DEPRESSION, I have no doubt, is a mental illness. However, throughout the past few years of recession, and the stories of suicide that that brought, and still brings, I feel that people need to recognise the part society plays in contributing – in quite a significant way – to this mental illness we call depression. I often read in newspapers and on social media, and hear in advertisements by the Health Service Executive (HSE) and radio interviews of the need to talk about depression. Talking about it is very good advice indeed, if one can find someone to talk to, but this merely treats the symptoms and not the cause of the illness. Can talking or being positive give an unemployed person their job back or enough money to make ends meet? Something more fundamental is needed.
People who suffer from depression or suicidal tendencies do not have themselves to blame for the illness they suffer from. As with other illnesses, there are external factors which have brought about the illness in the individual, which are beyond their control. In the case of depression, one does not just suffer from it for some random reason. There are tangible material reasons and social factors which have brought it about. Often this mental illness – depression – is brought about by the actions of others and society in general towards the victim. Suicide, from the perspective of people who feel isolated, or suffer from bullying or depression, or from financial hardship, appears to be a completely logical solution; they are ending their own suffering, and, sometimes, by committing suicide, they may think that they are ending the inconveniencing of others, which the victim may think he is contributing to. This is especially true in instances of financial stress, usually among working class males, who may feel a loss of independence and confidence, and may feel like a burden on their family and friends. Suicide is not a selfish act.
Look at what Robert Tressell wrote about suicide through the character Frank Owen:
‘…tonight Owen was not to read of those things, for as soon as he opened the paper his attention was riveted by the staring headline of one of the principal columns:
“TERRIBLE DOMESTIC TRAGEDY
Wife And Two Children Killed
Suicide of the Murderer”
It was one of the ordinary poverty crimes. The man had been without employment for many weeks and they had been living by pawning or selling their furniture and other possessions. But even this resource must have failed at last, and when one day the neighbours noticed that the blinds remained down and that there was a strange silence about the house, no one coming out or going in, suspicions that something was wrong were quickly aroused. When the police entered the house, they found, in one of the upper rooms, the dead bodies of the woman and the two children, with their throats severed, laid out side by side upon the bed, which was saturated with their blood.
There was no bedstead and no furniture in the room except the straw mattress and the ragged clothes and blankets which formed the bed upon the floor.
The man’s body was found in the kitchen, lying with outstretched arms face downwards on the floor, surrounded by the blood that had poured from the wound in his throat which had evidently been inflicted by the razor that was grasped in his right hand.
No particle of food was found in the house, and on a nail in the wall in the kitchen was hung a piece of blood-smeared paper on which was written in pencil:
‘This is not my crime, but society’s.’
The report went on to explain that the deed must have been perpetrated during a fit of temporary insanity brought on by the sufferings the man had endured.
‘Insanity!’ muttered Owen, as he read this glib theory. ‘Insanity! It seems to me that he would have been insane if he had NOT killed them.’
Surely it was wiser and better and kinder to send them all to sleep, than to let them continue to suffer…’
By the way, Tressell was not justifying familial murder, as readers of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists will know. Neither am I justifying it, and I don’t wish to be seen to here. I am merely trying to point out the pure logic behind suicide which may exist in the minds of people who are suicidal, and that that logic is created by events and circumstances in one’s life outside of their control. Those negative events and circumstances are created by society through how it is organised and operates.
Overcoming depression is not merely an existential excercise, as it is often portrayed (“You must be more positive”… “be optimistic”… talk to people”… “get a hobby”… etc.) but, like everything, it is a social issue. For example, look at the positive influence that kind, thoughtful, educated, passionate people can have on your personality and outlook if you are immersed with such persons for a period. Having such connections can be healthy. But such association cannot be taken for granted. It is not easy to develop if you come from a background of poverty, ignorance, and hardship which can perpetuate negativity and feelings of inferiority. On the contrary, such positive influences are more or less inherited if you come from a privileged background. Anecdotally, I have experienced this. I have had the good fortune to have been inspired and motivated by meeting such inspirational people and reap the confidence that comes from them and the knowledge they impart. Conversely, I have had the misfortune of being surrounded throughout much of my life by people of the opposite kind. Hence, for most of my life, I suffered from a lack of confidence, shyness and sadness, which led to feelings of inferiority and worthlessness.
I suffered from bullying as a young person, mostly at home, at the hands of my mother’s partner – my brother’s father – and, my mother, who would sadly and inevitably take his side in belittling me. Favouritism was used as a weapon by him too. He would praise my sister and give her preferential treatment in a way to isolate me from the rest of my family. They would claim I was “imagining things” if I said anything about how I was being treated. Years later, gaining my independence with a job and by getting away from him, I found that all of this bullying was based on his jealousy of me. Much of it was based on his sadness and dissatisfaction with life, and taking it out on me was his reaction to that. Was I suffering? Yes. Was I ill? Perhaps. But it was caused by these factors beyond my control. As soon as I gained financial and social independence from these conditions, I became a happier more confident, educated and motivated person. But the societal conditions which allowed me to get a job and go to college had to exist in order for me to do that. It was 2005 and Ireland had reached the peak of the so-called Celtic Tiger. The conditions created by the Celtic Tiger – high employment, lots of job opportunities etc. – were beyond my control. Age may have been a factor too. But consider this; since I had become unemployed and lost much of my independence and positive social connections that come with it, I have found that I have stumbled into the old dark places again.
One might argue that “you were pubescent; those hormones may have contributed to negative and confused feelings”. Indeed, age may have been a factor, it is true. I had turned 19 in 2005, I had developed as an adult and exited the tumultuous period of teenage years. This brought confidence and clarity of thought. I was in my first “proper” job. But consider this; since I had become unemployed and lost much of my independence and positive social connections that come with it around 2012, at 26, I have found that I have stumbled into the old dark places again familiar to me from the past.
I’m okay now. I am in an okay position and I have the education and experience which allows me to understand the world and myself a little better now. This might save me from falling utterly into depression, and get me through bouts of low-confidence and anxiety. But if I were in a worse job, or still unemployed, perhaps even my understanding of the world and things might not save me – it might even contribute to worsening feelings and thoughts. Who knows? But fighting spirit is always good, so is learning.
Although Irish society may not blame the victim as it used to, it now blames the disease, which is essentially blaming the victim in a less direct way. In a sense, “it is not your fault you’re depressed, but you are mentally ill”. We now simply blame the illness which has attached itself to the person and seem to suggest that it can be worked off as extra weight can be worked off through excercise, as if external factors are not an issue. The victim should “be positive”, “talk about it” etc. The one thing we certainly do not blame for others’ mental illness is ourselves. I have never read in a newspaper, or heard on the radio, or watched on television that a system, which prioritises profit and competition over people’s well-being, might contribute to suicide. According to the establishment, mental illness causes suicide, not capitalism. It’s akin to saying the bullet murdered the victim, not the person.