Monday, October 2, 2023 -
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Is no one ill? Or everyone?

In response to a recent study which showed that more than a quarter of adult Americans are depressed, the much-awarded author Joyce Carol Oates sent an ignorant tweet, even if she drew attention to a worrisome trend.

“Just think,” she wrote, “100 years ago virtually no one was ‘depressed’ because the notion hadn’t come to them, nor the proviso that it was a way of bonding with other people by acknowledging, or seeming to acknowledge, a common weakness kept private/secret by most people, sensibly.”

The idea that no one was depressed 100 years ago would be laughable if it weren’t so sad. About a century ago, great numbers of soldiers returned from WW I suffering from “shell shock,” which in many cases led to depression and, in some cases, to alcoholism and suicide.

As King Solomon observed, there is nothing new under the sun. His father King David’s Psalms speak of inner turmoil. “Out of the depths I call You, O L-rd”; “Though I walk through the valley of deepest darkness.” Melancholia has long been understood as part of the human condition; what is new is the idea that it is a treatable illness.

Oates saying it is “sensible” keeping one’s emotional or mental difficulties secret is not merely foolish but dangerous, especially as we face a mental health crisis among youth.

But her observation did hint at our society’s penchant for pathologizing every human emotion. Someone can no longer be sad, confused or distraught, one must be ill. And with illness comes treatment. I have benefited enormously from medical advances, yet I remain skeptical of our country’s overdependence on pharmaceutical drugs.

A Health Policy Institute study found that two-thirds of American adults take at least one prescription drug daily; by contrast, only a third of Australians do the same. No doubt that is partially due to us being inundated with advertisements for drugs (a practice which is illegal in nearly all other countries).

When it comes to our health, we are actually in control of a lot: Nutrition and physical exercise are two huge factors in keeping one healthy, and can even impact illnesses like depression.

Mindfulness and a focus on spirituality — which can come through religious community, acts of charity or communing with nature, to name a few — can also greatly benefit mental health. And yes, sometimes we need the help of a prescription drug, too.

If depression has exploded, we would do better as a society to figure out why, rather than discount it, as Oates does, or believe we can prescribe our way out of it.

Shana Goldberg may be reached at [email protected]

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