Are we medicalising melancholy?
Irish author and broadcaster Mary Kenny believes we should teach young people that there are sad and difficult passages in life, and the answer is not always anti-depressants.
I have the greatest sympathy for anyone who suffers from mental health problems or from clinical depression, which is surely included in mental health.
And those who say the stigma against mental ill-health should be removed and everyone who suffers from depression should be open about it are to be supported and encouraged. I see no reason whatsoever why any mental illness should be stigmatised.
Is every element of unhappiness a sign of depression?
And yet a part of me also regrets the medicalisation of all melancholy; and part of me wonders if it’s helpful for young people to be told that every element of unhappiness, regret, grief, despair, sorrow, sadness, mourning, anxiety, isolation, disappointment or rejection is essentially a medical condition. Many aspects of the human condition are now classified as ‘trauma’ – a medical word for a wound – and many sad, shocking or upsetting reactions to a variety of events are termed ‘traumatic’.
I even suspect – and I am not the only one – that the medicalisation of human emotions, which will always include depressing and sorrowful ones, has some of its origins in the pharmaceutical industry, which has an interest in pathologising the human condition. Over three thousand medical or psychiatric academic papers are published annually on the subject of depression and mental illness.
In his book, Manufacturing Depression, the psychotherapist Gary Greenberg suggests that the profits accruing to the pharmaceutical industry are directly linked with the enormous increase in the diagnoses of depression worldwide. ‘To the manufacturers of drugs,’ he writes, ‘diseases are markets.’ Another American shrink, Professor Irving Kirsch, suggests that not only are antidepressant drugs driving this profitable ‘market’, but also, in many cases, placebos – fake compounds – work just as well as costly pharmaceutical antidepressants.
Sadness, sorrow and grief are not always ‘depression’.
Depression certainly is an affliction; and where it drives individuals to suicide, it kills. But sadness, sorrow and grief are not always ‘depression’. They can be natural reactions to a tragic episode in the course of human life. Schopenhauer says that the only guaranteed aspect of the human condition is that we’re bound to be subjected to sadness, disappointment, loss, anxiety and fear. He was a bit of an over-gloomy German (a not inconsiderable category) but he has a point.
We should teach young people that there are sad and difficult passages in life, and the answer is not always more Seroxat.
Mary Kenny’s book A Day At A Time – Thoughts and Reflections Through the Seasons, is published by New Island Books priced €12.