The inconvenience of unhappiness

When Freud said he could only ever be expected to return someone to the normal state of unhappiness, no-one, it seems, was paying much attention. I know the average person doesn’t read Freud, but whether preferring to avoid this sort of news or be in outright denial, people these days – often at considerable expense – will do anything to avoid the slightest psychological discomfort.

As the world shifts – albeit slowly – towards a more peaceable state (yes, this seems difficult to swallow, but research from groups such as Vision of Humanity provide information to that very effect) the pendulum for psychological problems seems to be swinging in the opposite direction. The question is, why? Why, when life is easier for so many more of us, certainly in the West, are all sorts of inner discomforts and turmoil on the rise? And where are these difficulties coming from, outside forces or inner ones?

It is possible that climate change will step-up to be the next big external challenge. But it’s also fair to reason that climate change is a product of this very predicament: our appetite for comfort. And the proposition that trends seem to point towards a growing, concerning and somewhat curious tendency for humans to turn normal variations in their emotional state into problems, remains.

While it might seem intuitively correct to think Freud was king when it came to pathologising people, especially women, (although this could be contested if we had time for a larger debate) it’s difficult to ignore the fact we’ve become chronically bogged down by a relationship to psychological illness. Added to that, the west is in the process of spreading their psychiatric minutiae around the world. ‘The Americanization of Mental Illness‘, an article from the New York Times in January of this year, discusses the topic and is well worth a read. In it Ethan Watters’ describes how developing nations are quickly catching on to our brand of psychiatric categories and displaying the symptoms, while offering the horrid yet important reminder that western culture is infiltrating every corner of the globe.

There is, however, something at the heart of this that I find even more disturbing. As we – that big general we of ‘the West’ – feel happier, it just might be possible that our resilience to discomfort is lessening. Is it so ludicrous to suggest that we need something to test resilience against in order for it to flourish? Must we have something to fight and when this diminishes, conjure all sorts of categories and treatments to give it form?

Please forgive me for what I’m about to say – it may even be akin to blasphemy in some quarters, not least the sector in which I’ve spent much of my adult life working in – but I just don’t get how someone like Jeff Kennett (previous dismantler of Victorian infrastructure – a regime that ripped many people’s lives apart, not to mention the bullying tactics with which he got things done) can then head up an organization such as Beyond Blue? Do those dealing out the trauma also get to benefit from the kudos of providing the mop to clean it up? There, I feel much better!

Luckily this post isn’t about Jeff Kennett or his bad behaviour; it’s about our loss of appreciation for the negative. Have we given away the considered state of reflection for treats on the couch, most usually taken – along with some pharmaceuticals from the bathroom cupboard – with a moving screen in front of us, for some more pacifying? Have we finally shaken off ‘struggle’, simply to be faced with the greater prospect of boredom and lack of challenge? Even our literature seems devoid of a certain push on human disarray. The turmoil of Kafka’s writing, the desperation of Dostoevsky’s, the anxieties of Virginia Woolf’s don’t appear quite so quintessential in texts as they once were.

It’s not so much what we add as what we lose that troubles me. The things we’re now prepared to sling out of the normal bounds of traits – quirks, eccentricities, timidity, boisterousness – and throw into the ever-growing circle of diagnoses which then need to be prodded, poked and, in the end, dampened down through managed regimes. If Einstein, for instance, had grown up in today’s world, it’s very likely he’d have been institutionalised for lack of participation and adherence to certain requirements expected of him in a school setting.

The problem appears when one tries to imagine encouraging people to remove some of the pacifiers from their lives, or to teach the theory of delayed gratification and what it does for the brain. Furthermore, why isn’t there an English word that expresses the joy in melancholia? And how do we get people used to not being afraid of their negative emotions, their unhappiness?

After all, while there are things we now don’t accept from Freud’s canon, I, along with many others, think there are truckloads of wisdom and truth in his work, and certainly in the assertion that unhappiness is nothing out of the norm.

SJ Finn

SJ Finn is an Australian writer whose fiction and poetry has been widely published in literary magazines and Australian newspapers. Her latest novel is Down to the River. She can be found at

More by SJ Finn ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.

Related articles & Essays

Contribute to the conversation

  1. I think that most of Freud’s work is completely irrelevant to the treatment of mental illness. He is very interesting form an historical perspective and that is it – that includes psychoanalysis. Now I’ve got that out of my system – clinical depression is very rare in people who are struggling to survive – they don’t have time to be depressed because they are focusing on food, shelter, and water. The pharmaceutical companies are having a field day with the ever expansive diagnostic criteria that are being developed. The whole area needs a massive rethink. I do agree that ‘unhappiness is nothing out of the norm’ is a great truth.

