After several high-profile suicides recently, the subject of depression has gotten more column space and screen time. I make it a practice to not pontificate where others are clearly more qualified, but I do want to weigh in on one aspect.
The United States is in pretty good shape by world standards. Many countries have more depression than the U.S.. The most depressed of the world, as you would expect, are among those who are the most poor and oppressed. But depression in the U.S. is on the rise, rapidly. Rates have nearly tripled over the last 30 years. And for most of those years, for all the myriad reasons one might explore, only a few lone voices have linked increased depression with the fact our country kind of sucks. Now, however, that theory is all the rage.
My layman’s take:
Poor and oppressed people are depressed because they’ve got a good goddamn right to depressed. They’re poor! I don’t mean, like a lot of us, me included, they don’t have a lot of extra money to go out and have fun. I mean they’re actually poor – you know, they don’t know if they’ll eat today or if they can feed their kids. Or, if they’re lucky enough to have a job (or two or three) they need to get on two or three different buses to get there. And once they get to the job they’re oppressed by a heartless company and bosses that have one-hundred percent of the power in a relationship the worker relies on for their very life. Who wouldn’t be depressed?
Oh, but “attitude is everything,” “you make your own luck,” “you control your own destiny” and “happiness is a choice.” These are very popular memes these days. You’ve really got to be a privileged prick to believe them. That new age bullshit is true enough if you’re already privileged in every other way – sure, then “playing the victim” is wrong. But pushing that bogus self-help bunk on other people without knowing their story is just blaming the victim. And it makes the real victims feel even worse because you’ve convinced them it’s all their fault.
There is nothing inaccurate about acknowledging victim status for someone who is truly a victim. If someone hits you on the head and takes your money you’re a victim. Meaning, someone else did you harm. You didn’t bring it on yourself. You didn’t conk yourself on the head and throw money at the first passer-by.
So, if the most depressed, are generally the most oppressed, and if U.S. depression rates are skyrocketing, then isn’t it possible that depression and suicide rates are related to the equally rapid rise in income inequality, in job insecurity, in stagnant wages, in social isolation, in partisan acrimony, in a coarsening of American society at large. They are undoubtedly corollary, maybe they are causal as well.
Now to the part none of us wants to hear: It’s our fault. We are the beneficiaries of this rotten system. And our participation in it is what keeps it going. As Walt Kelly famously wrote, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
If I enjoy a good life, with a car and a house, and I buy nice things for my car and my house, and I go out to eat with my friends or to the movies, take a vacation once in a while, then good for me. What’s wrong with that? It’s wrong because what I’ve just described is the life blood of American and global Capitalism that is crushing the poor of the world. We make the whole thing happen – we are the engine! We are the bad guys in this picture. Sure, blame the bankers and the CEO’s and the politicians. But hey, they’re just giving us what we want.
“But, I deserve the car and the house and the vacations and all the stuff… I earned it with my hard work!”
We do not have the car and the house and the vacations and all the stuff because we work hard. Everybody works hard. We have it all and want it all and think we deserve it all because we were born with a distinct set of genes and raised by a certain set of parents, in a particular city in a particular country that was built on slavery and genocide and that continues to benefit from oppression and international theft of resources.
“Hey, don’t blame me! I’ve done the best with what I was given. I didn’t ask for this, I didn’t hurt anybody. I’m a good person.” And that’s where I’m going to agree with you. You are a good person doing the best you can with what you were dealt. Congratulations, you were dealt a royal flush – or, at least a full house. I know I was.
Here’s the thing, though. Every other single person on this whole damn planet, from the guy in the White House to the five year old Guatemalan girl sold into sex trafficking after being ripped from her mother at the US-Mexican border is also doing their best. Even the border guard and the sex trafficker are doing their best. Everyone is doing their best. Because each one of us is a big old sack of biology, psychology, and social conditioning that made us what we are. The least we can do is to try to understand that, check our privilege, and act accordingly.
Each of us needs to understand our own bio-psycho-social conditioning. I don’t mean years of psychoanalysis (not that there’s anything wrong with that), I mean open your eyes and see what’s right in front of you. Your success in life, modest as it may be, is not your own individual handiwork. It is the result of your lucky hand.
So, what has all of this got to do with depression and suicide? What are we to do about that? We want to help those who suffer, but as the philosopher Jiddu Krishnamurti said “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” Yes, we want to help our friends, but we must not confuse the symptom with the disease.
As always, there are people much smarter than I to turn to. I recommend author and activist George Monbiot. For the moment, here are my modest suggestions, what I am trying to do in my own life. (Full confession: many of these items are still goals for me, not accomplishments.)
- Stop buying things. If you can’t save the world, at least “first do no harm” as the doctors’ creed says. Every product on the shelf is a direct result of mass exploitation. So, consume as little as possible. If we all did this the whole system would come crashing down and we’d have no other choice but to devise a new one.
- My all-time favorite bumper sticker: “Don’t be a dick.” It just means get back to basics, you know, the whole …I Learned in Kindergarten thing. Share, be kind to each other, including online because let’s face it, that’s where we spend a lot of our time.
- Speaking of online – get off line. I’m a bit of an introvert, I like being alone. Okay, maybe you are too… so read a book, take a walk, get a dog. There are many alternatives to Netflix on your phone. Corporate media turns us into compliant zombies.
- Uncomplicate. Your anti-consumerism will help here. (See #1 on this list.) But it’s not just the stuff that complicates our lives, it’s mostly the drama – the self-induced piles of unnecessary angst we foist on ourselves and others. What a waste of energy.
- Keep learning – please. Don’t settle on old opinions you subconsciously sopped up from parents and preachers and TV commercials. You’re opinion on politics and social issues ought to be based on something other than the ass you pulled it out of.
- Get over the idea that humans are superior to animals and the natural world. Proponents of deep ecology (which I highly recommend) deride this attitude as “anthropocentric.” As long as we see the world only as a resource for our material needs we will continue to destroy not only the non-human world, but the humans who are either in the way or needed for cheap/free labor, i.e. the depressed people!
These are my humble suggestions, at least the ones that come to mind for the moment. Bottom line: Acknowledge your privilege, know that everyone else is doing their best, and if you give a damn, work for change.
Charles Bursell has been heard nationally on SiriusXM, National Public Radio, and The Pacifica Radio Network. He currently hosts the podcast Charles Bursell Presents. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Facebook and Twitter @charlesbursell.