Depression: A Societal Convenience

I’ve already said on this blog why I distinguish my current emotional rollercoaster from depression.  Nevertheless I’m fascinated by the question of why people seem so automatically to reach for depression as an option when I discuss feeling shit about disability.

Part of this is down to mental health openness.  Part of this, for want of a better phrase, is my own fault.  I have for a number of years been extremely public about my dealings with depression, mental distress (I’m moving to this term rather than the pathologising ‘illness’) and suicidality.  Of the many and complex reasons I have being so open two main ones stand out.  The first is personal catharsis – being able to share something of myself has always been a way for me to try and pick it apart and understand it better.  Being open often keeps me well.  The second is that for all my reservations about the current state of ‘awareness-raising’ and ‘stigma’ – two terms which I find are increasingly meaningless and bereft of value – there are still a great number of people out there who for very good reasons keep their emotional, psychological and personal demons to themselves.  By being open, I can reach people who aren’t ready, willing or able to share – and give them a sense that they are maybe not as alone as they thought.  Regardless of any arguments about if what I’m doing is effective, I still have a central drive to help people.

I’ve always shied away from labels and stereotypes, the idea that there are masculine or feminine traits for example is something I find repulsive.  Growing up disabled I’ve always been conscious that people automatically label, and have taken great delight in throwing it back in their faces.  But I realise in being so open about mental health, I’ve ended up placing a label on myself.  That label could be crudely summarised as ‘The Reformed Mental One’.  It’s striking to notice how much people think of mental health recovery in a similar way to substance abuse and addiction.  One of the ways this comes through, is that if I ‘The Reformed Mental One’, discuss a dark emotional thought – many people kindly but mistakenly seem to think I’ve fallen off some kind of wagon and ‘gone back to the bad thoughts’.  “Are you getting depressed again?” is a similar question to “Are you using again?”  As if difficult emotions were some kind of illicit substance.  And let’s be real, in our society they kind of are.  We’re endlessly presented with positivity gurus of one kind or another, told that feeling grief, sadness or depression is a sound basis alone for medication and service users are constantly given a message that negative emotions are wrong and must be ‘fixed’.  Difficult emotions are an illicit substance, because if you have them there is still the implication that you are either mad or bad.  If someone asks how you are and you respond with the title of one of my favourite podcasts, “Terrible, Thanks For Asking” – you can hear the internal alarm bells for miles.

Mental health, and depression in particular, has gone from one of society’s greatest taboos – to it’s greatest semi-taboo.  The stigma still exists in many circles, there is no doubt about that.  But in others it is now the go-to option.  The societal convenience.  If someone has negative or difficult enduring thoughts, it must be down to brain chemistry and genetics (it’s not), rather than circumstance, experience, life-story or trauma.  The first two in that list are innate and ‘fixable’ and thus nobody’s problem.  If you look to other explanations, it might be that you end up concluding that society needs to rethink itself.  To paraphrase Eleanor Longden and Jacqui Dillon, “It’s not about what’s wrong with you, but what’s happened to you”.  But relatively few people seem willing to ask that question, because of the fundamental societal issues it raises.  Questions of politics, gender, race, class, wealth, sexuality, identity…disability?  Mental distress is far from safe territory for most people, it’s scary, frightening and dangerous for many – but not as scary as having to review a core belief.

Better stick to the prozac then, it’s safer that way…

Safer than asking questions on disability.  I think people often grasp for depression as an excusing factor for my emotional messiness, because they grasp at some level the scale of the problem.  I’m not happy about being disabled. And that disability is not something that I can ever get rid of.  And they have no words or frame of reference for that.

One can hardly blame them, the worst culprit in the central issue around acknowledging impairment, is the disability ‘movement’ itself.  In it’s drive for equality, it has reduced impairment to a dirty word, something that has been rendered meaningless and to be kept buried.  The social model is such a dogma, that questions of identity and what it really means to be disabled have been left behind.  To express negative feelings on one’s body is not ‘done’.  It’s an inconvenient question because to ask it is to supposedly undermine all of the hard fought gains the social model has given over the last few decades.  Disability identity politics is so relentlessly built on the body-positive image, that to hear any dissent on the topic is rare even in disability circles.  It is no wonder that most people’s first response when I stuck my head up and said “I don’t like being disabled”, was “Is it your depression?”  They had no roadmap for anything else.

Better a societal convenience, than an inconvenient truth.



5 thoughts on “Depression: A Societal Convenience

  1. Is mental health recovery “equivalent to recovery from addiction”? Could it be that addiction happens when mental health is poor, and also vv, that if you haven’t got poor mental health when you become addicted to something, it can result in poor mental health eventually? I know there can be genetic predispositions to alcoholism, for example, but there can also be genetic predispositions to depression. Nature and nurture/life experiences constantly intertwining- maybe it will never be entirely possible to disentangle them.

    I don’t agree that the question, “Are you getting depressed again?” is always similar to “Are you using again?”. Are you detecting an imagined note of censure here? “Are you using again?” could certainly have condemnatory undertones (as in, “Well, that would account for your night on the park bench while we searched for you for hours,” or “That’ll be why your partner has gone to the police about your violent behaviour/robbery/dangerous driving”), but it could also be a simple request for information in order to help (as in, “Let’s see if we can get you a methadone prescription”). “Are you getting depressed again?” seems to me to be (these days anyway, especially by a friend) a caring stimulus for an honest discussion of the kind you are seeking, rather than an implied accusation. Depressive people are much less likely to behave in abusive or criminal ways, I would suppose, than users. I tend to think of depressed people as victims who are harmed, rather than perpetrators who harm. Addictive people as risk-takers and depressed people as risk-avoiders, maybe?

    There is always going to be an element of hearing your own interpretation of questions like “Are you getting depressed again?”, and a lot will depend on who says it and how well you know them. You are right to place your thoughts on this forward, and I hope there will lots of useful responses.


    1. That’s fine, we don’t have to agree!

      Of course an element of this is interpretation – everything has that! I am not saying that the inquiry itself is accusatory – indeed as you say it often comes from a place of kindness, but there is a broader cultural emphasis on recovery and perfection which means ‘relapsing’ is an implied negative.


  2. My life is a perpetual existential crisis. I vaguely feel the same way as you do but I don’t talk about it. I might be perceived as a whiner. I am not even disabled and I can hardly deal with life and society as it is presented. I just throw myself in my passion for learning (mostly health and all related sciences) and that distracts me. I am in my 50s and I haven’t found a way to significant levels of happiness. I just tolerate it all. I never think of ending it because it would hurt people. The funny thing is that I think people sense this. I can relate to what you are saying and I don’t feel guilty for being this way (even though it is a lot like depression) I would never label myself as depressed. Sorry if I cannot see where I fit in this picture, but not. This feeling is so prevalent that I can’t even work. I am not in the pursuit of unhappiness but merely trying to keep my head above the water. My 2 daughters bring me the greatest joy. My boyfriend committed suicide last year. I tried to help him for 6 years.. It didn’t work. I don’t have much hope that things will get better or be any different. I just say” Yeah Life sucks and so what?”. Moving along..


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