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On Depression as a Social Problem

I’m reading two books right now that discuss depression as a social problem, to be solved by social means, instead of an individual pathology. That thesis is the entire focus of Johann Hari’s Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression—and the Unexpected Solutions and a side point in Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative?

There came a point while I was reading the first section of the Hari book (I haven’t finished either book) when the entire history of my depression shifted in a moment: boom. I had acknowledged to myself that there were challenges in my life leading up to my first several, most severe, and untreated, episodes of depression: at the start of seventh grade, my best friend from grade school dropped me because she wanted to be popular, and I wasn’t a good fit for that goal; in ninth grade I felt extra alienated, because I had felt like I belonged at music camp the previous summer, and now I was back to not feeling like I fit, and my friends who were a year ahead of me had moved on to high school, and one of my best friends from elementary school and junior high had moved across town to live with her dad; in twelfth grade I came out as queer and started hanging out with an entirely new set of people, and I spent less time with my previous friends, and my friends who were a grade ahead of me were gone to college, and I still didn’t feel like I fit in, even with my new friends.

I’ve spent my entire life since then minimizing the impact of those small losses, because frankly it’s embarrassing to consider the possibility that those things would lead me into the kind of all-encompassing, fully-dark-to-the-edges-of-my-consciousness, suicidal-all-the-time depression that other people don’t even get when someone dies or when they go through traumas of an intensity that I’ve never experienced. Embarrassing. Much better to attribute it all to a brain chemistry glitch and aim to fix it with a pill, as I began trying to do once I was 18 and my mother made me get treatment.

I’ve always been embarrassed by how shattered a romantic loss can leave me, but I’ve only barely acknowledged the impact that losing friends has had on my life, because as a society, we think of friendship as even less important, in the scheme of mood troubles, than romance, and we don’t often think much of even that as a reason for depression. Hari’s book has a lot to say about the links between loneliness and depression, and some of it is stuff I’ve read before, but somehow what he wrote about the continuum between grief and depression, and how they are indistinguishable clinically, really spoke to me when I read it last night. Maybe those losses of friendship, of connection, threw me into the same kind of depression that another person might experience only after the loss of their spouse of fifty years simply because I’m extremely sensitive emotionally. And I am. Hoo-boy, I am. Sometimes it feels like an asset and sometimes like a deficit . . . but if I try to view it through an objective lens, as simply a fact, then it makes sense that an extremely sensitive person would be extremely sensitive to loss . . . just as I’m also extremely sensitive to, say, joy.

3 Replies to “On Depression as a Social Problem”

  1. Another thing to consider: while losses might be small, objectively, when the scope in which they occur is not large–and most seventh-, ninth-, or twelfth-graders’ scopes are not large, not because they’re deficient, but because they’ve not had the time yet to expand them much–they loom larger.

    In brief, I don’t think you’re out of line for your feelings at all (for what it’s worth). And I’m glad to see you discuss it; I think there’re people who’d benefit from the conversation.


  2. I still mourn the loss of a friend who broke up with me nearly twenty years ago. She was never very clear about why she no longer wished to remain friends, but I think it was a combination of my no longer being single and her discomfort with my new lover (whom I later married). You are not alone in your sensitivity. ❤️🙋🏻


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