  2. Hi SJ

    Can you point me to that part of the Vision of Humanity website where they discuss changes in the Peace Index over time – I can only see what the index says about today, not in comparison to previous years, decades and/or centuries.

  3. I agree with your commentary for the most part and like you I am concerned that mental illness is just another way of patholigising the human being. It troubles me immensely that this trend is growing and the pharmacuetical companies are increasing their power in society. I am one of those oddities who does feel unhappy on a regular basis and doubt that will change. I also read Virginia Woolf for consolation as well as pleasure.She is a much better read than Freud in my view.

  4. Thanks SJ for a wonderful post. At the risk of sounding politically trite, I see the diabolical cult of happiness you speak of as an integral part of the consumer society. Without mass, manufactured belief in material nirvana -‘consumer cofidence’ – the whole show literally falls apart. Depression is in part a direct consequence of the inherent and sadly inevitable failure of unbridled consumption to deliver happiness. It’s rather like a child learning that Santa Claus is a fiction.

    I’m reminded of Joshua Wolf Shenk’s lovely book Lincoln’s Melancoly
    in which he examines Lincoln’s chronic melancholic state against the prevailing 19th century rhetoric of boundless opportunity. Young men were encouraged to go west to make their fortune and although many did many more did not and suffered a range psychological consequences and bogus remedies as a result.

    Melancholy and the artist are no strangers either, as we know. I value very highly that deeply reflective, dangerous part that draws me to solitude of mind and at times keeps me at a distance from society. Orhan Pamuk says this of the writer: “Once his consciousness is different from that of the community he belongs to, he is an outsider, a loner. And the richness of his text comes from that outsider’s voyeuristic vision.” I think it takes a good healthy dose of melancholy to achieve that creative distance.

    1. “Without mass, manufactured belief in material nirvana -’consumer cofidence’ – the whole show literally falls apart.”

      I agree very strongly with this. And I think capitalism itself is a dangerous part of the pot contributing to general dissatisfactions – we think we should be able to purchase happiness, and don’t understand that we can’t for any price.

      It’s a funny tangle, now I’m stopping to think about this. We buy things because we think they’ll make us happy, but it’s capitalism itself selling us the idea we can always be happy. hmm.

  5. Hi Gabrielle, thanks for the comment. I have to say that, in my opinion, Freud has not yet had his last day with the psychoanalysts. Our talking cures have been very much neglected and there’s no doubt, for me at least, that Freud has a lot to offer when it comes to psychotherapy even if it is only historical. I do read Freud for other reasons, not least his ability to write, so I do think that we probably agree on that.

    You’re right on the point that pharmaceutical companies are doing something that’s very close to marketing, if not actually straight out marketing. It’s very scary.

    Thanks Kerryn.

    Luke, you’ve got me on this one. And in fact the website indicates two things (before I defend my clumsiness on this) that go against the very thing I stated. The first is that the world was a slightly more violent place in 2009 than it was in 2008 and secondly, that in 2009 more arms were traded than ever before.

    But to where I got my point! I can direct you to a discussion on ABC Radio national’s Future Tense Program at scroll down to 1st April with Peace Gets Another Airing and the ‘main guy’ Steve Killalea (odd that that’s his name – talking of peace) at the Vision of Humanity, ‘alludes’ to, doesn’t even state he knows for sure, that the world is becoming a more peaceful place. [By the way, there are four other great website links below the discussion.] So, I have to fall on my sword on that point and beg to be forgiven – it won’t happen again – and hope that better stats can be kept from now on or someone else might know if there are any retrospective/historical stats around.

    Hi Faye, yes, I can completely understand you reading Virginia Woolf for consolation, and pleasure and wonder, if I can add that. And I do absolutely agree with your concern about pathologising the human condition. I think if I was to sum up this post that’s what I would say it is about.

    Boris, I need to re-group to comment on your thoughts. Just give me five or ten.

  6. There are talking therapies and then there is psychoanalysis. Anything that takes years of couch rambling to undertake is a waste of money and for depression is actually bad for the patient. Cognitive behavioural therapies, behavioural therapies, family therapies, etc, are affective. Exercise is very effective. Healthy lifestyles are affective. Medication should have a small place at the table for psychotic disorders.

  7. And some other disorders like major depression and OCD. Recent research has shown medication is not effective for mild to moderate depression. The pharmaceutical companies are definitely doing a sales pitch and just plain bribery. First year med students are given hundreds of dollars in free gifts from Big Pharma (eg., stethoscopes) – just being nice I suppose!

