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400% Rise in Anti-Depressant Pill Use: Americans Are Disempowered -- Can the OWS Uprising Shake Us Out of Our Depression?

Is it time to repoliticize a great deal of our despair, and reconsider the old-fashioned antidepressant of political activism?

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Depression is highly associated with a variety of overwhelming pains, including physical pain, relationship pain (such as a dissatisfying marriage and social isolation), trauma—and  financial pains .  

Financial pains include unemployment, poverty, and debt. In 2007 the  U.S. Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration  reported depression in 12.7 percent of unemployed people compared to 7 percent of employed people. And the Urban Institute in 1996 reported that Americans on public assistance have at least three times higher rate of depression than those not on public assistance. A person who has suffered mental illness is three times more likely to be in debt than someone who is not in debt, according to  Richard Wakerall , director of the U.K. mental health organization Mind in Plymouth. 

Recently, I had a chance encounter at Cincinnati’s Findlay Market with five young adults who reported large student-loan debt and who appeared mildly depressed about it. I happened to be in a charged-up mood, having just participated in an  Occupy Cincy  march, and I told them that the entire U.S. $1 trillion student-loan debt could be forgiven if the U.S. government paid it off rather than funding the damn military-industrial complex, which costs us over $1 trillion a year if you include everything. They started to smile and look more energized, and three of them seemed interested in the Occupy Cincy movement. If America’s millions of depressed student-loan debtors could politicize their despair and take it to the mall in Washington D.C., we could dwarf the crowds in Tahrir Square. 

Can Activism Be an Antidepressant?

Almost as soon as I entered Freedom Plaza in Washington D.C. on October 6, I experienced a wave of pleasant feelings and energy. My wife, Bon, and I showed up about 10am on the first day of “ October 2011 ” (“Occupy Freedom Plaza”) in Washington D.C. after driving there from Cincinnati. In sharp contrast to the blank and depressed faces that I had just seen on the D.C. Metro and on the D.C. streets, we were now surrounded by a thousand or so people who were smiling, laughing, engaged in political discussions, and eagerly awaiting the day’s events. I chatted with two of the organizers, David Swanson and Margaret Flowers, and found their hope and energy a supreme antidote to cynicism. The opposite of depression is vitality, and so by just stepping into Freedom Plaza, I had received a strong antidepressant.  

Then came the day’s major march. Depression is much about feeling hopeless, alienated, isolated, and powerless, and this march was an antidote to all those feelings. For a couple of hours, we felt some real power. We marched on the streets— not the sidewalks—and traffic was blocked by police, who for those moments in time actually were the People’s servants. We marched past the White House and the Treasury, paused at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to “drop off some job resumes” and for some short speeches, then up and over to K Street, with many cars honking approval and some non-marchers on the sidewalks raising their fists and shouting encouragement. Then back to the Plaza, and a couple of hours later a General Assembly. 

The General Assembly was attended by about 500 people who experienced, some for the first time, a non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian, respectful democracy where the issues of the day were discussed. No one was rude  and all seemed jovially patient. We hadn’t planned to stay more than that day, but leaving the Plaza late that evening, we had an urge to return. 

The next morning, I found my pace quicken as I headed from the Metro station back to Freedom Plaza, as I was excited to return to this piece of “federal property” that had begun to feel like a “People’s Oasis.” We had succeeded, at least for the time being, in taking back a small piece of the United States and restoring it to some kind of sanity and humanity. A section of the Plaza was filled with sleeping bags, backpacks and cardboard shelters, and our food, media, and first-aid tents still stood.  

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