Depression can have a social origin. As communist commentator Mark Fisher wrote, “mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation.” Many illnesses, but particularly depression and anxiety, have causes in people’s lives, their communities and their general environments.
One thing capitalism is good at is the privatization of suffering. The suffering from the whole of the recession, apocalyptic warming and systemic oppression is treated individually, reduced to a biochemical reaction that has no social origin. Under the current political discourse, depression and anxiety aren’t seen as issues, despite hurting tens of millions of people and contributing to tens of thousands of suicides. People are sick because of who they are as individuals, because of their brain chemistry, not because of overarching, humiliating and immiserating social problems.
Mental illness, like all public health issues, is political. The prevalence of mental illness is influenced by the feeling that there is no future, as well as the explosion of always-on-call labor, the pressure of work or school and the cultural logic of capitalism. Living for your boss is humiliating and disempowering.
Individualism makes it hard to see social problems as social. We’re not atomized robots who exist solely to consume for pleasure. We don’t exist in eternal competition. We build communities; we live together, and for each other.
But the current economic and cultural regime in America interprets relationships as transactional or competitive. Within this framework, a person’s reality is constructed entirely within themselves, absent an external social and economic world. But without social contact, you go mad, and without work, you starve.
This is also why popular suggestions for the treatment of mental illness focus on invidual consumption: Go camping, eat this vegetable, drink a smoothie, buy a gym pass, read these ten books and picture what you want, then maybe you won’t want to jump off a bridge. None of these are substitutes for medical treatment or meaningful social relationships. I know why I feel bad. I can’t see a future for myself in any sort of community, can’t see healthy relationships, a comfortable life or meaningful work. Every reason to live has become a market commodity to compete for, instead of a social resource to share and enjoy together. Why bother living if the future is isolated and entirely competitive?
The U.S. health system does little to solve this problem. If it isn’t a commodity, it isn’t a cure. You can’t sell a good job, can’t buy supportive friends, can’t take out a loan on meaning in life. Our cures remain half-measures that are easy to monetize. Even the best medical treatment is only a partial cure for a social problem, which helps explain why so many people who take anti-depressants end up taking them for the long term.
Until we acknowledge that social conditions are making millions of people mentally ill, we will always have an incomplete picture. Until we build a society based on cooperation, one that meets everyone’s basic needs, we will have a society that creates depression.