Let’s talk about depression

Fellow sufferers: you know nothing. I know nothing. The current medical profession knows very little

Giles Fraser recently wrote an interesting article about the way we approach the issue of mental health. The response to this piece was pretty much unanimous. There was no debate. Fraser was condemned for his ignorance, condemned for his callous attitude, and dismissed. This dismissal, I maintain, was both unfounded and unjust. It was symptomatic of a growing problem with the way in which we approach this topic as a whole.

There is an emerging phenomenon in well-meaning, apparently ‘progressive’ circles that involves excluding the idea that we ought to understand causes of depression from all discourse. There has been a shift away from inquiring about the extent to which depression exists, away from asking what solutions to the problem we possess, and away from asking how far we should be sceptical towards those who claim to know everything on the subject, be they sufferers themselves or doctors and pharmaceutical companies.

Instead, what has been adopted is the idea that depression is some kind of disease. We man the barricades against those we feel might contribute to any stigmatisation of sufferers at all. In the name of protecting the “victims” from perceived slights, we have decided to shut down discourse altogether. Whilst I am entirely open to disagreement, my own experience in various mental health communities is that we seem to have reached a state where sufferers are wont to wear their “disease” as some kind of badge of honour. Pride in overcoming something awful has become pride in simply experiencing something awful. Whenever journalists like Fraser contribute something to the debate, the insistence is that he has no knowledge of mental health – doesn’t he know the science? As someone who hasn’t experienced the terrifying blackness of depression, what right does he have to write on it?

Well, actually, fellow sufferers: you know nothing. I know nothing. The current medical profession knows very little. It may well be the case that the voice of those who suffer has been stifled for too long, but it is worse than ignorant to suggest that you alone now hold the answers. The individual experiences of what we call mental illness are so diverse, so intensely private and personal, that to form “communities of understanding” through which external responses can be quashed is both naïve and dangerous. In a situation where we know so little about mental health, any external voice – such as Fraser’s – which might contribute to our understanding is to be welcomed. However difficult and painful it may be, the reintroduction of robust standards for discussion is indispensable if we are to progress even slightly in this field.

Until our reactionary mentality is dropped, and we can progress from treating the discussion as a battle – a fight to the death between Them and Us, between those who understand and those who do not, even between what is right and what is wrong – we will be stuck in inertia. Our task is to look at the means available for the reduction of human despair. This is the only way in which progress might, finally, begin to emerge: progress not just for those who suffer with poor mental health, but progress for society as a whole.

2 comments

  1. Interesting piece, Tom. I agree with you that one should not be quick to dismiss ideas concerning mental illness, which, as you say, is a mysterious bunch of things.

    Still, Mr. Fraser’s argument does seem insensitive. Whatever depression is or isn’t, it is not equivalent to universal experiences of sadness and annoyance, and suggesting that it is encourages the view that people who are struck down by it are being somehow frivolous. This is a shame, because I think he had a point about the excessive medication of the mind.

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  2. 13 Aug ’13 at 5:36 pm

    Capt. Jeffrey Sinclair

    Whilst it’s nice to have such a vocal support group out there, the sort of mental health activism stemming forth from Twitter/Tumblr and the like’s something that’s always disturbed me. The amount of hysterical bollocks that comes out of the mentality it engenders is terrifying- and, in a lot of cases, tends to prompt the “I’m proud to embrace my depression!” approach Tom’s citing here.

    Treating it as something that one can live with and hold one’s head high? Desperately important. The way communities built around it develop online, though? A touch awkward. I worry it makes it easier to cope, but harder to heal.

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