  8. Well, Boris, I agree with your, however trite, conclusion that depression is about the consumer society. We are fed by such conflicting visions that buying is good – even if only to avoid global recession – only then to be told that the GFC is what most curtailed CO2 emissions. What is happiness, after all; to be stuck on a wilderness-less planet? I don’t think so.

    I will definitely look out for Shenk’s work on Lincoln (just went to the website). I’m terrible with American history but there have been one or two presidents, if I’m right, that seem to have been reflective, introspective, even self-doubting, or perhaps it’s only Lincoln. Can’t hurt and would have helped if there’d been more in my view. We find it difficult to separate out strength and melancholia and, hence, think that they can’t exist simultaneously. It’s a pity.

    As for artists and depression, Brian Castro (my supervisor in my last year of a master degree) told me that he thinks writing is about depression and I tend to agree with him. Many will think I’m being melodramatic and, of course, it depends which sort of writing you’re talking about. But for me he’s right – and I do agree with your last statement. Healthy melancholia – as I said, I wish we had a word for it. Perhaps we should make one up: melphoria, maybe!

  9. Hey Gabrielle, I agree. Nobody is suggesting years on the couch is good for anyone, at anytime, well, certainly not me. I’m a family therapist by trade and have spent much of my adult working life with people who have suffered greatly from psychoanalysis. Any treatment that professes to have all the answers – something that CBT has been guilty of – in my view – in the last five or so years, is simply ridiculous. But this doesn’t take away the canon of work that Freud left which, in itself, is, for me, quite remarkable.

    In my view, we need counsellors and therapists who know a range of treatments if they are to become good practitioners. And I also agree that exercise is a superb way to stay mentally fit. In fact it’s been proven now – or I should say, repetitive movement and in particular exercise – has been proven to generate serotonin in the brain.

    And yes, the pharmaceutical companies are going straight to the bank at every turn. Money and health, the two are so intertwined it’s hard to see where one begins and one ends.

    1. Hi
      I’ve been away and have just come upon this post and feel compelled to make some comment in response to the positioning
      of psychoanalysis. Psychoanalytic theory has been immensely
      influential across many disciplines, literary theory, critical thinking, cultural studies, politics, infant development, etc . There is considerable evidence in longitudinal studies to
      demonstrate the efficacy of psychoanalytical treatments. The
      stereotype of psychoanalysis of ‘years of rambling on the couch’ is not only simplistic bit ill-informed, and perhaps
      comes from our perception of psychoanalysis as an American
      enterprise. The deep thinking in Europe in relation to psychoanalytic thinking has been going on for some time, eg: Derrida, Deleuze, Rose and so on. The cutting-edge work that has been happening in Melbourne at the Royal Melbourne hospital with infants is informed by psychoanalytical thinking.The innovative work and research carried out at the Tavistock Clinic in London on trauma and on autism is psychoanlaytic thinking. One of the finest essayists writing in English, Adam Phillips is a psychoanalyst. Most of the worthwhile thinking into infant relationships has been done by psychoanalysts. Attachment theory, perhaps the most sitnificant psychological theory of personality and relationship we have is a psychoanlaytic theory. CBT has become popular not because of its long-term efficacy which is questionable, but because it is cheap and fits perfectly into the instrumental neo-liberal paradigms where mental health can be ‘fixed’ and quantified in dollar terms. Tony Blair was a very big fan of CBT.
      Comment at Overland is usually pretty well-informed. But the comments on this thread have definitely tipped into the WTF category.
      re Brian Castro’s comments on melancholia. He’s probably close to the truth. But I would add that creative work is about mourning, rather than melancholia.

      1. Psychoanalysis has no place in the treatment of autism and if you think so than you are so far out of touch with modern developments in this area that you shouldn’t be commenting at all. The research evidence for psychoanalysis is no where near as clear as you make out.

        1. Hi there.
          Actually I have worked quite a bit with autistic children and am quite familiar with research and practice in the area.
          In reference to psychoanalytically-informed thinking
          in relation to autism, I refer you to
          Autism and Personality’ edited by Alvarez and Reid, and
          ‘Autistic States in Children’ by Tustin, both Routledge
          1999. Also ‘Live Company’ by Anne Alvarez, which I think is Routledge 1994. A lot of this work is not well-known in Australia
          as Australia tends to be somewhat conservative in its
          treatment of young children with disabilities and often
          takes its cues from American models.
          Thank you.

