Private Crises, Public Problems

Graphic courtesy of Tiffany Chau and Cynthia Cui

Content Warning: This article discusses mental health issues in a candid manner that may be triggering to some readers.

I’m currently writing this as I procrastinate on studying for a midterm that’s scheduled first thing tomorrow. I’ve been meaning to study since my last midterm ended, which was a few days ago, and I’ve barely done anything at all since. Unfortunately, the feeling has snowballed into something much worse. I feel so terrible about having not studied that I’m finding it even harder to study. I’m so stressed about having not yet prepared for the exam that it’s preventing me from, well, preparing for the exam. 

I fairly often find myself in this state, laying in bed with zero energy, feeling totally deflated. My brain wanders and I contemplate why I’m even alive and struggle to fathom being alive in five, ten years. As absurd as it sounds, I know that for many people dealing with depression, a failure of being able to imagine oneself living to see the future is a regular symptom. The overwhelming weight of existence just feels so heavy―like it’s literally sucking you into your bed―and the continuing passage of time so frightening, that one can’t help but feel trapped and futureless.

I’ll be lying there, metaphorically lifeless, and then it’ll come: a call downstairs from my mom, a text from a friend wanting to hang out, or a phone call from my grandma. In that moment, I will put on a mask, transforming from being a motionless blob to my ‘regular’ self, maybe cracking a snarky joke and proceeding as usual. In that sense, I come out from hiding deep in the dredges of my mind into a suffocated, albeit ‘normal’ existence.

How many of us suffer alone in our rooms, but then exit them appearing totally fine?

I would like to speak candidly about my issues to others, but I just can’t stand to bear what seems to me a massive social brunt. I wonder how many depressed people feel the same. How many of us suffer alone in our rooms, but then exit them appearing totally fine?

If you’ve never dealt with mental health issues, I may just sound insane. “If you’re so stressed about not having done the work, just do the work,” one might be tempted to say. The problem is that I think the same thing myself, but it just doesn’t work. I don’t know why I behave this way; I just do, and I hate myself for it.

Reading over this now, I realize this all may sound hyperbolic and dramatic, but it’s an honest depiction of how I’ve experienced depression, and I know I’m not alone. The rate of depression among 12 to 17 year old Americans increased fifty-nine percent from 2007 to 2017, and seventy percent of similarly aged respondents think that depression/anxiety is a “major problem among their peers.” According to research published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there was a fifty-six percent increase in the suicide rate for people aged 10 to 24 between 2007 and 2017. 

These astronomical increases cannot have happened on their own; there must be some societal root cause(s) leading to huge proportions of the population feeling depressed and anxious.

These are, obviously, massive jumps, and I think it is imperative that we stop seeing depression and anxiety as problems that can be solved as individuals. These astronomical increases cannot have happened on their own; there must be some societal root cause(s) leading to huge proportions of the population feeling depressed and anxious.

What exactly those root causes are is a little harder to say, but author Johann Hari has proposed nine primary “disconnections” that have been damaging our mental health. These include disconnections from meaningful work, closeness with other people, purposeful values, and belief in a hopeful future. While Hari acknowledges the influence that an individual’s brain chemistry can play in depression/anxiety, he places much more emphasis on the social causes, which I believe is the more appropriate approach. What else could explain such a massive upswing in mental health issues in recent years?

The world’s leading medical body, the World Health Organization, once said that “mental health is produced socially. The presence or absence of mental health is above all a social indicator and therefore requires social [and individual] solutions.” Due to obvious constraints on the scope of this article, I will focus on just one of the many potential social causes of depression and anxiety: a culture of materialism. 

“Have we become and are we becoming yet more materialistic?”

Research has shown that certain cultural values can increase or decrease well-being. A meta-analysis of research into materialism and its effects concluded that “materialism [is] associated with significantly lower well-being.”  Psychologist Tim Kasser ties this phenomenon to an associative decrease in the quality of one’s relationships and an increase in pursuing extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, goals. These are known to drastically increase the likelihood of developing depression, so the question then becomes, “Have we become and are we becoming yet more materialistic?”

In the annual UCLA “American Freshman” survey, which surveyed over 120,000 American freshmen in 2017, around eighty-three percent of respondents cited “being very well off financially” as an “essential” or “very important” goal, making it the single most valued goal of American undergrads, above “raising a family,” “helping others who are in difficulty,” “developing a meaningful philosophy of life,” and a plethora of other goals that may be more conducive to happiness. In this same UCLA survey in 1970, less than forty percent of respondents said “being very well off financially” was “essential” or “very important,” while over seventy percent said “developing a meaningful philosophy of life” was of the utmost importance. Clearly, we’ve become far more materialistic and the trend is still climbing upwards.

So, based on substantial psychological and sociological evidence, I believe we are not becoming increasingly depressed because all of our brains have just gone haywire, but because our brains are reacting to an increasingly chaotic world devoid of the meaningful connections humans truly need to be happy.

so too was a repressed housewife in the 1950s with “two kids, a house, a car, and a washing machine” perfectly well-off by the standards of her culture.

We all may be perfectly well-off by the standards of our culture, with our iPhones, new shoes, or whatever else, but, as Johann Hari has put it, so too was a repressed housewife in the 1950s with “two kids, a house, a car, and a washing machine” perfectly well-off by the standards of her culture.

We all need to channel within us what the famous sociologist C.W. Mills called the sociological imagination: distinguishing between “‘the personal problems of milieu’ and ‘the public issues of social structure.’” If more of us struggling with depression and anxiety can zoom out from the confines of our rooms—where we lie in bed hating ourselves—and connect our individual suffering to the broader social context that is leading to more and more of us becoming depressed and anxious, perhaps we can muster a collective voice loud enough to signal that society itself must change.

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