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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

In politics, there is nothing worse than losing control of your rational mind. This is why George Stephanopoulos couldn't let it be known that he was depressed, or that he was taking antidepressants. This is the kind of revelation that could have ruined his political career.

But the threat of mental illness goes even deeper, for there is also a long-standing tradition of mysticism both in Jewish and Catholic conservatism, and it is a tradition that has a lot to lose to biochemistry. Think of the saints. What if Joan of Arc, who heard voices, was really just a high functioning paranoid schizophrenic? What if Padre Pio engaged in psychotically induced self-mutilation the way thousands of teenagers do today?

There is a very thin line, or perhaps no line at all, between religious ecstasy and mental illness. In her recent memoir "The Rooms of Heaven" (Knopf, 352 pages, $24), Mary Allen showed how easy it can be to touch the face of God (or is it madness?) if you want to badly enough.

For religious conservatives, suffering is an integral part of human life -- it reminds us that we are not simply hedonistic creatures of this Earth. Depression is the symptom of our estrangement from God. It is evidence of the soul and the soul's dependence on God and the moral life.

But, if we admit that depression may not be of the soul at all, but of the brain -- if we find that our deepest feelings may only be biochemical phenomena that can be altered by a pill what happens to God's role in our emotional well being? What happens to the applicability of religious rationalism to public policy?

Conservative political columnist Arianna Huffington made this point in her June 14 column on Tipper Gore in the Washington Times: "At a time when, following the rash of school shooting tragedies, we are calling on parents and communities to get more involved in the lives of children, the conference traced all mental and emotional problems to the biochemistry of the brain. ... human beings consist of a soul as well as a brain. And there will never be a drug to cure a troubled soul."

Regardless of whether a pill can cure our culture or not, more and more people are facing the beast within, and turning to psychopharmacologists for help. As they do, many have found guidance in the vast literature on the subject -- some in solipsistic tell-alls like "Prozac Nation" by Elizabeth Wurtzel (Riverhead, 368 pages, $12.95), or "Prozac Diary" by Lauren Slater (Random House, 224 pages, $21.95 ), others in more clinical accounts like "Listening to Prozac" by Peter Kramer (Penguin, 448 pages, $13.95).

If you are depressed, and considering taking medication for it, you too may find it easier to make an informed decision about your mental health by reading first-hand accounts, rather than listening to the mad politicos fight it out in the pit.

Norah Vincent, who lives in New York City, is co-author of "The Instant Intellectual: The Quick and Easy Guide to Sounding Smart and Cultured" (Hyperion, 1998). Her work has appeared in the New Republic, the New York Times, Lingua Franca and many other publications. She writes a regular column for the national gay and lesbian news magazine the Advocate.

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

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