          1. Hi Stephen.
            I feel a little more depth might have come back into the comments, if not the fray, if I can put it that way? Even to go a bit further perhaps, I believe psychoanalysis has given us the most comprehensive picture of the psyche we’ve got, and, it’s very helpful no matter what problem, either psychiatric or behavioural, that comes up for adults or children (in my case I know more about children). I’m dismayed at the way CBT has taken treatment into such close quarters and all power that be, in my view, to the psychoanalytically informed treatment of Autism.

          2. Psychoanalysis is not even on the radar when it comes to treating autism (that doesn’t mean there are not some psychoanalysists plying their trade in that area and doing the odd study here and there). I consider research from all parts of the globe, not just Australia. Many people in the autism community are suspicious of the psychoanalytic movement in relation to autism because of the immense damage that was done historical with the now disputed ‘refrigerator mother’ theory of autism.

          3. Hi Gabriel and Finn
            Firstly, the ‘refrigerator mother’ theory is not subscribed to by psychoanalytic thinking.This is a stereotype that
            is still thrown around unfortunately. Psychoanalytically
            informed thinking with children , especially via
            the discipline of Infant Observation (as devised by
            Esther Bick) has been immensely useful in reframing
            understandings of children’s thinking and development.
            P/analytic thinking with children with children is
            very much on the radar. As I mentioned in an earlier
            comment, the work done at the Infant mental Health
            unit in Melbourne at the Royal Melbourne by Frances
            Thomson Salo and Campbell Paul is cutting edge, very
            successful, well-documented and informed by Infant
            Observation theory and practice.
            I agree Finn, that P/analytic thinkings (and there ar emany and they are diverse) has given us a very interestying and
            provocative picture of the mind, and these days
            the interface between p/analytic theory and neuroscience
            is proving to be very productive. Why p/analytic thinking
            in regard to children is not mainstream in Australia, especially in relation to children with disabilities has more to do with the politics of these things than any
            serious investigation I think.After all, as I mentioned earlier the theory of attachment, the most powerful theorty we have for understanding relationships in a psychological sense is a p/analytic theory.
            Thanks for this discussion, its very interesting.

          4. Hi Gabriel and Finn
            Firstly, the ‘refrigerator mother’ theory is not subscribed to by psychoanalytic thinking.This is a stereotype that
            is still thrown around unfortunately. Psychoanalytically
            informed thinking with children , especially via
            the discipline of Infant Observation (as devised by
            Esther Bick) has been immensely useful in reframing
            understandings of children’s thinking and development.
            P/analytic thinking with children with children is
            very much on the radar. As I mentioned in an earlier
            comment, the work done at the Infant mental Health
            unit in Melbourne at the Royal Melbourne by Frances
            Thomson Salo and Campbell Paul is cutting edge, very
            successful, well-documented and informed by Infant
            Observation theory and practice.
            I agree Finn, that P/analytic thinkings (and there ar emany and they are diverse) has given us a very interestying and
            provocative picture of the mind, and these days
            the interface between p/analytic theory and neuroscience
            is proving to be very productive. Why p/analytic thinking
            in regard to children is not mainstream in Australia, especially in relation to children with disabilities has more to do with the politics of these things than any
            serious investigation I think.After all, as I mentioned earlier the theory of attachment, the most powerful theorty we have for understanding relationships in a psychological sense is a p/analytic theory.
            Thanks for this discussion, its very interesting.

          1. Knowing some, and I admit I could have known a lot more, psychoanalytic theory was always immensely helpful when I was treating a kid with an attachment disorder. And that isn’t even an infant – although I read a lot of Melanie Klein in my early training and the work she did with infants. I felt the ideas contained in the p/analytic discipline gave me, metaphorically, a chair to sit in, if you like, from which I could decide what might be helpful. I’ve heard Dr. Jennifer McIntosh talk on the subject several times and I’ve met Campbell Paul in the same circumstance. I just wish I had a bigger head to fit it all in.

            Also, just curious, but what is WTF?

          2. Hi Stephen again, I found out (a little egg on my face) what WTF means, so no need to expand. Thanks.

  10. We agree then. I certainly don’t believe one approach will ever have all the answers, and it also depends on the disorder. Plus there are bigger system issues which need to be addressed (funding, respite, inpatient/numbers of beds) to name a few. We are taught Freud in first year psychology, and that is probably where it needs to stay (and further reading is optional though highly recommended because he was an amazing individual).

  11. We most certainly do agree. And talking about the bigger system, housing remains crucial to people’s wellbeing.

    I’m glad to hear that psychology students are taught Freud in first year – when I studied psychology Freud wasn’t within cooee, and it would have helped to have that perspective, as much to know what actually went on with Freud, which was not always ‘good’ or sound, as for any other reason. Anyway, yes, we do agree and thanks Gabrielle for the repartee.

