Coronavirus needs to make us rethink depression as a truly capitalist illness

Crowds of people at Liverpool Street Station
Steve Topple

As a society, we are actively encouraged to discuss mental health and wellbeing. At no time more so than during the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic. But after a psychologist warned that there may be an upsurge in mental health diagnoses and drug prescriptions due to lockdown, are our notions of depression actually true?

Part one of this article started by quoting psychologist Dr John Read, who was worried about “normal human responses” being treated as mental health issues during lockdown. It then explored antidepressants; our understanding of depression; the human history behind mental and emotional wellbeing in relation to inequality, and how species-level problems can manifest in the individual. You can read part one here. Part two is below.

Rock bottoms

I was told I was depressed. My scores on all the questionnaires that doctors make you fill out to diagnose depression were through the roof. I was told depression was the reason why I was an alcoholic. So, I accepted this, took the tablets and had the therapy. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised it wasn’t me that was the problem. I was merely reacting to my life, and the system that had shaped it.

I was outwardly angry, socially awkward and beset by horrendously bad decision-making. But actually, all these traits were a result of what society had done to me. Bullying throughout school because I was smarter than most kids; going to an elite college with the one scholarship it had – and being isolated because I was the only working-class person there; working 24/7 for pitiful pay and not getting anywhere; seeing it all collapse around me in 2008 and ending up homeless, unemployable, sick and then having no way out of the mess long into the 2010s.

Raising consciousness

I’d done everything the system wanted me to do. I’d got a job, had a house, gone on holiday, bought material things. And yet still, the system betrayed me and left me staring death in the face in 2016.

My therapy made me believe it was me who had to adapt. I had to address my negative thought processes and change the way I behaved. So I did this, and, like the antidepressants, it helped. I have a lot of time for therapy, but when it’s done in the right context. And for me, when you really check it, I should have approached it differently. My anger, social problems and ultimately my addiction were perfectly natural reactions to the horror of my life. And my life was horrible because the system made it that way.

The new religion

I’m not religious. But in his book In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction, psychologist Dr Gabor Maté makes a comparison between faith and the causes of addiction. One patient told him “I had no mother – God forgot me – and I fell”. He said of her:

Serena, in her deepest depression, lives in cosmic isolation. Her core anguish is that her sense of trust and connection with the infinite within her and without has been severed. Given all she had suffered, the God they told her was all she needed could not hold her faith intact. For any young person, if the deity she hears about is not manifested in the actions of the people who make up her world, the God-word turns into hypocrisy. If she does retain an image of God, it’s likely to be the vindictive moraliser who judges her mercilessly or the impotent sky phantom I rejected as a child.

Replace “God” with “corporate capitalism” and you have the answer to my addiction and depression. I put my undying faith in a system that I was taught from a young age would serve me well. But ultimately, it abandoned me. I know that now. So, my previously “depressive” thoughts have changed into anger at the system, but also hope that we as a species can change. And I believe this is the case for many people who think, and have been told, they’re depressed. The challenge with this is the ‘system’ likes us depressed, on tablets and obsessing with our own behaviours, feelings and mental state.

Zombification

It suits corporate capitalism, and hierarchies more broadly, to have people subservient. I’m in no way saying there’s some ‘New World Order-like’ grand design here – where a few shadowy men in some secret boardroom are pulling the strings of doctors to put us all on antidepressants. What I am saying is that the collective consequence of people’s actions is that it ends up that way.

The system is such that it makes us depressed. But due to us living in the system, we have to go to it for answers. Meanwhile, some doctors and psychiatrists, who have been trained by the system, are also part of it because they have bills to pay and houses to keep like the rest of us. Many of them (not all – check Psychologists for Social Change and Counselling for Social Change) believe in the system’s view of depression because it’s given them nice things in life.

So, often unwittingly, they play into it by telling us we’re suffering from depression. They often go so far as to recognise that people’s economic and social circumstances are the cause. But then the system gives us the solution: pills and talking therapy. And ultimately, thanks to multinational pharmaceutical companies and private healthcare making huge profits, and in turn buoying up stock markets, this process continues ad infinitum.

Missed logical conclusions

Women are particularly hardest hit by the system’s notion of depression. All too often this is due to entrenched patriarchy, misogyny and notions of ‘hysteria’, hormones’ and the menopause. There’s a reason why 23% of American women in their 40s and 50s are now on antidepressants. Again – it’s the system.

