An interesting new theory is circulating ... but does it go far enough?
There’s no question that the rate of depression is soaring among adolescents and millennials — in the three years between 2013 and 2016, diagnoses rates spiked by 63 percent in adolescents (ages 12-17) and 47 percent in millennials (ages 18-34). Researchers have laid out several theories about why depression is raging in the US, looking at everything from the pressure of coming of age in a stagnant economy crippled by student debt, to the rise of social media and consequent upward comparisons, to decreasing social stigma surrounding mental illness.
Theories on how to solve, or even temper, the epidemic of depression have been less forthcoming. This is partially because the exorbitant cost of health insurance places treatment for mental health care definitively outside the reach of many (if not most) Americans, and partially because without a consensus on the cause of depression, experts can’t adequately craft an effective response to it.
But over at Salon, Mel Schwartz, a psychotherapist and the author of The Possibility Principle, posited that much of today’s depression is situational rather than clinical, and claims that what we need is a cultural revolution.
“Obviously there are many cases of people who are clinically depressed,” Schwartz said. “But the majority of depression is situational — it is not seeing your way out of debt, living in a culture of intense competition where you are being told if you don’t succeed you are a loser.” Schwartz added that situational depression is also about a loss of meaning and purpose, which can be enabled by a capitalistic culture. “The hyper-focus on winning and succeeding drives a lot of this emotional and psychological disaster,” he said. “I believe the solution is learning to think differently, which is being able to embrace uncertainty,” he said. “Embracing uncertainty creates possibilities, and when we have possibilities we don’t feel depressed, so what allows us to see possibility is to step into uncertainty, embrace it and embrace the flow of life.”
I actually agree with this hypothesis in theory. Feeling trapped by a hostile culture that doesn’t seem to care if you succeed or fail — and indeed, seems to take significant delight in pointing out failure — can absolutely create situational depression. But when reality aligns behind the mentality, it’s no longer a case of thinking your way out of depression by embracing uncertainties.
Take the case of student debt. Millennials were strongly encouraged to take out enormous debt at high interest rates on the premise that it was the only way they would get a job — and that the job they got with their degree would be more than adequate to pay the loans back.
But what’s actually happening is that millennials are working two to three part-time jobs and living at home just to be able to afford their student loan payments, which are higher than car payments and in many cases higher than a mortgage. How do you embrace possibilities in that situation?
While our epidemic of depression is likely situational, we should be careful not to posit remedies that ignore the concrete reality of those situations. We do need a cultural revolution, and maybe it should begin with embracing uncertainty, but it can’t end there. It needs to go further than that. We need to start seeing our fellow Americans as human beings with problems we can, and should, care about helping them solve — regardless of how those problems came about in the first place. The cultural revolution we need must embrace a lot more than uncertainty — we need to find our way back to being a culture of compassion, mercy, generosity, and humanity.