    I know someone else quoted their recaptcha words a few posts back and it can get a little silly but it’s uncanny (one of Freud’s topics was the ‘uncanny’) that mine are favorite (American spelling) consult.

  12. This afternoon I left a meeting about climate change, where among other things, concerns were expressed about how the issue has totally disappeared off the political agenda. And then because I was in the city (Melbourne), I went shopping for two items I couldn’t get elsewhere.

    It was a more horrific experience than usual —simply hordes of us and many spending like there was no tomorrow (a self-fulfilling prophecy perhaps). Then it dawned: school holidays and mid-year sales. Consumption has become how we pass the time, part of socialising, and every purchase – no matter the financial consequences – delivering that little buzz of happiness that lasts at most 24 hours.

    I hadn’t read your post then SJ, but as I saw queue after huge queue lining up at registers, young people bonding over an item on a rack or in a window and enormous amounts of junk food being consumed on the run in noisy, over-lit, ugly environments, I wondered what we were all trying to escape or what we were all trying to find.

  13. Why, when life is easier for so many more of us, certainly in the West, are all sorts of Why, when life is easier for so many more of us, certainly in the West, are all sorts of inner discomforts and turmoil on the rise? on the rise?

    On what evidence do you make this assertion? I am stumped by what “inner discomforts and turmoil” even mean, let alone how you could measure them over time to conclude they were “on the rise.”

    Isn’t the real problem here the proliferation of people who identify as “writers” who presume that also qualifies them as “psychoanalysts” even though they have not a jot of clinical, let alone bioscience, training?

  14. Finn is absolutely correct. Discussions about depression must focus on basic material issues such as housing, not illusory discourses about ‘climate change’ or the ‘consumer society.’

    1. Hi Kim,
      Rates of teenage suicide; substance abuse, especially in young adults; domestic violence; street violence; behavioural addiction of many kinds; I could go on but aren’t these indicators of ‘inner discomforts and turmoil’ in individuals and, therefore, in society?

      Perhaps one of the reasons these problems appear to have increased in scale and intensity, even if the stats don’t support that assertion (and I don’t have the stats so I don’t know) is because our population is larger and more densely distributed than in previous decades and, therefore, the perception of widespread malaise is more pronounced. The exponential growth in the scale and complexity of the media may also be a contributing factor. Just a thought.

      You say:
      “Discussions about depression must focus on basic material issues such as housing.”

      With respect, this is prescriptive nonsense.Housing is certainly an important social issue but its relationship to widespread clinical depression and other forms of psychological malaise is surely only part of a more complex picture. There are lots of well housed, depressed people out there. And why discussions of depression should be confined to housing and not wider socio-political factors alludes me.

  15. Yes, Trish. Consumerism such as you saw can be confronting and ugly. I have had such terrible times in shopping malls in the few times I’ve found myself at one that three years ago, after a rather small but deeply felt tantrum, I swore I’d never again go into one.

    I do wonder, as the vast majority of us are prone to consumerism in one form or another, when will we stop thinking that money makes the world go around and contentment, appreciation, safety, peace, health etc. are much longer lasting and more satisfying.

    Hi Kim, inner discomforts and turmoil as referred to in the post denote basic human emotions such as sadness and anxiety. Perhaps you are right to question my premise that they are on the rise. What seems, however, clear to me is that we are giving them more air-time in our discourse and in our treatment rooms and, in some cases, pathologising them and prescribing drugs to assist. I have just folded a private practice as a therapist that I had for ten years and there were people who came to me to get over such things as a broken heart. I didn’t mind seeing people through their difficult time but there’s very little anyone can do to remove that sort of pain for someone, it’s just a natural part of being human, in my opinion.

    I’m not sure about the connection between writers and analysts. Psychoanalysis provides a fertile ground from my perspective to anyone who is just interested in psychology for all it offers and for all its flaws. And writers, especially of literature, are usually interested in psychology.

    My comment about housing is basic. But basic does not mean it is not vital and complicated in its effect and in our ability to supply it. Depression, for me, has got heaps to do with our desire to be successful (a book called ‘Status Anxiety’, and I’m sorry I can’t remember the name of the author, that came out five or six years ago describes the condition well) and consumerism, which is one of the big drivers of climate change, is one of the markers by which we gage success in our modern world. I hope this helps to clarify a few things.

    1. Finn, in case you haven’t come across them, I just thought I’d mention Wilkinson’s The Spirit Level and Marmot’s The Status Syndrome. They both use decades of research in social epidemiology and conclude that relative inequality within our own nations, not poverty itself, is at the root of these psychosocial problems.