Yet depression is never taken through to its logical conclusion. Rarely does a medical professional say to you: ‘You’re depressed because humans have made the world horrific, and your feelings are a natural response to this’. Nor do many say: ‘Why not, instead of taking tablets, have a productive outlet for that anger, hurt and upset, like political or social activism?’ Most have jobs to keep and mortgages to pay. Moreover, that realisation about depression probably hasn’t even dawned on many them.

So instead, we look into ourselves for the problem, change our behaviours and take pills to sedate us enough to cope with the horrors of life.

Creating corporate capitalist “subjects”

Dr Ashley Frawley is a senior lecturer on public health, policy and social sciences at the University of Swansea. On the show Renegade Inc, she perhaps summed it up best:

A lot of… psychological interventions are sold on the ability to produce these ideal neoliberal subjects who won’t call in sick and won’t call on expensive state services and so on. But the reality isn’t this perfect neoliberal subject. It’s an upward spiral of demand. The more that we’re told we can’t possibly cope with the vicissitudes of life on our own, the more we call upon these expensive services. And that’s actually part of the deal, that’s actually part of what happens…

The self-esteem movement promised that it was going to inoculate people against future social problems. They called it a social vaccine. That didn’t happen. All that happened was we encouraged this excessive internal introspection. And when you do that, you’re always going to find problems.

The “meaning of life”

She continued:

The meaning of life isn’t something bigger than yourself, isn’t something beyond yourself. [But] paradoxically, if you have nothing bigger than yourself to live for, life becomes insufferable. Anything becomes impossible to bear. If the purpose of your life is your own internal feelings, it’s impossible to feel happy all the time. You’re always going to find it wanting… that’s a very limited sense of what it is to be human.

Essentially, corporate capitalism has created a society so obsessed with ‘self’, we’ve forgotten about each other.

So, you may be wondering if I truly believe all of this, why I still take such a high dose antidepressant. I’ve come to a fairly simple resolution about that in my head.

Take the pills and take on the system

My anger and upset was so seething that it made me chaotic and unproductive. Antidepressants take the edge off that. They give me the clarity of thought against all the noise to channel my feelings into something positive – like writing or caring for my partner, for example. This is probably something many conscious people, activists and campaigners feel. So, I know why the system wants me to pop my pills. But I’m using the system’s weapon of choice against it.

I would never advocate a person not taking antidepressants if they needed them. Because ultimately, a person’s life is far more important in the here and now than the big philosophical questions about why depression happens in the first place. But there needs to be a shift in the narratives.

Our obsession with psychiatry in its current form is ultimately keeping this horrible world the way it is. If everyone who doctors labelled as ‘depressed’ was encouraged to look further than just their own feelings, the superficial actions of those around them and the choices they’ve made in life, and look at their mental health as part of a global system of seven billion people, maybe people would begin to wake up to why there’s been such a surge in mental health diagnoses.

System reboot

We’re not all sick. Society is. So before you go to your doctor about how you’re feeling ‘depressed’ during the coronavirus lockdown, maybe consider whether those feelings are because of the pandemic, or in spite of it. And whether you’re truly OK with living in a world that, in reality, doesn’t actually make most of us happy.

But the pandemic also gives us an opportunity. It’s one to reboot many parts of the system. Within this, our own notions of what it means to be human, be part of a society and how collective horror plays out in the individual are central. We have the chance to create a better world. But it starts within each and every one of us.

Featured image via pxhere

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  • Show Comments
    1. Hi Steve, you could have been writing about my life (except for minor differences).

      In 2015, after 20+ years of going from doctor to doctor, psychologist to psychologist, and psychiatrist to psychiatrist, as well as a hell of a horrible history with Seroxat, Lustral, Effexor, and Reboxetine, after multiple letters to those in the NHS (who should have known better but were just listening for ‘triggers’ with equally-triggered responses) explaining why I thought it was the system (and the horrors I had/have experienced) that caused my depression and depressive outlook, I finally gave up on trusting the system to help me with ‘my’ depression, and took matters into my own hands.

