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Mental Health

Analyzing School Interactions

How Students can Regain Power and Perspective by Understanding Emotion Language

Rose Marie Borutski

Reprinted from "Supported Education" issue of Visions Journal, 2003, No. 17, pp. 11-12

Imagine walking down a faculty hallway towards your office. Suddenly, a door opens and a fellow student, Cassie, runs out of a departmental meeting crying loudly, covering her face with her hands and turning down an adjoining hallway.

Startled and concerned, you quicken your pace. You see Cassie nearly collide with the department Chair. Within seconds, you are standing in Cassie’s office alongside the Chair and another graduate student, the three of you listening hard, trying to grasp what Cassie is saying.

Between her gasps and sobs, Cassie relates how her supervisor berated her in the meeting, asking her if she, a grown woman, wanted her hand held, and making reference to graduate students from the B list as bad students. She cried out how no one intervened on her behalf.

Delayed graduation was the topic under discussion at this departmental meeting. Reasons for delays that graduate and supervisory handbooks typically highlight:

  • planning and time management

  • the writing-up of the material

  • learning or developing advanced statistical techniques

  • financial complications

  • personal relationship problems

  • inadequate supervision.

Review of current research reveals depression accounts for most delays, expressions of intention to leave, and withdrawals from graduate studies.

By the time Cassie ran out of the meeting in a public display of anguish in response to public humiliation that some twenty people witnessed, she had endured many such comments. Her supervisor denigrated her ideas and analysis, imposing his own direction on her. When she refused to consider only his interests, issues and ideas, he labelled her an uncooperative student, unable to take direction, unable to negotiate the direction for her studies. “Think harder,” said one female professor. Another said she was a “slow thinker.” When she asked for specific feedback to remarks on papers she submitted, her supervisor yelled, “am I not making myself clear, or what!”

Within four months of arriving on campus for PhD studies, Cassie was unable to eat from nervousness before, during, and after being on campus. She experienced a sense of distress — a low, steady, level of unease — as she interacted with her supervisory committee. Distress grew quickly to anguish, characterized by intense crying when she was alone thinking about the situation, and when she expressed herself to others. She experienced exhaustion and needed to sleep after being on campus. Soon the fatigue became chronic, and she was too tired to attend school. The thought of working on her studies sent her spiralling into nervousness and fatigue, and she became unable to eat. Depression is most generally understood as a chronic, low mood state, an illness, a mental illness existing within a person that interferes with an individual’s ability to function. So, yes, Cassie experiences the debilitating effects of depression. However, a more complete and accurate description of her depression exists through the use of more specific ‘emotion language,’ as in the account below.

Cassie’s distress-anguish emerged from chronic humiliation as a result of constant character assassinations for how she thought, that no amount of assertiveness could counter or stop — and where no one intervened. This attack of her competency eventually shut down interest-excitement-curiosity and enjoyment in her studies, for they became linked to fear and humiliation. Yelling and character assassinations signal contempt — the emotion of superiority (as in the comment “am I making myself clear or what?!”) Using a specific language of emotion highlights the way in which words bantered about carelessly elicit emotions, like shame-humiliation, and raise the importance of the need to be aware of the emotions embedded in our words.

Redefining depression through specific emotion language moves the spotlight from the individual onto the interactions within the workplace environment, rather than any individual’s faulty coping abilities. The relationships between distress, depression and unhealthy workplace interaction (aggression, hostility, bullying, mobbing, scapegoating, etc.) have become the centre of attention by Human Resources personnel. At issue are the inter-connections to productivity and performance, and the need for increased organizational accountability for healthy workplace environments.

Research on academic departments shows that professors and graduate students experience similar rates of depression as employees in the regular workplace. Those who rated their departments as low in morale, poor in teamwork and supervision also experienced higher levels of depression, lower self-esteem and greater intention of leaving: the same experiences of employees.

However, academics and departments enjoy operating autonomy as halls of learning and are not considered to be official workplaces. They are often exempt from the same scrutiny that workplaces experience, the same training, or receive the scrutinizing and training much later, often in response to a public crisis. Some seven years later, Cassie has not received the help she needs, and has not finished her PhD. Humiliation-avoidance, which we all experience, narrows the limits of our abilities. We might never know what Cassie is capable of, or who she might have become.

 
About the author
As a consultant, trainer and coach, Rose Marie specializes in communication, conflict and emotions. She can be contacted at rmeborutski@telus.net
Footnotes:
  1. Jagatic, K.C. (2002). “The influence of educational culture on experienced and witnessed hostility by faculty toward professionals-intraining.” Dissertation. US: Univ Microfilms International.

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