A Future with No Future: Depression, the Left, and the Politics of Mental Health

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From Los Angeles Review of Books: “The importance of arriving at a political understanding of depression cannot be overstated. If the reader only takes one thing away from my text let it be this: depression has a set of causes and a concrete context that transcend any diagnostic manual, as well as the neoliberal ideology of focusing on subjects, not structures; personal responsibilities, not collective ones; chemistry, not capital.

. . . Let me . . . describe the morality that surrounds depression. Take, as an example, a self-help video, ‘Why am I depressed?,’ by a man called Leo Gura. He is, according to his Twitter profile, ‘a professional self-development junkie, life coach, video blogger, entrepreneur, and speaker,’ who helps ‘people design awesome lives.’

Gura, a bald man with a goatee and the founder of actualized.org, starts the video by saying that he wants to answer the question of the title, ‘Why am I — you [raising eyebrows, while forming with his hands a parenthesis in the air as if around the word] — depressed?’ And the answer is simple: you are depressed because your psychology sucks. It should be noted that this is also the title of a video work by the artist duo Claire Fontaine, who in their ready-made video Untitled (Why Your Psychology Sucks) from 2015 has an African-American actress perform an almost exact verbatim copy of Gura’s talk, unfolding a pungent and quite comical criticism of the neoliberal self-help industry’s ideological personalization of depression and generalized responsibilization of the subject as such. Claire Fontaine is one of the artists who have worked in the most concentrated and consistent way with the problem of depression. In their work, depression is always already political and must be understood in relation to its real basis in social conflicts within a capitalist economy of debt and financial speculation.

Back to the original video, where a flashing sequence of catchphrases or keywords succeeds Gura’s introductory remarks. In the order given, the words read: ‘Success, happiness, self-actualization, life purpose, motivation, productivity, peak performance, creative expression, financial independence, emotional intelligence, positive psychology, consciousness, peak performance, personal power, wisdom.’ (Apparently, the concept of ‘peak performance’ is so important that it must be repeated.) Then, Gura delivers his message, his shocking truth: ‘Here is the deal. I’m going to blunt with you here, because the bottom line is that the reason you’re depressed is because your psychology sucks. Alright, you’ve got shit psychology. I’m not blaming you, I’m telling you a fact.’ He goes on to clarify that he is not talking about people who are ‘clinically depressed,’ and who thus have ‘legitimate’ depression. He is talking about the rest of us, the majority who get a diagnosis of depression and whom he is not blaming, except that he is. The video lasts a little more than 20 minutes, and at one point Leo Gura boldly and bluntly declares: ‘You are causing your depression.’ There is something wrong with your mental and cognitive apparatus, your psychology is ‘shit.’ Stop being a victim and take ownership of your psychology! Peak performance!

It is easy enough to laugh at the video and make fun of its logic, but the logic is the dominant one in the world of today — even if it is sometimes articulated in more moderate ways — and it has real effects. The logic is this: people create their own reality. Thoughts alone can change things. This means that you weave the thread of your own fate, there are no external circumstances and no excuses either.

A Danish sociologist with a quasi-royal name, Emilia van Hauen, expresses the same logic when writing on her homepage that ‘happiness is a choice — your choice,’ and fellow Danish therapist, Eva Christensen, sings along (again in my own translation):

‘Happiness is a personal responsibility. Happiness is not something you can expect to get from others. Everybody has the key to their own happiness. And hence also the responsibility to put the key in the right lock. Happiness is created from the inside, it is not other people’s responsibility to make us happy, it is our own responsibility. Just as we cannot change other people, only ourselves.’

If the individual is responsible for her own happiness, then she is also responsible for her own unhappiness. If the keys are in our own hands, each of us is personally responsible for almost everything. Success or failure, and health or illness are a matter of subjective willpower, lifestyle, and choice alone. While we may not be able to change other people, or the world for that matter, we certainly can work on changing ourselves and our selves. Structural change, a change of the system, is abandoned in favor of subjective change, a change of the self. Every problem, however social, political, or economic in nature, is personalized and even criminalized, the subject is made responsible for its own unhappiness, and made to suffer alone and to feel guilty, at the same time, for feeling unhappy, for not being a good and productive citizen, for not coming to work, for not getting out of bed.

These processes of personalization and responsibilization that positive psychology and the imperative of happiness entail, these processes go hand in hand. Mark Fisher was attuned to this logic, or should we say ideology. Depressed people are encouraged to feel and believe that their depression is their fault and their fault only. ‘Individuals will blame themselves rather than social structures, which in any case they have been induced into believing do not really exist,’ as he wrote in ‘Good for Nothing’ — implicitly referencing another of Thatcher’s claims, that society does not exist. This is where the problem of depression feeds into a more general problem: the model of subjectivity advocated in the original self-help video by Leo Gura is identical to the model of the autonomous, self-determining, competitive individual, the fiction of capitalist subjectivity. In the video ‘the viewer,’ the ‘you,’ is the cause of his or her own depression, but consequently also the only cure. What the video wants to do is to teach you how to ‘master your psychology’ and eventually put you in a state of ‘total bliss and happiness.’ It is a deeply moral message. Failing to be happy is simply immoral. If you are such an immoral and bad person that you have become unhappy — or depressed — it is you, and you alone that is to blame. This is the blaming cult of contemporary capitalism: you are causing your own depression — even when evidently you are not.