      And that gap is widest in wealthy countries.

  16. “Why isn’t there an English word that expresses the joy in melancholia?” The word ‘music’ might have a hit of an answer.

    “And how do we get people used to not being afraid of their negative emotions, their unhappiness?” Let’s go for gold and legislate for it. I’m joking, of course, but heck, if we can legislate that only a man and a woman can have a proper relationship, then we can legislate for something as wonderful as melancholia.

  17. It’s articles like these that contribute to the problem of mental illness. The ‘slap on the back, go do some exercise and you’ll be right, mate’ type attitude. That may very well work for mild cases of depression, but there are some people, well housed people, I might add, that are so depressed that if they are not on medication they with DIE.

    We are talking about chemical imbalances in the brain.

    The treatment depends on the individual. Some people try cognitive therapy and it works, others try medication, others exercise, others fish oils, whatever. It’s about finding the right treatment from you, but people aren’t even fessing up to having a problem so they suffer in silence for years, sometimes, forever.

    The way you are generalising in this article really concerns me. There are people dying, people that need serious help. I think you may be confusing depression with restlessness, which are two entirely different things. Yes, our society has become restless, and we want, want, want, and when we don’t get we may feel low, upset, mildly depressed. But you are talking about clinical depression and mental illness, and people are not seeking help because of the very attitude you are displaying in this article.

    I agree that there is a problem with pharmaceutical companies, but I think there would be less of a problem if the stigma of mental illness was removed. If people saw treatment as a lifestyle change(eg they take meds for a while, do some intense cognitive therapy, and then move onto fish oils and exercise) rather than humiliation and submitting to pill, the stigma would be removed and so would the reliance on pills.

    1. Koraly, I don’t disagree with you entirely but I think there is truth on both sides.

      The distinction between what you are talking about, and the broader social patterns discussed in the article are there, I think. I didn’t perceive any suggestion that there was some sort of shame in accessing medication or other forms of help where needed. As someone who has suffered through serious depression and “mental illness” such as self-harm and an eating disorder when I was younger, I still think the concerns raised here about the pathologising of unhappiness are valid. In fact, I think that phenomenon probably interferes with our ability to address mental illness in some ways as the psychiatric/psychological/counselling resources we have are limited and medication alone is mostly not enough.

      I think when we look at the statistics, it becomes impossible to ignore that problems such as depression are becoming endemic and I think it would be negligent to not consider the nature of our society as a factor. If therapy, as you say, is a lifestyle change, then isn’t questioning our culture a necessity?

      On a more personal basis, in my experience (and I’m not saying this is representative), all the resistance to drug treatment, therapy or any other external help, and all of the stigma or failure I perceived as attached to those things came from the disorder itself. All the people around me – family, friends, health professionals – encouraged me to make use of every resource available.

      1. Lani, I totally disagree that the stigma comes from the illness itself. You may have been lucky to have such a supportive family, but believe me, that is not the case for many people out there. There is a stigma that admitting to having a mental health issues is a sign a of weakness, especially in migrant cultures.

  18. Family-wise, I’d say the motivating desire for drugs was primarily for their own benefit. (I say that with some sympathy.) 🙂

    As I said, I wasn’t suggesting my experience was representative but I also don’t think it can be ignored that distorted perception, extremely low self-worth and a kind of locked-in isolation are a part of depression either. Those things effect the ability to reach out for help regardless of how supportive the environment might be.

    As for that risk of being perceived as weak, I think it stretches beyond mental health issues, personally. Our culture is generally uncomfortable with even healthy displays of emotion or passion or, really, anything beyond apathy and I think the root of any external stigma is there.

    (For those from migrant families, yes, there are extra and different barriers.))

    But really, I’m just not sure how you extrapolated from this post that it was saying “you’ll be right, mate” to those whose lives are in danger, The one concrete example mentioned, I think, was “a broken heart” and its overall focus was the narrowing field of what is considered “normal”, not those who are on the extreme edges.

    I also have concerns about “We are talking about chemical imbalances of the brain” as though that is all depression is. The cause and effect of psychophysiology goes both ways. I understand that framing it as (just) organic disease is seen as a way to overcome social stigma because we equate biological cause with blamelessness but it is a double-edged sword. The concept provides some relief to some people and for others, it sets up barriers to seeking treatment.

    I would much rather promote the idea that mental illness is blameless regardless of whether the root cause is biological, or situational, or whether or not there were genetic vulnerabilities or whatever. None of that stuff actually changes the problem.

