All For None And None For All: The Depressive Effects of Western “Progress”

There are three words in English that are so difficult to utter—that require so much courage and strength—that when they are said, they can change a life.

I need help.

Depression

Americans suffering from mental illness, knowingly or unknowingly, all too often suffer through the process of searching for help from people who don’t understand these illnesses. In an individualistic society where we are raised to think only of ourselves, there is no time or energy worth expending on understanding a disease we cannot see—a disease that is easy to imagine as imaginary because it is not rational or external.

In such a society, there are over 41,000 suicides a year, making it the 10th leading cause of death in the United States.

For every successful suicide, there are an estimated twelve self-inflicted injuries.

Because caring for depression, along with other mental illnesses, goes against the teachings of self-serving capitalism and Western progress.

Good capitalists work for themselves, trust only themselves, and blame those who cannot work efficiently as being lazy and subsequently deserving of a barren life.

“God helps those who help themselves,” the old American adage goes.

As Americans, this is the only way we are taught to move forward in our lives. So when mental breakdowns occur, the bootstraps we pull as emotional parachutes are ripped, leaving the afflicted in a lonely psychological free-fall.

Self-help is impossible when one cannot rely on a fragile self; a self caught in the throes of oscillating moods.

For those with mental illness—those whose mental health depends on local help and support—capitalist societies lack an adequate societal place for someone who does not function as an optimal worker.

It is no coincidence that two common factors in homelessness are lacking familial support and psychological disorders.

In isolated environments, depression rates are much higher—countries with the highest suicide rates include Greenland, Guyana, South Korea and Lithuania. Across continents and cultures, the suicides are often related to the mental duress of economic hardship and the pressure of modernity: the hopelessness is exacerbated by unemployment or poverty’s ability to diminish one’s will to live.

Those with depression are born into a world without the tools to succeed in the face of this malady.

And because mental illnesses don’t “make sense”, they are not rational. Enlightenment philosophy teaches us that rationality is the only way forward; the only thing that is real. And to the subjectivity that is “objective” rationality, mental illness is not a real problem interacting with an objective reality. This leaves those suffering with mental illness drowning in a world of self-doubt and self-loathing—something that one cannot just “get over.”

***

What is the answer?

As many answers as science has found in the past century, our common responses to mental illness have hardly evolved.

Anglo-capitalist culture, derived from extremist Calvinist and Puritan values, encourages Americans not to burden others with their problems. Yet in coping with a mental illness, the help of others—even a sole doctor or therapist—is necessary in order to survive.

This is indeed the land of horrific mental institutions, of lobotomies and experimental shock therapy, of systemic abuse and neglect of people we don’t see as full human beings.

We pretend we all share the symptoms as we apologize for “OCD” when cleaning our rooms or for “acting bipolar” when we unexpectedly change moods. With every casual utterance, these diseases become a mere caricature of those who actually suffer from them. And when we identify these diseases within ourselves, we are branded with the stigma as “that bipolar girl” or “she acts that way because she’s depressed.” In a society that is keen on surface-level categorization in determining societal roles, those who have mental illnesses are identified and then ignored. They are all too often forced to deal with their diseases alone—friends don’t take them seriously; family members pretend they are fine; and unfortunately, some people want to help but don’t know how. Mental illness takes time to treat, and to what avail? Why help a problem that is not a quick fix?

The simple and lucrative answer—which is the American way of solving problems—is to swallow pill after pill until the pain and confusion subsides.

The most rudimentary psychological counseling preaches that in treating a patient with mental illness, medication is never enough—therapy is required for recovery.

But it is so much easier as a busy mother or absent father to look at a depressed child and say, “Take this pill, sweetheart, and the problem will go away.” A problem parents and families don’t understand; a problem that, despite neurochemical imbalances, is more complex that the pharmaceutical solution.

A problem that doesn’t just go away.

A problem that follows people long after they take their own lives.

***

I lost two family members to suicide. I was lied to about how they died, and when I did realize their causes of death as an adolescent, it was through hushed familial whispers.

Until recently I was never given an explanation for why, and for why I wasn’t told. The answer was so, “I didn’t know that it was an option so that I wouldn’t follow the same path.”
But this personal history is key in understanding the present. The depressive gene is powerful, alive and misunderstood in my own generation. When currently dealing with depression in my family, I still lack the answers as to how we can live in light of this disease.

Pretending it didn’t happen is how my family coped, but we can’t pretend that this legacy doesn’t affect our present. Without understanding depression, my siblings and I are at an abnormally high risk of losing our own lives to this disease.

Suicide is preventable, but depression is a lifelong struggle, one that requires a dynamic and ever-changing solution. Existentialism coupled with oppressive suffering points one in the direction of dead ends.

For those who stop the endless daily toil to determine whether life is worth living, finding meaning in life takes continuous effort, never reaching a static state. But this impedes the work necessarily to make a living, and requiring help impedes upon the blind desire of others to make their own livings; a desire free from any concern besides food security.

Remember, this is the same society that rushes families through three days of grief after losing a mother. This is the society where depressed children don’t tell their parents how they feel because they don’t want to be shoved on placating meds. This is a society that doesn’t make time in the workday for empathy.

It is then up to our communities to reject their labor to take up another laborious task: making sure that all of us can live in a reality free from life-threatening pain. This requires asking uncomfortable questions, listening to uncomfortable answers, and finding solutions that secure comfort for misfired neurons.

So when we hear these three words, responding with a simple “I will help you” filled with the same humble sincerity as asking for help can change a life, too.

  • Jesse Clifton

    Have you actually compared attitudes toward and treatment of mental health in different cultures and different times in history? I could be wrong, but it seems to me that a humane understanding and treatment of mental illness originated largely in capitalist societies. I imagine that in much of the world, throughout history, sufferers of mental illness were treated as freaks, as being possessed by demons, and other similarly ignorant things – and treated accordingly. Yes, certain aspects of our culture (“alienation” perhaps) are responsible for mental health problems, but it’s simplistic to say that we have backwards views on mental health and that this is a result of the evils of capitalism.