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Capitalism, in other words, inflicts a double injury on depressed people. First, it causes, or contributes to, the state of depression. Second, it erases any form of causality and individualizes the illness, so that it appears as if the depression in question is a personal problem (or property). In some cases, it appears to be your own fault. If you had just lived a better and more active life, made other choices, had a more positive mindset, et cetera, then you would not be depressed. This is the song sung by psychologists, coaches, and therapists around the world: happiness is your choice, your responsibility. The same goes for unhappiness and depression. Capitalism makes us feel bad and then, to add insult to injury, makes us feel bad about feeling bad.”

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4 COMMENTS

  1. ‘Happiness is a personal responsibility. Happiness is not something you can expect to get from others. Everybody has the key to their own happiness. And hence also the responsibility to put the key in the right lock. Happiness is created from the inside, it is not other people’s responsibility to make us happy, it is our own responsibility. Just as we cannot change other people, only ourselves.’ Psyche is not personal, never was. Ego cannot cope with death sadness and psychosis, because ego cannot control psyche – ego depend on psyche. Happy people are lame. People with depression are real. Empty psychological materialists are not real. That is why they are good enough for marxism/capitalism/communism. They are good enough for system which need only not complaining beasts of burden. The rest is and will be in psychiatric trash bin. Because cult of ego is cult of empty happy people. Mental health is a cult of empty materialism without psychological complexity. Psychiatry and mental health is like dumb and dumber.

  2. This article was published 16 Dec 2019 and written by Mikkel Krause Frantzen. He “is the author of Going Nowhere, Slow: The Aesthetics and Politics of Depression (Zero Books, 2019).” He “holds a PhD from the Department of Arts and Cultural Studies, University of Copenhagen, and is currently postdoctoral fellow at University of Aalborg, Denmark.”

    The above is an extract from the larger article.

    I consider this absolute drivel.

    If one could construct a workable therapy from these outlandish ideas, I’d like to see it.

    That said, he is pointing out something that his generation is feeling, and perhaps more intensely than previous generations. There IS something out there trying to force us all into a corner that will cause us to give up (become “depressed”). He doesn’t know what it is, so he calls it “capitalism.” He then blames capitalism for creating the ideology (or “logic”) of “responsibilization.” That is ridiculous. We have been holding people responsible for how they feel and behave for thousands of years before capitalism became an issue. And we have been blaming demons, ghosts and other external entities for those feelings and behaviors just as long.

    Fact is, in the entire history of life in this universe we haven’t known where those feelings and behaviors come from, why they feel so all-powerful, or what to do about them (though some got close now and then).

    In the field of psychology in particular, several factors have conspired to make the problem near-impossible to solve. And that includes the tendency to reject even the possibility that it could be solved or study in the direction of solving it, rather than just wallowing in it.

    “Politics” is indeed key to an understanding of human psychology. An individual does not get messed up without interacting with other individuals. And the tricks others will use against you include political tricks like “you broke the rules (or laws)” or “you have an inferior blood line” or any number of similar tricks.

    But personal responsibility is also key to understanding human psychology. A spiritual being has to choose to interact with other beings. It has to choose to make others wrong when they do things it doesn’t like. It has to decide to use a body. It has to decide to improve its skills in the games it has chosen to play, or skip it. And it has to decide to forget what it really is and that it can be free.

    Workable therapies based on personal choices in the context of interactions with others exist. They are NOT based on the medical model. And any critic of the current system who fails to throw out the medical model and fails to include Spirit and its decisions about life will not contribute to this subject called “mental health” but will only muddy waters that are already much too murky.

    • Yes. We do not know the cause of depression, psychosis and death. Because it is not our obligation “to know”, our psyche and our identity is not a branch of medical empiricism. We are dependent on that what greeks called gods. We can not control it, psychiatry either. So we must have some respect and humility…( yeah, psychiatry has respect for psyche). And gods are what they are. Why there is depression, psychosis and death – because gods means more than stupidity nad happiness of empty materialism. Apollonian ego cannot cope with truth – they want utopia of comfort without death. They want happiness, comfort and vacation. Mental health is an equivalent of antipsychological blindness. If you are in mental health state, it just mean that you are stupid enough to survive in materialism – it is not good enough for gods, for psyche. It is not enough for soul. It is enough for capitalism/communism and so on. For soul to survive means also – to die. In psychiatric jargon, there is not even a hint of wisdom and love for the psyche, for the soul. This is the basis. We need courageous people, not specialists. In empty materialism, like communism and capitalism people are more and less privileged. Materialists decided to punish psychological man for soul and glorify empty ego for power and money – in Russia or China, especially. Those who mean more – commit suicide. Those who died in despair are now in power in the souls of those alive. BEWARE.

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