The Pathologizing of Everyday Life: When Did Sadness Become a Disease?

By Diane Cole

September/October 2013

Here’s the bad news: you’re stressed out and depressed. The good news? According to two recent books, you’ve got a lot of company. But, given the ubiquity of stress and depression these days, what do those terms actually mean anymore, and what effects do they have on our lives and our society as a whole?

While Becker’s book focuses on stress and Shorter’s solely on depression, they tell a larger, and largely similar, story: how these concepts have eroded through the decades into catchall conditions so pervasive that they’ve become virtually meaningless as terms for diagnosis or treatment. More troubling, according to these authors, is that each of these “conditions” has become so prevalent that the distinction between normal and abnormal pressures or moods has become completely blurred. And once stress and depression are considered to be as ordinary as the common cold, we all become targets for Big Pharma’s marketing campaigns of medications that may not actually help us. Also, there’s one more danger, the authors charge: in focusing inward on our own stressors or personal capacities to bounce back or rebalance, we risk losing sight of the impact of larger societal and economic pressures and policies—areas where readjustment could make a real difference in beginning to slow the treadmill quality of contemporary life for the benefit of all, perhaps especially for women.

That’s the discomforting bigger picture that reading these books one after the other yields.…

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