The Social Construction Of Depression

This post first appeared on my MySpace blog on March 4, 2007.  I felt the need to add it here because it still hits very close to home.

Recently I’ve been reading an excellent book called Pathology and the Postmodern: Mental Illness as Discourse and Experience (Dwight Fee, ed. London: SAGE, 2000). As its title suggests, the book focuses on mental illness as a social construct.

Beyond the scientific and biological forces that inform certain mental conditions like depression, various cultural elements affect how numerous “diseases of the mind” are displayed, interpreted, diagnosed, and treated.

Mental health has its own discourse; there exists a rhetoric of depression, the authors argue here. People with a diagnosis of clinical depression start to identify with their depressed selves, and this colors everything they do. Often “meta-depression” enters as patients get depressed about having depression.

What begins as a “chemical imbalance” often leads to a social imbalance wherein the depressed person gradually becomes detached from his or her culture. In America, where individuality is praised and pursuing happiness is a civic duty, depression is the ultimate enemy, as expressed in this essay by Hewitt, Fraser, and Berger entitled “Is It Me or Is It Prozac?”:

Depressed mood, lack of interest in or the motivation to undertake ordinary activities, and lowered self-esteem are not only among the significant symptoms of depression but also serious indicators of failure to meet the expectations of contemporary American culture. Our cultural expectation is that people have the right to pursue happiness–indeed, not only to pursue it but to get it… The constellation of symptoms we associate with depression, in other words, looks very much like a specification of how individuals may fall short of what their culture expects of them. (174)

This passage suggests to me that depression is not just a diagnosis but an existential template, one that stands in direct conflict to the American way of life. Why stop and ask who you are, why you are here, and where you are going when there is so much buying to do!

When a person doesn’t fit into the superstructure, then he or she is labeled as having an “illness.” Serious medications are administered in the hopes that depressed people will “return to themselves” and continue to feed the system as the system slowly destroys everything and everyone.

But, alas, there is no escape from the machinery of American existence. Regardless of how we “feel,” middle-class life continues to kill us a little every day.