Clinical depression is not either politics or doctrine

BOOKS; THE ARGUMENT

The serious literature of mental illness frees it from ideological and theological prisons

August 08, 1999|By Norah Vincent | Norah Vincent,Special to the Sun

Say the word "depression" to a conservative and he'll probably think you're talking about the big "D," and launch into an interminable tirade about FDR and the evils of the social welfare state. When the smoke clears and you tell him that you're talking about mental illness, he'll proceed, without missing a beat, to launch into another tirade about Tipper Gore and the evils of the social welfare state.

Because, as everyone knows, conservatives don't get depressed. Or if they do, they don't admit it, they don't take mind-altering drugs for it, and they certainly don't raise insurance premiums to treat it. They keep the Sabbath holy or go to confession instead. Or they get Bob Dole to convince us that it's nothing a little Viagra can't fix. After all, as any good sexual essentialist will tell you, men do the bulk of their emoting below the waist.

Whether conservatives will admit it or not, however, depression is a serious and widespread problem in America. As Jeffrey Smith asserts in his depression memoir "Where the Roots Reach For Water," (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 304 pages, $24), over a lifetime, one in four American women, and one in eight American men will "seek treatment" for severe depression. Reams of self-help books, diagnostic manuals, memoirs and case studies are published about depression every year.

Writers and celebrities are warning us that depression is all too real and common: Mike Wallace, William Styron "Darkness Visible" (Vintage, 84 pages, $10), and Kay Redfield Jameson, "An Unquiet Mind" (Random House paperback, 224 pages, $12) are only the most famous. There are many more. We may have a silent epidemic on our hands.

But only Democrats seem vulnerable to it. Vince Foster put a bullet in his head because he was chronically depressed. Yet the Clinton-dogging Christopher Ruddy created a Pynchonesque conspiracy theory to convince us that Foster was murdered by the Clintons because he was the man who knew too much ("The Strange Death of Vincent Foster," 1997, Free Press).

In his recent memoir ("All Too Human: A Political Education," Little, Brown, 456 pages, $27.95), George Stephanopoulos admitted that he suffered from severe depression. After putting off treatment, for fear of political reprisal, he eventually admitted defeat and got help.

Now, Tipper Gore has admitted that she too suffered from clinical depression. There is no denying that Tipper's decision to become an advocate for the mentally ill on the eve of her husband's bid for the presidency is every bit as politically motivated as it is rooted in compassion. But, the snide Republican response to President Clinton's insistence that insurance companies cover mental and physical illness equally is just as noisomely partisan.

In a June 8th editorial on the subject, the New York Post called the recent White House conference on mental health the "Mental Health Boondoggle," and described it as "feel-good liberalism [that] wants to create massive new government programs and impose hugely expensive mandates on the private sector."

The mentally ill have not been treated particularly well by Republicans. As sociologist Christopher Jencks reminded us back in 1994 in his book "The Homeless" (Harvard University Press, $20), it was Reagan's deinstitutionalization of schizophrenics in the 1980s that led to an explosion of the homeless population.

The June 8 New York Post op-ed mentioned this fact -- "thousands of desperately ill schizophrenics are wandering around on their own because the policy of deinstitutionalization is still in effect" -- but then proceeded to blame liberals for "refusing to address" what is essentially a problem created by Republican policies.

Conservative objections to tax-and-spend liberalism aside, why are Republicans so threatened by depression? It may be because modern American conservatism operates according to a tradition of religious rationalism, which is largely Jewish and Catholic, or Talmudic and Thomist.

The existence of the Judeo-Christian God and the supremacy of his moral order are taken for granted by most conservative intellectuals and policy-makers. For them, reason is the ultimate tool by which human beings can order their political and cultural world in accordance with God and his commandments.

So, how does this relate to depression? Conservatives seem to think that social ills are caused, in large part, by moral lapses, and that most of what's wrong with our culture can be cured by correcting those lapses: inner city violence is caused by teen pregnancy, unwed motherhood, absent fatherhood, and all around bad parenting. All of this is correctable, if we reason our way through it morally.

But depression is the enemy of rationality. It breaks down every confidence we have in the human mind's ability to make things right with the world. If you're depressed, and especially if you're taking drugs for it, you are, common prejudice has it, no longer the master of your own mind.

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