Monday, April 23, 2007

How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness

A book review from Z Magazine:

Shenk’s attributing the current American intolerance of some cognitive styles to a “quirk of culture” is generous to psychiatry. In the early 20th century, much of American psychiatry embraced the eugenics movement. Eugenics declared those cognitive styles and temperaments that are monkey wrenches for industrial society to be diseases that should be weeded out from the gene pool. In the early 1930s the Nazis were actually concerned that American psychiatry might be ahead of them in the race to eliminate mental defectives. After the word eugenics became associated with the Nazis, American psychiatry dropped the word, but not the goal of identifying biochemical and genetic markers for defective cognitive styles and temperaments. Nowadays, psychiatrists who seek these biochemical and genetic markers are called biopsychiatrists.


Today in the U.S., Native Americans have the highest suicide rate among all ethnic groups and suicide is the second leading cause of death among Native American adolescents. Prior to the subjugation of Native Americans, suicide was a rare event, restricted to the sick or elderly who felt they could no longer contribute. In a similar vein, during the years of intensive removal of German Jews to concentration camps, their rate of suicide is estimated to have been at least 50 times higher than the rate for non-Jewish Germans who were not forced into concentration camps. Does anyone seriously believe that the epidemic of depression and suicide among modern-era Native Americans or Hitler-era Jews is genetically caused?

More here.

When I was getting my secondary teaching certificate, I remember a discussion on AD/HD in my educational psychology class. It occurred to me that such a "disorder" had probably been around since the dawn of man, but it is only in the in the so-called "information economy," which requires human beings to sit still and mentally focus for extended periods at both work and school, that AD/HD becomes problematic. My professor readily agreed with me. I then asked how a phenomenon which is most likely natural, and maybe even beneficial in certain settings, can be redefined as a pathology simply because of changes in the economy. She seemed to have no problem with what I was saying. Happens all the time, she asserted, no big deal, that's psychology.

I walked away from class with an increasing level of disrespect for the field of psychology. "AD/HD," as a mental illness, strikes me as simply another way that capitalism oppresses workers. Don't get me wrong, I think psychology has great value as a field of study, and has helped countless individuals deal with their demons, but in the end, psychology, and psychiatry to some extent as well, are, like economics, something of a pseudo-science. That is, even though it is a legitimate area of inquiry, our culture treats psychological pronouncements as though they have the authoritative weight of, say, physics or chemistry. And power structures tend to take full advantage of such authority.

Currently, Big Pharma is pushing expensive drugs as the cure-all for depression, anxiety, and a whole host of common mental illnesses. While they're getting rich, the whole depression-as-disease meme quashes virtually all discussion about the kind of role society plays in what appears to be a depression epidemic. That is, I think our vacant consumerist and capitalist culture is what's got people sad and scared, and as long as we dope people up so they can participate as good little worker-bees and shopaholics, mass depression and anxiety are here to stay.

It's pretty sick when you get right down to it.