(Welcome Daily Kos readers! You can register to comment here. Please welcome Bruce Levine and host Eve Gittelson [nyceve] in the comments — jh)
Here’s a sobering fact. The rate of depression in the United States has increased more than tenfold in the last 50 years. Unfortunately, the U.S. mental health system makes a major contribution to the problem by failing to confront the societal sources of despair and for promoting simplistic therapies of dubious value.
Because I’m someone incapable of getting instant gratification from the great American pastime — wielding a maxed-out credit card and buying-buying-buying stuff — I’m most interested in exploring what Bruce Levine, in his brilliant new book SURVIVING AMERICA’S DEPRESSION EPIDEMIC: How to Find Moral, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy, calls the “societal sources of despair,” as he attributes much of our national malaise to a “not unreasonable” response to the pressures of corporate authoritarianism and “community malnourishment.”
Dr. Levine explains that “standard mental health treatments routinely ignore the depressing effects of an extreme consumer culture,” and it’s surely no understatement to label the United States as the leading extreme consumer society. What did our government ask of us after 9/11? To sacrifice? No. To spend? Yes. And we happily complied.
Since reading SURVIVING AMERICA’S DEPRESSION EPIDEMIC I’m beginning to understand the causes of my angst and why I periodically say to anyone who will listen, “I’m just not made for this country.”
The other day, I read in a New York newspaper that the sports announcer Bob Costas spent 11 million dollars on an apartment. In our country, this is an act that we glorify. Could someone tell me what this man contributes to society? Very little, I’d say. Indeed, maybe nothing. Even worse, when you place such profligacy against the reality that half the population of the planet earth lives on less than two dollars a day; well, to me, that falls into the category of “depraved.” Far from being uplifting, information about overpaid sports announcers in multimillion dollar apartments both depresses and makes me angry.
We live in the most acquisitive of times, in the most acquisitive nation on earth, and God pity those of us who fail to find spiritual, psychic, or emotional solace from the great American pastime, Shop ‘Til You Drop. A pastime which, not-so-parenthetically, has left the United States with an economy-devastating zero savings rate. But this is something for a different book salon.
I’m convinced that shopping/spending/buying is a means of dulling the intense psychic distress of being an American citizen in 2007 — nearly 2008. Let’s be straight, as Dr. Levine suggests, it’s not easy living in George Bush’s America.
I’m not a scholar of depression. Thankfully, I’ve never had to grapple with it, though I am very close to several people who struggle with depression every day. And I can tell you from watching them, it’s a daily battle. What fascinates me about Dr. Levine’s book is that it approaches the American epidemic of depression from an entirely new perspective. In an interview, he discussed the relationship between mental well-being and politics, which again is what I find most relevant to the psychic crises faced by millions of Americans.
Depression is highly associated with the experience of hopelessness and helplessness, and politics is all about power. In genuine democracy, people don’t merely get to vote but instead they have a real sense that they actually have an impact on their society. When you are voting, year after year, for the lesser-of-two-evils, neither of whom you support and both of whom are in the pocket of corporations and wealthy individuals, you don’t experience an y real political power. Politics is all about power, and depression is largely about powerlessness.
Some of you may know that I write regularly about our collapsed health care system on Daily Kos. There are many days when I read my email and become, quite literally, paralyzed with anger. But I learned something important about my anger from SURVIVING AMERICA’S DEPRESSION EPIDEMIC: anger can be a very motivating emotion. I remember my rage during the disputed 2000 election. I remember my fury during Hurricane Katrina when our government abandoned its own citizens. “The mental health industry approaches our negative emotional states in a negative way,” writes Dr. Levine. “Hopelessness, anxiety and anger are often treated like weeds on a lawn and these days this means using chemicals to get rid of them. . . .Although anger is not the most fun way in the world to get energized, I must confess that when I’ve had little else to motivate me, I have used anger to get a few things done.” Dr. Levine has convinced me that anger can be turned into a positive force for political activism. I certainly believe that my anger keeps me plugging away.
I’d like to end by addressing the intersection of psychiatry and pharmacology and what some call disease mongering. There’s a lot of money to be made from telling healthy people they’re sick. Yes, many people see dramatic improvements in their lives thanks to psychiatric medications. But there is a sinister flip side to modern medical miracles that Dr. Levine confronts head on: “Those given psychiatric diagnoses are increasingly medicated. And pharmaceutical corporations’ profits from psychiatric drugs are dramatically rising.”
The “medicalization” of ordinary life is rightfully described as disease-mongering. The medical-pharmaceutical-industrial complex is dramatically widening the definition of treatable illness in order to expand markets for those who sell and deliver treatments and drugs. There is, for example, the big business of protecting drug patents: Patents allow drug makers the exclusive manufacturing rights for 20 years or more before competitors can market generic versions. To protect their patents and profits, the drug industry “evergreens” or reformulates a product just before it goes off patent by claiming some new formulation such as a time-release version, or by combining it with another existing drug, or by marketing it for another “illness” or condition (“restless leg syndrome” anyone?), or even claiming a patent on an inactive ingredient. A minor change extends a patent and a product’s profits for at least another three years.
All of this is another huge problem in the United States. Spend one hour watching television and count the number of pharmaceutical commercials which conclude with “Ask your doctor if X is right for you.” More often than not, X is probably not right for you, but your doctor, who doesn’t want to lose you as a patient, will happily comply with your request for another drug for another disease-mongered illness.