Seth Jani

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Depression and Community

I’m extremely grateful for the budding awareness and conversation that is currently happening around the subject of Depression. The price we have paid for the seeds of this awareness are almost unbearable, but it is a subject that should be thoroughly breached and explored.

A lot of the conversation that has been occurring revolves around Depression as an illness: a random, chemical imbalance located in the peculiar make-up of individual brains. Although our society has a tendency to pathologize and medicalize just about every variance in mood, high or low, I think it is certainly important to acknowledge the biological foundation of severe mood disorders. I know from first-hand experience what it feels like to have a brain that sometimes seems to actively be trying to arrange your demise, and I would never join the forces of the anti-psychiatry movement blindly slinging mud at the use of medications. Citalopram especially has been, at various points over the last couple of years, as indispensable to my health as food and water. 

But the importance of the medical context aside, I have been slightly alarmed by the lack of conversation around the effects that our society as a whole plays in provoking and cultivating depression.
It is currently estimated that about 1 in 10 adults in the USA uses an antidepressant. Now even if we take into account the accusation that these drugs are being highly overprescribed, we are still looking at a staggering number of people who are seeking out medical attention for a state of aggravated sadness. The question that arises from this is why? What is it in our society that seems to provoke (and perhaps even create) latent biological tendencies to depression? 

Now obviously depression has existed throughout history under many different guises (from the Romantic Age “Melancholia” of Robert Burton to Churchill’s Black Dog) but to my knowledge, there is no other instance in history in which we have a record of the illness not only being so widespread but also so vastly distributed across peoples of varying races, genders and socio-economic statuses. 

As I spend time thinking about the causes and perpetuators of Depression I am inevitably forced to turn to the colors and feelings of my own experience. I think back to all the things that one could argue were triggers for my own problematic sadness and the thing that most stands out is a sense of isolation.
Now depression does come very often out of nowhere, a terrible chemical freight train that will suddenly blow through your life sucking out the beauty and energy from everything in its wake. But we also know that there are certain scientifically-proven buffers to help keep the demon at bay, or at least soften the blow. The lists of these buffers include things like exercise, meditation, healthy eating, no drugs and alcohol etc. But over and over again the one thing that makes all these lists is simply this: having a community. 

It sounds simple enough right? Have a group of close friends and family, people with whom you can connect deeply and talk through serious issues with. But even just a quick Google search brings up an endless brigade of articles revealing the staggering rise of single-person households. 
According to the US Census Bureau we saw a ten percent increase in single-person households between 1970 and 2012 (See the Report Here). A percentage that has continued to rise.

Now there are in fact a number of studies examining this trend and its potential benefits (In Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone, Sociologist Eric Klinenberg makes some compelling arguments for the positive cultural impact of what he refers to as “singletons”.) But along with such arguments we also know that researchers over the past decade or so have also discovered that most people in America now only have what they consider two close friends with whom they can discuss in-depth personal matters with (one study pins this as 2.94 less people than folks in 1985). With these studies in mind it seems safe to at least entertain the idea that a rise in depression in our society is very likely linked to the decrease in family and/or more communal living. 

Now I am in no way forming a rallying cry for the death of the American family unit. There is probably good reason why more and more people are pushing back marriage and family life, and why some people are actually actively choosing to live alone. But the reality still stands that according to increasing research positive social relations may be the most important factor in long-term sustainable happiness, and that despite this knowledge, the American push towards rugged individualism continues to grow.

I mean we probably don’t really need psychologists and scientists to tell us that if you create a society where people have less opportunities to create meaningful in-person social interactions you are going to see a decrease in close relationships. It also seems that it should go without saying that if more and more people are having less conversations with other people about important, personal matters not only are you going to create a perfect environment for depression to arise, especially in those already susceptible, but are also creating a society that knows less and less about how to talk about meaningful and sensitive issues. Hence you have a society that increasingly has only psychotherapy and medication to rely on. Unfortunately these are often not enough, as we have been seeing week after week in the headlines of the news.

Obviously depression is a multifaceted issue with many causes and triggers, with so many different narratives at play in so many different lives. But it should be a no-brainer that America’s life-long addiction to a myth of rugged individualism and personal success at all costs is a myth that casts many dangerous shadows, one of which may be the rise of loneliness and depression.

I don’t know how to fix this problem, but as we see more and more issues of mental health come to light I think it will be very important to think not just about individual chemistry, but the larger chemistry of a society that is making so many of our fellow humans spiral into the abyss. 

What then are some ways we can create a society that heals rather than breeds mental illness?