  19. Thanks Lani for the reference to The Spirit Level and The Status Syndrome, I’ll follow them up. Also, having read your comments further down the page, it sounds as if you were soldiering on as I know people do when they probably should be seeking help. I do understand people’s reluctance. Some want to get through things on their own, the reasons complex and personality based or sometimes historical. Not everyone, unfortunately, has the best time when they come into contact with mental health services.

    Hi Nigel, you’re on to something there. Music is not a bad choice to denote joy in melancholia. Maybe we could lengthen it to musicholy! Also appreciate the thoughts of pushing towards legislative response. Could be an interesting topic for the polies to contemplate – even if it is only for a nanosecond.

    Hi Koraly, this post is in no way meant to diminish or even comment on such things as clinical depression, reactive depression, chronic depression or any other depressive disorders such as bipolar. There is no slap on the back, go home and do some exercise suggestion. I’ve spent years treating people for depressive symptoms who have been taking medications that have been ‘as carefully as we can’ chosen for them.

    This post is more about building resilience and understanding negative emotions as part of life. That is all.

    1. I think perhaps James Bradley’s article Never real and always true: on depression and creativity is the probably the best expression of what I was trying to say, in my clumsy way, as well as discussing the same concerns raised in this post.

      “Nor, as time has passed, have I grown easier with the term. I am not someone with a condition: I am myself. My moods, my inner life, their cycles and their sometimes almost unbearable intensities are not something extraneous, they are part of who I am, of what I am.”

      “More broadly, though, I am uneasy with the collapse of so much of human experience into the rubric of depression. Depression now subsumes so many states and conditions it has become almost meaningless, or would be meaningless were it not for the fact that its expansion underpins the exponential growth in the prescription of powerful psycho-pharmaceuticals and, increasingly, a conception of human nature that is questionable at best, pernicious at worst. Huxley’s vision of a society addled on soma and addicted to happiness seems less a fantasy and more a reality with each passing day.”

    2. This post IS making a comment on ‘such things as clinical depression, reactive depression, chronic depression or any other depressive disorders such as bipolar’, because you refer to the article ‘the americanisation of mental illness’ (the link in the post is incorrect by the way) and you are speaking about the pursuit of happiness and how it relates to mental illness. If you wanted to write a post on ‘building resilience and understanding negative emotions as part of life’ then write about just that. Don’t include mental illness in the discussion. But when you include words such as depression and mental illness, you ARE giving a ‘slap on the back, go home and do some exercise’ suggestion. There is a huge stigma that needs to be overcome in this country, and journalists need to take more care so maybe then we wont see murder/suicides like we did last week in Roxberg park with that father and his children.

      1. I’m sorry that you see it that way. The link to the article ‘The Americanization of Mental Illness’ was put in to comment on the spread of western mental illness diagnoses into developing countries (illnesses including Anorexia Nervosa and ADHD) and the pharmaceuticals that make up their treatments.

        The only other thing I can say is that I take all kinds of depression very seriously and again I apologise if, in your impression, I’ve demeaned or diminished the condition.

        1. It’s an interesting comment that the article makes on developing countries and Western diagnoses.

          An African friend once commented to me something like: “…we didn’t have things like anorexia where I lived: if there was food there, you ate it and were grateful. We didn’t have time to be depressed either…we were too busy trying to stay alive.”

          1. Hi Maxine,

            This comment from your African friend is very close to what the post is saying. I wouldn’t want anyone to be hungry or depressed but when we’re not, what is there to measure ourselves against, what is it that sustains us? Have our expectations of life been too greatly raised? You don’t have to answer, it’s just a rhetorical quandary.

  20. Finn, it has always disgusted me that Kennet heads up Beyond Blue. A person whose government, both directly and indirectly, was/is responsible for increased cases of depression and suicide and overall distress and anxiety for so many people.

    I rarely begin my days feeling ecstatic about the prospects ahead, and reading the news or looking at the world around me often makes me equal parts miserable and livid. I think there’s a lot to be unhappy about in this world at this time, and there are no constant states anyway – it’s all fleeting and ephemeral and dependent on internal and external factors. Undoubtedly, a range of emotions and states, and allowing the time to experience and reflect on these, is part of the daily human experience. Or should be.

