Depression affects both men and women, but more women than men are likely to be diagnosed with the illness in any given year according to recent studies, including the National Comorbidity Survey. Trying to describe what depression feels like to an outsider can be challenging. In this post, Naomi Maxwell explores depression in women and asks why some feminists associate mental illness with weakness, whilst some people suggest that feminism is a cause of depression.
My first thought when being asked to write on mental health and feminism was to balk at the great plain laid out before me, and wonder how I could even remotely do it justice. I have suffered from just two of a number of mental illnesses, and even still I would never suggest that my experiences are representative of anyone else’s. Furthermore, the treatment of clinical depression, in particular, differs between individuals to account for the sufferer’s personal issues.
Statistics on mental health fluctuate, but all indicate women are more prone to suffer from depression, regardless of ethnicity or wealth. Feminists postulate the argument for over-representation and an increased likelihood of discussing and ruminating on the possibility of sadness (which we all experience) as being depression. Whilst the opposing corner note that women produce more stress hormones than men, suffering from PMDD (basically if PMS was put on steroids and locked in a padded cell), post-natal depression, body dissatisfaction etc. The problem is that a lot of ideas on mental illnesses and disorders are just well dressed up speculation. On both sides.
So when I began a search into why women are reported to suffer from depression more than our male counterparts, I expected to find something of quite a grave tone. However, if you Google ‘depression’ and ‘feminism’ what you actually come across are a number of reasons for why feminism (kinda really sorta is but isn’t at all) the reason women suffer from depression more than men. I obviously mean this in terms of frequency, as someone with the illness I’d hardly claim that the greyscale that comes over me on a low day is worse than a man’s; this is not the “cramps hurt so women are stronger” argument.
So here’s the thing: when it was first suggested to me that I might have clinical depression I remember my reaction just being relief. I wasn’t crazy … I wasn’t melodramatic. These being the alternatives I’d been trying convince myself of, or even be convinced of by friends, in an attempt to just get through my final year at university. Needless to say, trying to do a degree at Cambridge whilst suffering depression is no easy feat (though it occurs far too frequently) and after a lot of fighting against it, I honourably bowed out to finish in a couple of years’ time.
But where did that leave me? In the privacy of my room at university I wouldn’t leave my bed for ages at a time. I had no appetite. No willpower. No want of social interaction. At times I’d cry hysterically for no apparent reason. When I got back home to London I felt much the same, just now I had to eat under the watchful eyes of a concerned parent, I couldn’t try and sleep life away one decade-long-day at a time, I couldn’t be left alone to criticize myself until life seemed unreservedly pointless to continue. I wasn’t getting better.
With everything NHS-related you’re warned of a serious waiting list. The problem with people with depression or more specifically suicidal ideation is that they may need seeing to urgently. Not everyone will have the sense or reason to call Samaritans at crisis point. I couldn’t tell you how long I lived that bleak existence. Sometimes lows felt like they lasted a week, an hour, a day, a month or two and this is only in hindsight because when you’re in those moments you’re completely unaware of time, of space, of external activity. You switch life off, and it’s dark, and it’s lonely, and scary, and your nightmares thrive on your palpable fear and self-hatred.
So you can imagine my absolute rage when following a link from Mary Jackson, I came across an article by Dennis Prager on female depression. His point, in brief, was that the buck lies with us: because of feminism, we set too high expectations, which are impossible to fulfil. Et voila: depression ensues.
That this man who has never had depression, who clearly has misogyny issues, would charge right in with his rapier and reductionist argument against feminism was mind numbing. But desperately not wanting to be dismissive, you know how us “angry black females” can be(!), I read some of his articles – well I tried to read some of his articles – and shockingly enough he was even more pompous and intolerant than certain members of the Tea Party and being that I already have suicidal ideation I figured I’d cut the masochistic exercise short.
As social scientists, we are always instructed to take causation in statistics with a pinch of salt. In this vein, feminism being the cause for depression because women have different – or perhaps more permissibly expressed – goals that are ‘unsatisifiable’ should be taken with a tonnes’ worth of salt.
Moreover, the idea that as women self conscious of oppression and agency we should know better than to succumb to possible factors of mental illness like body dissatisfaction is absurd. I’m aware that I have eczema. I’m aware that I shouldn’t itch because I have empirically derived the results. However, I still cannot control the urge to itch. Creams may minimize it, gloves may inconvenience it but still…I itch.
This idea that somehow consciousness leads irrevocably to perfect behaviour or avoidance of things that humans experience in everyday interaction is as poor as my depression being due to my unfulfilled goals at the tender age of twenty one. If I was married with children, had only ever slept with my husband and had no aspirations beyond the furtherance of my family unit I’d obviously be happier, of course.
If only through those long days and nights of hysterical crying someone had told me how not to worry about how I’d juggle my future husband and career, and that when my menstrual cycle finished it would all be ok …
* looks off into the sunset *