Depression is not a sign of personal weakness.
It's easy to forget how much of a stigma attaches to mental illness when you don't have one.
Even in the 21st century, there's still a belief that depression and other mental problems aren't real, not the way a broken leg or a case of pneumonia is. It's all in your head. If you'd only try and shake it off, you could snap out of it. If you can't can't beat their mental problems, you're just weak.
Like I said, it's easy for me to overlook this attitude, but now along comes Neil Munro of the Daily Caller website to correct
Munro wrote his column in response to Obama's recent call for victims of mental illness to seek treatment and for the rest of us to stop judging them. Obama: "There should be no shame in discussing or seeking help for treatable illnesses that affect too many people that we love. We've got to get rid of that embarrassment. We've got to get rid of that stigma."
I'd say that's as uncontroversial a statement as possible (even given that Scientologists and some Christian groups find psychiatry and anti-depressants very controversial). But Munro sees a sinister conspiracy by the head-shrinkers to sap our moral fiber, make us weak and take our money!
Because, see, depression isn't a real thing, it's just feeling sad, and "Americans have typically responded to stress and sadness by urging stoicism, hard work, marriage, prayer and personal initiative, and by stigmatizing unemployment and passivity." Instead of these virtuous approaches to conquering personal weakness, psychiatry's "professionals have long opposed those traditional responses, urged greater federal funding of their industry and sought to reverse public stigma against the use of their services."
Munro, by contrast, seems determined to reinforce the stigma. But his column is completely wrong.
Depression isn't the same as sadness. It's as far beyond "sadness" as pneumonia is beyond the common cold. Munro asserts it's only classed as a mental illness because psychiatrists have expanded the definition of mental illness to increase their business. In reality, medical scholars have recognized forms of depression as a distinct problem as far back as the Roman Empire.
And it's not a problem sufferers can fix with "stoicism, hard work, marriage" etc. It's not a mood they can throw off with a walk in the sun, it's a deep black cloud that settles into people and sucks out joy and hope (I haven't had it myself, but I've seen it at work). It gnaws away at its victims until some of them don't even have the capacity for joy. Sometimes, oblivion becomes preferable to living with it.
That doesn't make them weak, any more than catching malaria makes you weak. But in Munro's eyes, sufferers are wimps: their real problem is that they don't have enough "stoicism" or "personal initiative."
I wouldn't waste a column on Munro, but I know he's not alone. These attitudes are widespread. They're why people don't admit to mental problems, or make anonymous calls to crisis lines when they think of suicide instead of reaching out to friends. They're another reason mental illness kills: Nobody wants to think of themselves as weak, so people resist getting treatment until it's too late.
Lord knows, there are plenty of valid questions to raise about psychiatry. Diseases and diagnoses shift and change, causes of illness are often a mystery and psychiatric drugs do get over-prescribed. If Munro had built his argument on that, he might have had a good point (though judging from this column, he probably wouldn't).
But saying there's no need for treatment, that people who resort to it aren't "stoic" enough, that depression doesn't exist? That's a whole 'nother argument.
And it's a very loathsome one.