      That said, I am not cured (how could I be?), my depression is worse (but manageable), however realising that I was right (despite a lifetime of so-called experts trying to convince me otherwise with false narratives and puffed-up arrogance), has led to me taking the reigns of my life back from the system. It’s not a perfect solution, the causes of my depression are still around me, in fact worse than they have ever been, but the fact that I now know I’m not crazy, nor stupid, the fact that I have correctly identified where my suffering and pain come from, gives me immense power … sovereign-power even, to hope for a better society, and the motivation to be the change I want to see.

      The difference in me since realising the truth of my struggle isn’t profound (not like taking Seroxat turned out to be for me), it wasn’t like a magic wand being waved that turned my thought-processes from dark to light, but a subtle change, a realisation that despite the best intentions of those around me and those professionally involved in my ‘care’, despite the years of study they dedicated towards their vocations, they had all been taught to treat the individual as having the problem, rather than recognise (even when spelled out to them – literally) the truth that it is the system’s ‘evils’ which invariably give people depression.

      Depression is real, and so are the causes. Clearly doctors etc., are just not in a position to fix society with a pill, and the mistake I made was believing a projecting mother and brother, and a society, that whilst generally wanting to help and do good, is woefully ignorant of some logical facts, namely that everything in life is connected, and that our actions always have consequences, most often further reaching than we would appreciate.

      We all have a share in maintaining the horrors of society, and even though we think we are opposed, we are still likely to be contributing in some ways to the general malaise. The truth is that a single person may come up with the best plans and theories that could fix our world, but it takes the majority to implement those fixes for good change to remain fixed.

      When society as a whole wakes up to reality, when the system stops abusing people (intentionally and unintentionally), then we all have a better chance of being cured of depression and depressive illnesses. As you have rightly pointed out, the system is itself in denial of its own flaws (in that it’s usually people like us who are labelled as needing to change), when it should be blatantly obvious that doing bad and mean things to others, regardless of scale, always has far-reaching consequences (that on the whole) make everyone’s situation harder, and society that much worse off.

      I was told for many formative years that I was brain damaged, that I needed to see a psychiatrist, but was never taken to see any medical professional by those who then had the power and authority to do so, and were insisting I needed it. However, literally the day that I got diagnosed with Clinical Depression (at the pushing and insistence of others), the same and main protagonist declared it was all in my mind.

      I now know that I was suffering from another’s mental aberrations, that what I have struggled with for most of my life was projected on me, and the worst of it was and still is that the very ones who projected their issues onto me so as to make it stick, have never approached mental-health services to get help with their issues, and have continued to use me as their projection candidate. By that I mean that whatever they themselves are guilty of, they made me out to be instead, and that itself was re-enforced by my acceptance that it was me who had the problem.

      Those people have gone on in life to harm many others, including me further. I am very angry that I was the mug that tried to get help for what they created, angry at the years and decades lost and wasted trying to fix something that wasn’t broken in the first place, but inevitably got broken in the process. I am very angry that they have done better than me by ignoring their issues at my expense, and furious that I have reaped nothing but bitterness for doing ‘the right thing’, whilst they nonchalantly continue their twisted behaviour, ruining yet more lives, and getting away with the criminality of destroying mine.

      I am depressed, but like you, the fault doesn’t dwell in me, it dwells in society, in every bad act against me, either directly or indirectly, and over time this is compounded, and made worse by well-meaning, but ultimately ignorant people. The problem with medicating ourselves so that we can cope, is that in doing so, we give credence to the notion that it is somehow deserved, that we are somehow weak, when in fact the opposite is true. We are not Sociopaths, and it is precisely because we have empathy, because we care, that we also suffer. Sadly, the cure isn’t at all easy to procure, being that society needs to be fixed first, and so really the only choice left for sufferers of Depressive illnesses, is to find coping mechanisms, and that in itself can be another utterly depressive experience.

      I am depressed. I am depressed because the World is a cruel place, but I am even more depressed because Mankind makes it so much worse. A system that treats those who suffer as the root cause of their own issues, or in other words, the depressed deserve to be made depressed for being depressed, rather than ignoring the evils around us like so many are encouraged to do.

      Many use work as an excuse to run from their issues, many use other people, and a multitude of other coping mechanisms to avoid dealing with themselves and the truth. It is these ones who contribute greatly to the ignorance, and who most often project their issues onto others. Whilst ignoring the deep issues that we all have inside and outside ourselves can bring relief, it is a myopic short-term strategy that does us all huge, calculable harm in the long-term.

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