In August, comedian Robin Williams’s tragic suicide rocketed depression into the headlines and presented an opportunity for people to get beyond simplistic notions about “chemical imbalances” and finally reckon with how deeply rooted depression is in our 21st-century consumer culture. But that reckoning never happened.
At first, everyone had something to say about Williams’s death, much of it heartfelt and intensely personal. The sudden loss of a beloved entertainer to a mental health struggle spurred the famous and the not so famous to reveal their own experiences of depression and their own brushes with suicide. But his death also aroused discomfort and confusion as people hungered for an answer to the question of why a gifted, universally admired cultural icon had killed himself. At times, the response took the form of a desperate search for an easy answer to a deeply unsettling loss. Talking heads on TV parroted psychiatric orthodoxies about brain illness, or blamed Williams’s death on vague psychological forces referred to as his demons. As time went on, and the coverage began to focus on Williams’ financial troubles, his career difficulties, and a recent Parkinson’s diagnosis, people quickly shifted their stance from “I can’t believe it” to “of course.” Despite the fact that much of what was said was pseudo-explanatory and clichéd—“He suffered from a disease against which he was helpless” or “If only he’d gotten the right treatment, his life might have been saved”—there was a sense of relief that, at last, we had a reason we could hold onto.
Yet on the day Williams died—as on every day in America—more than 100 people died by suicide and 2,500 attempted suicide. And amid the wall-to-wall coverage of his death, there was no serious attempt to explain why the suicide rate for adults has increased 25 percent since 1999 or what’s raising the incidence of depression in America and other affluent societies around the world. Soon after that August day, the public conversation about depression lost its focus as well as the sense of urgency it had temporarily assumed.
A Deficiency View of Depression
Depression, of course, is among the most common problems encountered in clinical practice, yet most psychotherapists still accept the cultural assumption that it’s primarily a problem of the individual. Myopically focusing on the individual has become a habit of mind. Best estimates are that about 35 million American adults will, at one time or another, struggle with depression. That’s nearly 1 in 5 people, so it’s no hyperbole to say that we’re the midst of a depression epidemic. Is this alarmist? Here are a few reasons why such a strong term is warranted.
- According to worldwide projections from the World Health Organization (WHO), by 2030, the amount of disability and life lost from depression will surpass that from war, accidents, cancer, stroke, and heart disease. In fact, WHO reports that for youth aged 10 to 19, depression is already the number-one cause of illness and disability.
- The National Comorbidity study reported two decades ago that 18-to-29-year-olds in America were likelier to experience depression than those 60 and older, even though they’d been alive for less than half as long.
- According to a 2012 survey by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, 95 percent of college counseling-center directors in America reported an increase in the number of students with significant psychological problems. A 2012 survey of college students by the American College Health Association found that 33 percent of women and 27 percent of men identified a period in the previous year of feeling so depressed that they had difficulty functioning.
- According to the Centers for Disease Control, antidepressant use has increased 400 percent since 1988 in America. In fact, 11 percent of Americans over the age of 12 take an antidepressant. A recent BBC news story reported that so many people are taking Prozac in the United Kingdom that scientists are concerned that active metabolites in human urine are running off into water and affecting the behavior of wildlife.