Peter Kramer on Romanticizing Depression

And why it’s so pernicious. Brilliantly stated:

Other questioners set aside that van Gogh was actually ill. They took mood disorder to be a heavy dose of the artistic temperament, so that any application of antidepressants is finally cosmetic, remolding personality into a more socially acceptable form. For them, depression was less than a disease.

These attributions stood in contrast to my own belief, that depression is neither more nor less than a disease, but disease simply and altogether. Audiences seemed to be aware of the medical perspective, even to endorse it — but not to have adopted it as a habit of mind. To underscore this inconsistency, I began to pose a test question: We say that depression is a disease. Does that mean that we want to eradicate it as we have eradicated smallpox, so that no human being need ever suffer depression again? I made it clear that mere sadness was not at issue. Take major depression, however you define it. Are you content to be rid of that condition?

Always, the response was hedged: aren’t we meant to be depressed? Are we talking about changing human nature?

I took those protective worries as expressions of what depression is to us. Asked whether we are content to eradicate arthritis, no one says, “Well, the end-stage deformation, yes, but let’s hang on to tennis elbow, housemaid’s knee and the early stages of rheumatoid disease.” Multiple sclerosis, acne, schizophrenia, psoriasis, bulimia, malaria — there is no other disease we consider preserving. But eradicating depression calls out the caveats.

To this way of thinking, to oppose depression too completely is to be coarse and reductionist — to miss the inherent tragedy of the human condition. To be depressed, even gravely, is to be in touch with what matters most in life, its finitude and brevity, its absurdity and arbitrariness. To be depressed is to occupy the role of rebel and social critic. Depression, in our culture, is what tuberculosis was 100 years ago: illness that signifies refinement.

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kaleachapmanpsyd

Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

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