treatment?
WEINER: So, I still do weekly therapy appointments with a Worcester-based psychiatrist. Going back twenty-five, twenty-six years ago when I started, I had the wonderful fortune to pick the right person out of the phone book, a doctor named Arnold Kaplin, and his wife Marcia Kaplin– he’s a psychiatrist and she’s a therapist– it is not an exaggeration to say that they saved my life. That’s to say, they saved a meaningful life. It’s not that I was going to hurt myself, but they saved a meaningful life. So, I take medicine every day, a couple different ones and it’s well treated now, so I don't feel depressed day to day. I feel, as everyone does, ups and downs in mood or some days are more anxiety provoking than others, but I would say it is well controlled.
LYNCH: And what was that process like, to seek treatment?
WEINER: Just to back up for a minute, I think I clicked very well with Dr. Kaplin right away and it’s interesting, once I got over the hump of walking into his office, which took over a decade, I was just anxious to get on with it and do the work. I remember early on, I was meeting with him once a week, and he said ‘you know we’re making so much progress, let’s do twice a week.’ At first, I was really reluctant to tell my parents. I’m not sure why. But when I called, they said they were proud of how I was handling it. I used to really look forward to those therapy appointments. I’m not a clinician, but I do think antidepressants have played a significantly positive role for me. I also think, generally speaking, there are people who are in therapy and there are people who can benefit from therapy. Not everybody has an illness or a diagnosis, but I found it a very positive experience, including when– a good therapist will challenge you, so I especially appreciate that.
LYNCH: And how did you begin to work through the stigma surrounding mental health?
WEINER: My own stigma?
WEINER: Well there’s a stigma I put on myself and I think it just took a lot of treatment to cope with it. The social stigma, I would say a couple things. One, I don’t think even at that time, it was terribly intense, again I think it was more silence for me, I’m sure other people experience it differently, so you tell somebody, ‘oh I’m on Zoloft and I’m seeing a psychiatrist,’ invariably somebody else in the group will say I am too, and you realize it’s an illness.
My real hero is my middle son, who has schizophrenia. He went through hell from about young teenage years on, most people develop schizophrenia in their twenties, but he developed it very early, was misdiagnosed, took medicines that made things worse, and ultimately spent at least a year and a half in the hospital, in a locked ward, during what would have been his high school years. And now, he is a fully functional, independent adult, who, like anybody with an illness, has symptoms from time to time, but he takes his medicine, he lives on his own, he goes to work. I think I said this at the inauguration last spring when I was talking about my kids but, the courage it takes– you know the older you get, the younger sixteen and seventeen looks–the courage it takes, took for him, to climb out of that and above it, I find awe-inspiring.
One thing it made me aware of is what I would call subtle stigma. Schizophrenia is used as a metaphor— there’s a myth that schizophrenia has to do with split personality, which it doesn’t. I don’t like policing language, and I don’t take offense, but I’ll say two things. One is the use of words like crazy, nuthouse, things like that. Second is the way we label people as so-and-so is a schizophrenic, as though it defines who they are as opposed to so-and-so has schizophrenia. I am much more acutely aware of those sorts of things than I once was. I think most people who use language that I try not to use don’t mean the slightest offense by it, but does it contribute to a subtle form of stigma.
LYNCH: How old is your son now?
LYNCH: Did he end up going to college?
WEINER: He went to community college and finished his high school degree on his own initiative because he had missed so much during high school. Now he’s working.
Another term, sorry, I just remembered, another term that is very easy to use, colloquially, is psychosis or psychotic. Psychosis is detachment from reality, so a psychotic symptom, commonly people with schizophrenia experience auditory hallucinations. It’s hard to understand, it’s hard for me to understand, but those voices are every bit as real to the person experiencing them as my voice is to you right now. That’s what psychosis means. When we use psychotic as a synonym for dangerous, that I think contributes to stigma in a serious way as well.
LYNCH: How has stigma behind mental health, has that ever come back up in any acute way you would want to share?
WEINER: I found it very comforting that when I would tell people, friends or whoever else, if it came up in conversation that I was in treatment for depression, how many other people were also. And, I think it’s more common now, so I don't know if there was a specific episode of stigma, but I will say, it really grates on me now, and I’m sure I used the same language myself, when someone says ‘that person is acting psychotic,’ or ‘that’s schizophrenic thinking.’ It’s more piercing than it used to be.
