On the death of unhappiness

Is there a difference between unhappiness and depression? As human experience becomes increasingly medicalized is there a time when it is okay to be unhappy or must it always be the symptom of a greater malady? Has anyone ever been to a therapist and been diagnosed as simply being unhappy?

Is there an unhappiness apart from depression? Are they simply the same thing?

That simple question has a lot of ramifications for how you view society. If depression is something you have and unhappiness is something you get, but depression is what is really real then dealing with the source of what makes people unhappy is not the most centrally important thing.

It does not take much to realize the ramifications of this. Instead of poor people being unhappy you have depressed people becoming poor and in the end the answer to every ill is treatment and medication. Mental health becomes a way to rationalize and defend chronic injustice.

This does not mean that what any of us bring to any situation doesn’t matter. It does. It doesn’t mean for some people depression is not real and irrespective of the situation some people tend to have more distress than others and have more trouble. It means that to call unhappiness a disease as a general explanation of human misery is remarkably simplistic and serves to act as an apology for social ills and injustices that need to be identified, confronted and changed.

I hear endless statistics about the amount of “mentally ill” people that are in our prisons. I am still waiting for the first statistic about how many poor people are in prison. I am still waiting for the first statistic about how many were abused, beaten, neglected or hurt in any lasting way as children. I am still waiting for the first statistic about how many people who have struggled with chronic hunger are in prison. I am still waiting for the first statistic about how many people who have been the victim of or who have known of gun violence towards someone in their life are in prison. I am still waiting for the first statistic about how many people who have struggled with chronic unemployment are in prison. Perhaps some of these statistics already exist and I don’t know about it. If they don’t they should. The point is that these questions and many more are at least as relevant as someone’s mental health diagnosis in figuring out why they are in jail and what can be done to get them out and keep them out of those jails. A pill a day (or 2 or 3) keeps the police away just doesn’t begin to address all the things that need to be addressed and simple minded faith in it as an all encompassing answer is more, not less, likely to make sure that things that need to change rarely do.

The assumption by psychiatry that what you bring to life is so much more important than what happens to you in life seems so naive when you talk with people who have survived trauma and injury. I once knew a lady who was in her mid 70’s. Her husband of over 50 years died. She decided she didn’t want to live and put a bag over her head and tried to kill herself. The psychiatrist told the family she was suffering from clinical depression. I thought she had a broken heart. I don’t know. I don’t think grief is a disease. Perhaps I am naive but I don’t think so.

In the last couple of years I have become convinced that even more important than what something explains is what it justifies. What does it make possible? What must be true for it to be true?

The notion that unhappiness is always and only a symptom of mental illness justifies a lot. If you define the problem you also define the solution and if you have a vested interest in owning the territory of that solution you fight hard against alternative solutions. And psychiatry has fought hard. According to them they have the special knowledge that really counts and opposition to those ideas is illegitimate and hurtful to those needing help.

During the debate about the Murphy Bill you have had a congressman who is also a psychologist who is also a political conservative who doesn’t really like social programs claiming basically that incarceration and homelessness are the result of a defiency in psychiatric hospitalization and being taken serious like he has something real to say. The psychiatric guild is behind him plus almost everyone else who will either make money or gain influence from the idea. His bill looks to be almost a lock to pass.

Are depression and unhappiness the same thing? I have listened to all kinds of people give all kinds of answers to that question. I have heard some people say hell no. I have heard some people say yes. Most seem to reply with some version of it depends…. depends on how unhappy you are, how long you are unhappy, depends on how much it messes up the rest of life…. a million different depends.

Over the last 3 years of my life I have gotten progressively more unhappy. Circumstances, the bulk of which has been out of my control, have caused the loss of much of what is important to me. A friend, half joking, asked me if I suffered from PTSD. I told him I had no idea how to get post any trauma. I went to a therapist once who told me that I had moderate depression. I asked him how he knew and he said you still function. How you feel does not define how you act. I don’t know the answer to any of it really. I am not good at fancy answers and I don’t know for sure they really don’t matter. Anything that seeks to explain everything in my opinion never does and the idea that distress is always or even predominantly a symptom of some type of emotional illness seems to be a very superficial and limited view of life. Sometimes life sucks. For some people it sucks a lot. The idea that it can be cured just doesn’t match any experience of life I have had.

A friend once gave me his impression. “The stones in the way of the path of life are not in the way. They are the path. “