It’s World Mental Health Day today, which aims to “raises public awareness about mental health issues. The day promotes open discussion of mental disorders, and investments in prevention, promotion and treatment services.” That’s a big huge umbrella, but I’d like to talk about something I’m intimately familiar with: depression.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention in March this year put out a study that estimates that 1 in 10 Americans is depressed. Who is depressed?
This study found the following groups to be more likely to meet criteria for major depression:
- persons 45-64 years of age
- blacks, Hispanics, non-Hispanic persons of other races or multiple races
- persons with less than a high school education
- those previously married
- individuals unable to work or unemployed
- persons without health insurance coverage
There’s a lot of reasons for depression, and I don’t want to state that any one thing is determinative of depression, but I do want to note a couple things. One is that the psychology profession – and its pop-psych disciples who disseminate information more widely – often transcendentalise depression as an innate, biological condition. It’s an individual condition, not a structural one.
While I do of course agree that there’s biological predispositions, I think that the above list makes the point quite clearly: depression is also political. Living in a world in which you have fewer opportunities as a result of being valued less, yes that takes a mental toll. There’s no statistics there on depression among GLBT people, but as far as I know, those too suggest a greater-than-average propensity towards depression too. Facing classism, sexism, racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism (and any combination thereof, plus I’m sure others I’m forgetting), on a day-to-day basis in everything from institutional biased policy to personal interactions, that leaves its mark. Some psychologists have a name for this process: “minority stress.”
The personal is the political has been a truism of feminism since the second wave, but we often forget what that truly means. All too frequently we create a false dichotomy between body and mind, forgetting that we are bodies and minds in space, bodies and minds in culture, bodies and minds constrained and disciplined by capitalism and the nation-state. The inequality of poverty – struggling to survive – is depressing, and as workers, most of us fundamentally alienated under capitalism, which has a continual cost it enacts upon our psyches and bodies. When my partner and I go to the pain management specialist, most of the other patients are working class men, gritting their teeth through the constant pain their professions have caused them (and this too links to mental health).
I’ve been depressed on and off for most of my life, and I’ve done all the usual treatments and some have been literally life-saving. I don’t doubt the effectiveness of psychiatric treatment or medication for some or even most people, but I do think that we should be cautious about accepting provisional political facts as unchangeable conditions. Knowing this, as I do, doesn’t mean that you can magically wave your hands and depression will go away. Knowing your depression is constructed doesn’t remove it, just as your house doesn’t disappear because you know it’s made of bricks. And it doesn’t mean that you are personally responsible for your depression if you’re not out there fighting every political fight. Nor does it mean that depression would totally disappear from the world if we somehow managed to remove all the capitalist and ideological factors I’ve discussed.
But it does mean that there are political answers (treatments, if you will) as well as medication and therapy, and I think there’s something worthwhile about naming an enemy you can fight, too.