I think what contributes, and by the way, I am not an expert on any of this but, there are certain activities, ways people that define themselves and think of themselves. We know there is a particular challenge–there is a mental health epidemic on campuses, and it is especially acute with athletes. By the way, I was never an athlete in the sense that I never passed a ball to get it into a goal, but I can identify with the idea of this image of oneself as the tough-it-out kind of person. And it’s not a self imposed stigma, it’s the way we think of strength. Ann example of strength for me is my son. In political theory, which is my area, there is a French political theorist named Bertrand de Jouvenel who said ‘everywhere we find man, he is in a state of debt,’ meaning we all depend on each other and on the past and so-forth. I think there is an unhealthy way we talk about the rugged individualist, a person who can fix everything on their own and who doesn’t need anything. I don’t think that this stigmatizes mental health challenges, but it does influence the way people think about themselves.
I would say the biggest thing for me, when we look at students who are struggling today, is not accepting depression as baseline, as normal. Not everybody is struggling the same way. There are many factors, childhood experiences, family dynamics, but there is also brain chemistry and looking back at myself as an undergraduate, it was shocking to me how normal that kind of thing can creep into your head, the idea that this is the way the world is. One of the reasons I am so worried about isolation and want to create more public spaces on campus is that it is really easy to retreat into yourself, and we need to learn to live in the company of friends, as our mission statement says.
LYNCH: Is that why you find it important to talk about mental health and stigmas?
WEINER: I think if me talking about it results in a single student saying, ‘wait a minute, this is not how it has to be,’ then that can save somebody’s life in the way those doctors saved mine. I think it is important to get it out into the open as a facet of life; you know, nobody says, ‘don’t tell anyone about my diabetes,’ or ‘I’m afraid to go to the doctor because they might tell me my arm is broken.’ It's a medical condition; I would say as a young kid, my biological mother’s health, there were some times that were not good. But I think everybody has experienced a loss of the skills of togetherness through COVID.
I would also say, this is me, I’m using this metaphorically, one thing I see among students is an epidemic of preparation–by which I mean, students will say, every student who I have talked to, without exception will say, they are very busy. And a lot of times, you know some students are busy with things that are just intrinsically busy. Your team’s in season, you’re editor of the student paper. A lot of it is young people’s lives are so structured that when they get to college, they really have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to read a book just because they love it, look at a work of art and say they love it because they love it, take a computer science class or whatever, and just relish the experience of learning. A lot of the anxiety that I observe has to do with the sense that you can’t do anything for its own sake, you always have to be preparing yourself for something else. You know, it’s your first year in college, you’re preparing yourself for a program you want to get into, and then you are preparing to get into grad school or law school, then you are preparing to get into your first job, and work hard to work up the ladder to your second job, and there’s no ability to just enjoy the beauty of the experience, and that’s one of the challenges as well.
LYNCH: You mentioned your son a bit, did you have any other supports in place to help you through your depression?
WEINER: My wife, who I met when I was twenty-one and sort of deep in depression. There are many many things I could not have done without her but, certainly in that period of deep depression, she was there a lot, and still is in every other way, but I would say that in particular.
LYNCH: What can the Assumption community to do to start opening up and have these conversations we need to have.
WEINER: Talk about it. When depression insinuates itself into your life as a baseline, challenge it, and let other people challenge it. Everybody goes through periods of sadness in life and periods of anxiety. If it is a persistent condition, there is help to be had, just like there is help to be had if you have any other medical condition. I would say as a community at Assumption, one of the things that’s so striking to me is how fewer people are out and about just being together, not doing anything in particular, just being together. Rebecca, my wife, brings the dogs out, and if classes aren’t changing, there’s really not a lot of people outdoors.
I think we can create a model at Assumption for what a new public square looks like, in other words, how are we drawing people out of isolation and into the company of friends. I don’t think that has to be a terribly complicated enterprise. I smile every time I see a student sitting on one of those blue and white Adirondack chairs because I know they are getting their Vitamin D. I was really struck last fall when there was the water main break, and I made my most popular decision of my tenure, which was to cancel classes so it could be repaired. We didn’t have organized activities. Students could have been in their rooms all day, but we just had campus recreation put some lawn games out in front of Alumni-Des , people just came out, and it wasn’t organized, there wasn’t a tournament. I think there is a real desire for friendship and community– I think it is an innate human need.
If you or someone you need is struggling with mental health issues, please use the resources below for assistance.
24/7 resources are available
Suicide Prevention Hotline Dial 988 or suicidepreventionlifeline.org
Crisis Text Line text HOME to 74174 crisistextline.org
Pathways for Change 24/7 Hotline: 800-870-5905 24/7
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