    On another note, I read an essay last night, which argued that the pared back urgency of the [later] work of writers like Kafka, Woolf and Chekhov can be explained by their awareness of death and mortality:

    We are adult because we have behind us the silent presence of the dead, whom we ask to judge our current actions and from whom we ask forgiveness for past offences… [Natalina Ginzburg]

    Cohen also draws a correlation [again] between the writing process and ‘sanity’:

    Anxiety for Cheever is yet another form of excessive “beauty,” a spark thrown off by the imagination’s lonely, ever-grinding wheel, which continues to whir away unattended after hours, when the day’s work is through. To write we must sit alone in a room for many hours, mumbling to ourselves and conjuring “plots.” How closely this resembles mental illness—or yields to it—is something we’d prefer not to think about. But we are forced to think about it anyway, when we confront the deliriously involuted late work of a Melville, a James, a Woolf, a Joyce. Here the movement through the years is not a paring down in the service of clarity, but an often fussy, groping prodigiousness, full of fidgets and hesitations and decorative revisions, an ornate sort of laughter in the dark. (Beckett takes this to its zero point in his last short plays and “closed space” stories, which are more in the McGuane-ian vein, shorn and terse, whittled down to the essential, a voice in the dark.) A friend of mine likens listening to late Mahler to watching a man pour gravy not just over the meat but over the potatoes, the green beans, the salad, and the cake as well. You’d think a man would get sick of gravy. But suppose the only way he has to express that sickness is by means of—you guessed it—gravy? No wonder Joyce, when asked what he planned to do after Finnegans Wake, replied, “I think I’ll write something very simple and very short.”

  21. Lani, I’m beginning to realise just how good a writer James Bradley is. This is exact what the post is about. That we are – each of us – such a wonderful, scary, frightening conglomeration of emotionality and nuance, the idiosyncrasies and the combinations of which make up the inner reality of our individual psyches, our ‘self’ if you like. For me it’s a pity when these are – especially the less-happy ones – numbed, often by meaningless gratification, instead of celebrated. I want to thank you for sending the quote. I agree whole heartedly with the remarks about depression and that our labeling of it would be meaningless if it wasn’t for the vast array of drugs we’re prescribing in an attempt to arrest it. Also, I can’t help but be persuaded by his comment on Huxley’s vision of society.

    Jacinda, I’m so glad someone else is as appalled as I am at the gall of Kennett. It irks me no matter how Zen I tell myself to be about it. I really like the way you’ve coined the slipperiness and interchangeable nature of our emotional state – indeed, I believe exactly as you said, it is fleeting, ephemeral and dependent on inner and outer forces.

    Even though I don’t remember reading Ginzburg – which means little because I’ve got such a terrible memory – I’ve heard before, especially in regard to Chekov, about writers’ awareness in regard to death and mortality. At the risk of annoying some, Freud was also fascinated by our anxiety around death, considering it to be pivotal in everyway to the experience of living – albeit not always in our conscious mind.

    Cohen’s words are fascinating. I love “…an ornate sort of laughter in the dark.” and the preceding descriptors. Joyce is a great person to bring up in regard to this discussion and Cheever’s assertion that anxiety is “yet another form of excessive “beauty”” is music to my ears, makes me feel free in fact. So thanks.

  22. It seems that transforming the emotional life is the privilege of those with leisure time, but I met a woman called Joyce in Katebo Village, Uganda, who is parenting 21 children – some of her own, but many the children of her female relatives who have died of HIV – as well as worrying about survival: growing her own food, making bricks, etc., she is quite depressed.

    The ‘West’ as we call ourselves, might look to the Runes and be counseled: beware that you are not suffering over your sufferings.

    Nevertheless, mental illness is often mental anguish for the sufferer and those who love and/or care for them and reflects the interior landscape far more than the exterior.

    Complicated stuff.

  23. Hi Clare,

    I do agree with you. I counselled a young Sudanese woman for months because of what had happened to her in her homeland. What I would say is that what she and the woman you are referring to went through or are going through, enters more into the realm of trauma and that wasn’t the intended discussion point in this post. I have no doubt that African people, starving or not, suffer from depression, grief and many other maladies of the mind. It is, as you say, very complicated stuff.

  24. I think Clare hit it that: “transforming the emotional life is the privilege of those with leisure time”

    It’s not that I’m suggesting only ‘Westerners’ get depressed or mentally ill, more that because of our privileges, we are more inclined to step back, diagnose, delve, analyse, medicate etc (as I think this post discusses).

    To me, as perhaps with Finn, this obsession with self-reflection, diagnosis and treatment is part of both the problem and the solution.

    Happiness is of course like most other states of being: relative.

  25. Hi Maxine,

    ‘Part of both the problem and the solution,’ I do totally agree. We have to ask questions of ourselves and those around us to make sure we’re travelling okay and then use insight to interpret our highs and lows, not expecting to be happy all the time. As you said, happiness is a relative thing and, as someone else commented earlier, very often, fleeting.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *