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How Psychiatry Stigmatizes Depression Sufferers

Viewing depression as a "brain defect" has resulted in the glorification of insipid happiness, particularly among our politicians.

Viewing depression as a “brain defect” rather than a “character defect” is supposed to reduce the stigma of depression, according to the American Psychiatric Association, the National Alliance for the Mentally Ill, and the rest of the mental health establishment. But any defect can be stigmatizing. What if depression is the result of neither a brain defect nor a character defect? 

At one time in U.S. history, Americans actually elected a known depression sufferer as president. In Lincoln’s Melancholy, Joshua Wolf Shenk reports that Abraham Lincoln’s long-time law partner William Herndon observed about Lincoln that “gloom and sadness were his predominant state.” And Shenk reports that Lincoln experienced two major depressive breakdowns which included suicidal statements that frightened friends enough to form a suicide watch. However, in Lincoln’s era, when depression was seen as neither a character defect nor a brain defect, Lincoln’s depression actually helped him politically more than it hurt him. Lincoln’s depression gained him sympathy and compassion, and drew people toward him, as it “seemed not a matter of shame but an intriguing aspect of his character, and indeed an aspect of his grand nature,” according to Shenk.

Today, when we treat depression as a brain defect, it appears unlikely that anyone with Lincoln’s temperament would receive a U.S. presidential or vice presidential nomination. In 1972, George McGovern’s vice presidential running mate Thomas Eagleton was shoved off the ticket because of his history of depression and medical treatment for it. And today, it would seem near impossible for a candidate who had received electroshock for depression to be elected president.

Lincoln’s words, humor, and face revealed a man who suffered from deep pains. This is also true for Winston Churchill, William Tecumseh Sherman, and other critically thinking leaders who have suffered from depression. Lincoln, Churchill, and Sherman visibly experienced pain but inspired people because of, in part, their capacity to overcome their pain. Today, we reject leaders who visibly suffer from pain.

While Lincoln, Churchill, and Sherman were certainly not without flaws, so too are the “compulsively upbeat”— the “bright-sided,” to use Barbara Ehrenreich’s term. The U.S. political preference for the compulsively upbeat became clear with the ascent of Ronald Reagan. Reagan’s reputation as a “great” and a “transformative” president has been cemented not only by the corporate media and Republicans but by Democrats such as Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. All this despite Reagan’s committing one of the most heinous offenses in U.S. presidential history—selling arms to Iran in violation of an embargo so as to illegally fund the Nicaraguan Contras. Reagan’s offenses have been largely ignored by present America; but not ignored, especially by modern American politicians, is the fact that Reagan’s sunny disposition defeated his more downbeat political rivals and helped create the Reagan legacy.

Americans have been increasingly socialized to be terrified of the overwhelming pain that can fuel depression, and they have been taught to distrust their own and other’s ability to overcome it. This terror, like any terror, inhibits critical thinking. Without critical thinking, it is difficult to accurately assess the legitimacy of authorities. And Americans have become easy prey for mental health authorities’ proclamation that depression is a result of a brain defect. But what does science actually say about the brain defect theory of depression?

Science and the Brain Defect Theory of Depression

The reality is there is as no scientific proof that depression is caused by either a character defect or a brain defect.

Medical conditions such as hypothyroidism and anemia can cause depression, but the American Psychiatric Association’s diagnostic manual, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), states that a patient should not be diagnosed with the psychiatric disorder of depression when the symptoms of depression are due to a general medical condition. The mental health establishment is committed to the idea that depression is a separate brain disorder, and it has declared several biological-chemical-electrical theories for it.

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