Actually, the title of this post is about a larger issue, something I've blogged about before - the notion that one is not entitled to believe something abjectly stupid. I mean, I can't prevent you from having an opinion, and I certainly wouldn't try to stop you from proclaiming your ignorance to the world, but I don't think that having a brain gives people an automatice right to hold opinions about things about which they know nothing. Or, to put it another, perhaps clearer, way - I don't think you are entitled to be listened to or respected simply because you have an opinion. All opinions are not created equal.
What this post is really about, though, is the case in point: Elaine Vigneault's opinion of depression and anti-depressants.
Sometimes the watch words are phrases like "I believe." When someone says "I believe" or "my belief is," it can preface almost anything - it can be an informed opinion based on research, or it can be a suggestion that dinosaurs didn't exist, or it can be an explanation of personal faith, or what have you. I note this only because I found the phrase noticeable in this sentence:
"my belief is that depression is a normal state of being, a state some have called the human condition. Not all people are depressed, but such a significant portion of highly intelligent people experience symptoms of a 'disease' called clinical depression that I believe that depressive habits of thought are common enough and safe enough not to warrant a disease classification."
This is not a new idea, certainly, this notion that "if you're not outraged, you're not paying attention" (see? it's even a bumper sticker!) or that intelligent and creative people are particularly upset about the state of the world and so take to their beds in a kind of melancholia.
But it's also not an accurate definition of "depression." Depression is not dissatisfaction with the world. It is not outrage. It is not sadness. If you imagine depressed people as revolutionaries (which she does - see below), then you're not getting it. Depressed people, people who are depressed enough to go on anti-depressants, often don't make it out of the house. These are people in pain.
Here's the quote:
"My theory is that many people’s depression is anger turned inward. Anger is a powerful emotion that can be both destructive and constructive. Anger that is unjustly aimed inward becomes debilitating depression, but justified anger aimed outward towards things like injustice can be a powerful motivator. I think if more people embraced this view and used their anger as a motivator, we’ve have a revolution and possibly a better world.
There’s a saying, “if you’re not mad as hell, you’re not paying attention.” And another one “ignorance is bliss.” I think both are true. I think happy people are people who wear rose-colored glasses and don’t see reality clearly. That’s not to say happiness is ignorance; I’m saying that constant bliss can only be achieved through drugs, ignorance, or some other form of blurred reality. Occasional bliss is available for anyone willing to accept it: puppy pictures, flower bouquets, a compliment to or from a stranger, a familiar tune, a tickle, a love note, a memory… But constant bliss… that’s not real.
So, anyway, I just think we should be really, really careful about medicating the depressives, because they could be future revolutionaries and powerful dissidents who we need to lead the changes to our social world." (see comment #106)
So, first, Vigneault has a theory about depression (kind of like Elaine Showalter has a theory about chronic fatique syndrome, eh? And not a bad analogy, at all, in terms of the effects these kind of ignorant assertions have on other people's lives). And second, she's basically giving the finger to all the people who are so depressed that it's an effort to get out of bed, the people who think seriously about swerving into oncoming traffic to just make it stop. You know, because the rest of us need their pain so that they can lead us. And third, she's saying that if your anger is turned inward, it's your own damn fault: you could control this if you wanted to and were motivated to do so.
One of my favorite bloggers is Heather Armstrong, who has written frequently about her struggles with depression and her near death from it - and the salvation that has come to her from her meds. Recently, she posted a link to her husband's reflections on living with someone with chronic depression. It's funny that I happened to read this just after reading Vigneault's Tom-Cruise-like response on Feministe. Jon points out that people who make these kinds of comments are really, really not helping: "Stop being an arrogant know-it-all. You aren’t right. You are wrong. If someone tells you they need help, your opinion means less than that of professionals. Stop being ignorant. Stop being obstinate."
Vigneault comes to her postions from her own experiences: she is "seriously against anti-depressants myself because of my own experiences with them and how they fucked me up." OK, that's fine - I have zero problem with that, and most people, I would guess, have zero problem with that. The problem comes in when the leap is made from "they didn't work for me" to "they are horrible and don't work for anyone." She says "my opinions about depression come hard earned." Only her opinions come hard earned, I guess - no one else, in the history of time, has ever had a different, valid, opinion based on experience (forget about research).
She also self-righteously defends her position that anti-depressants are universally dangerous by painting herself as a martyr: "Suffering is the human condition. I choose not to medicate." Which again suggests that her understanding of what depression can become for some people is seriously lacking. Again, it's not that there's a problem with her personal choice not to medicate. It's that she is dismissive of everyone else.
Look - I am skeptical when it comes to the medical monster that is our health care and pharmacological system. I have had anti-depressants practically forced on me and refused them all the same. But I would never take my own experience and decide that it is universal and that everyone else is completely deluded, which is what Vigneault is doing here (to a commenter who says that anti-depressants helped them, she replies "I’d argue about whether they really did the trick or if you just believed they did..."
And, to come back to Elaine Showalter - it's really, really uncool to use the term "hysteria" when talking about treatments for depression or about any health issue, particularly one that predominantly affects women.
This is where I was originally going to end this post, but something's been nagging at me. When I read Vigneault's blog and she expresses her frustration with the negative responses she's been receiving to her comments, I have to wonder if she honestly thinks that this is simply an issue of people not wanting to hear what she's saying and therefore shutting her down. I think she really doesn't get that what people are reacting to is not a criticism of "big pharma" or a healthy suspicion of the diagnosis of an illness and the effects of its treatment, but rather the fact that she comes across as determining for everyone else, for all time, that depression is not a mental illness and that anti-depressants cause brain damage and don't work (oh, and also, that therapy doesn't work, either). It's one thing to launch a criticism - it's another to insist that your criticism is valid because everyone else is just like you.
And if there's one thing we know for sure about brain chemistry, it's that everyone is different.
Elaine Vigneault responds, sort of. Here's my comment in response to her:
"Well - it's true that I did not make the reference to Cruise to paint a flattering picture of your argument. I think he was wrong about much of what he said about depression and anti-depressants. However, like it or not, state it or not, you are in agreement with Tom Cruise. He says the exact same things you do about depression and anti-depressants and psychology. So why do you see it as name-calling when I point this out? About the only difference between your two positions is that you focus on social change as a response to depression (when you're not denying that it exists, because the way you describe depression bears little resemblance to serious depression) and he focuses on vitamins and Scientology.
As for proving that depression is a mental illness, as you know (because you mention it), the DSM does that quite nicely, whether or not you choose to agree with it. And yeah, psychology isn't a perfect science, nor is it unbiased. But the fact remains that, according to the professional, expert, and research community that has the qualifications to determine these things, depression is a mental illness, and you can argue this until you're blue in the face, but it won't change this fact. Even you, yourself, say above that "we don’t have a clear understanding of depression and other mental illnesses" - which is true, both in that we don't have a clear understanding of what causes them and how they work and how to treat them, AND in that depression is a mental illness.
But now it sounds, from what you say above, that part of your issue is that you want to be able to say you're depressed without having to also be perceived as disabled or as having a mental illness. Which opens up a whole 'nother area of discussion.
In my post, I did, of course, make other criticisms of your argument - which you have not addressed - beyond the five words that you quoted and offered as an example of how I wasn't criticising your points..."