Politicising Depression


The White Building

Image by Maisie Cousins

When I was growing up I had a friend who suffered from heavy mental health disorders: he had depression and a drug addiction. He was a self-destructive person with a lot of anger. He was young and mainly unconscious of his condition: he just thought he was a bad egg. Once, after one of his frequent crises – when his depression was reaching its highest peak ­– while lying almost unconscious in bed, he told me that he was a failure, just like his father and his grandfather before him.

After I heard those words, I realised that he wasn’t just a troubled kid whose recurrent abuse of drugs turned him into an unstable person, but that his illness was the result of a decadent social environment in which his working class family has lived for generations. He was not a failure because of the poor life choices he made; it was the society in which he lived in that failed him.

The process of deindustrialisation of the country affected thousands of people in Italy, creating a perpetual financial instability and a rooted hopelessness in the lower classes. This could be said about Britain too. Looking at the effect of the economical crisis from afar, it’s easy to notice a political agenda that cuts public services, health care, education, and community centres. And looking at the impact of these cuts on a micro level, it can equally be said that young citizens with little-to-no role models, weak pedagogical support, limited work possibilities are more likely to feel useless, trapped and unable. To make mental health exclusively an individual and psychological issue is an easy way for governments to free themselves of the responsibility they have toward the most vulnerable.

In 2014, while describing his long-term struggle with depression, the late Mark Fisher – one of the greatest cultural commentators of our time – wrote, “I offer up my own experiences of mental distress not because I think there’s anything special or unique about them, but in support of the claim that many forms of depression are best understood – and best combatted – through frames that are impersonal and political rather than individual and ‘psychological’.”

Fisher started to understand depression in context with the social structures that surrounded him. He – contrary to my friend – had the tools to analyse his illness and see where it was coming from. As Fisher taught us, to consider depression, anxiety, or drug addiction, as social phenomenon means to collectivise a struggle and share its burden.