Pathologization as Isolation: The Politicization of Mental Health Discourse

The New York Times published the article titled ‘Effectiveness of Talk Therapy Is Overstated, a Study Says’ last Wednesday.

I see my therapist bi-weekly—although since I began coming to terms with my history of abuse, it has become weekly. Oftentimes, I vent in therapy, and my therapist offers tactics to cope. On occasion, I do become aware of our element. I catch her focusing on something I worry she’s focusing on because it’s something she can handle, not what I am perhaps most struggling with. My eyes glaze over and I ignore her advice until I’m capable of speaking up again. Sometimes I ask her how her other patients respond. What does she expect when she welcomes us with a “How are you?” The kneejerk? An honest response? (She says it depends). We have these unnerving moments where I become the observer and she becomes the subject, unbeknownst to her.

This is not to say I find therapy unhelpful—I find it profoundly helpful. I am someone who often feels burdensome to other people; I find it comforting to know I have someone I can vent to every week and not also involve in other matters of my life. She is someone who answered a distress call from me and talked me down from a moment of crisis after my uncle passed and I found myself alone and unable to cope at home. She provides me with strategies, coping mechanisms, affirmation that I need to hear, even if I don’t follow through on them.

But this article points to something concretely that I am hoping to unpack through this blogging project. My interest is in involving myself in challenging mainstream mental health discourse—an interest inspired by pieces like Plan C’s ‘We Are All Very Anxious’ and ethnographic pieces like Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling.

There is something significantly isolating about therapy and medication. In many ways, these are not treatments but band-aids slapped on gaping wounds torn into us by the systems we are born into. Problems are rooted in histories both personal and communal. They are shaped by structures and systems that atomize individuals, dehumanize them and their labor, categorize and assign values to bodies based on race and gender, and strip the earth of its own health. Evolutionary psychologists stress the importance of natural landscapes, communal existence, touching! but luxury which places hierarchies and status over these evolved needs makes for a stressful society; my aunt who has a history of depression recalls feeling uneasy during a trip in Dubai where the landscapes—running water and all—were artificial constructions to make the capitalist bastion of a resort feel more appealing than it could ever possibly be.

The pieces I mention above are significant because they challenge and speak to the struggles of the depressed and anxious body. We feel incapacitated, unmotivated to live life—but how can we use that feeling of incapacitation to challenge the systems that make us feel this way? It’s not easy—it’s much easier to lay in bed, trust me, I know. This is not to suggest that one should not try treatment to find relief—this is me saying that what we can also do is politicize our anxiety and our depression. If we know that our problems are not individualized; that trusted treatments are not and can not be the end all and final relief, we can instead ask what interventions need to be made into economic, political, social, and cultural systems that will fundamentally ease anxiety.

Capitalism and mental health are irreconcilable to me. Capitalism’s need for perpetual growth in a world of finite resources is the modern permutation of dehumanization for exploit that existed in its colonial ancestor. The pharmaceutical industrial complex and a plethora of other businesses rely on the compartmentalization of mental health categories. A systemic approach to mental health would fundamentally disrupt the existing balance of power, so how can we possibly expect mainstream mental health discourse to be adequate without interventions by the affected themselves?

That is what I like most about Depression: A Public Feeling—it is part memoir, part ethnographic study. The author is part of what she is examining; she is putting interventions into structures that are directly affecting her, and she is doing so while also using therapy and medication. You can occupy these different spaces and still think and engage critically with them.

These are thoughts I have had for a long time and this is the extent to which I have been able to articulate them. However, I am happy that I have it written as an introduction for myself so that I can begin to build on it. I will conclude with a booklist I hope to get through to make these next steps:

Panic Diaries: A Genealogy of Panic Disorder by Jackie Orr
Cruel Optimism by Lauren Berlant
The Promise of Happiness by Sara Ahmed
Democratic Insecurities: Violence, Trauma, and Intervention in Haiti by Erica James

And finally, of course, this wouldn’t be this blog if I didn’t reference of Montreal. One of the most affirming moments of my life was when I saw Kevin Barnes being interviewed at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art. Kevin talked about both his and Bowie’s relationship with mental health and how they use songwriting as a form of informal therapy. It was inspiring and exciting to hear Kevin (who also has a complex relationship with mental health, having navigated a variety of medications throughout his life) talk about engaging with mental health-related struggles for art and added layers onto the—primarily academic—understanding I was developing. It provided evidence for how these conditions that are so often emphasized as needing “treatment” are actually conditions that can be used and worked through by actual engagement with them.

edit: George Monbiot’s article on neoliberalism and inner turmoil is a good read.


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