Posted by: Rob | January 27, 2010

Book Review: Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic

In a post last month at one of my regular reads, Stacy Herbert referenced this article which asks, “Are Americans a Broken People?”

The AlterNet article, by clinical psychologist Bruce E. Levine, is a concise short essay summarizing much of the content of Levine’s latest book Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007).  In the essay (and the book), Levine posits that Americans have become demoralized, depressed and immobilized by the environment that has been created around them.  This environment contains our school and university systems, the questionable diagnoses and treatments by the establishment mental health disciplines, the influence of television and the commercialism of just about everything.

The article prompted me to look for the book at my library; my library didn’t have a copy, but I was able to obtain one through our excellent provincial inter-library loan system.

Levine’s writing style makes for an interesting read most of the time and he uses anecdotes throughout to back up his points.  At times, the text does get a bit repetitious but jargon is kept to a minimum so that a lay reader can follow his arguments.  Unfortunately, I was unable to finish reading the book within the time allotted, and so I have ordered my own copy through chapters-indigo books.  However, I did manage to jot down some of the passages that really resonated with me from the front part of the book that I did manage to read.

I have harboured suspicions about the conventional medical establishment for some years now.  As an aside, this suspicion was fostered in me by my late wife and her quest for personal health issues dating back to before her terminal diagnosis with malignant melanoma.  Expansion of suspicion to manufactured pharmaceuticals naturally followed as we watched while alarmingly increasing numbers of neighbourhood kids were labelled with “ailments” like ADD and ADHD and put on drugs like Ritalin.

This passage describing the evolution of mental health diagnosis and treatment into something resembling an assembly line, I find not surprising at all:

American mental health culture has increasingly become a technology fundamentalist one.  Technology fundamentalists demand speed and efficiency.  By the early 1990’s, two-thirds of doctor visits were less than fifteen minutes, and a 2001 RAND Corporation survey revealed that the majority of physicians were diagnosing depression in less than three minutes.  In a culture that worships speed, I suppose this is considered progress, but a culture that truly respects life would view this quite differently.

In a society that worships technology, the authority of science provides any given technology with legitimacy, and so there are great incentives to convince the public that the techniques used to measure depression are scientific.  However, the technology for assessing depression lacks the basic elements of science – including objectivity and verifiability.

This next passage, in particular, resonates.  My personal evolution is resulting in the rejection of the consumerist culture.  I find myself having greater and greater disdain for new fads, trends, and “products”.  That disdain, at times, gets extended to the sheep-like people who fall for the pitches of snake oil salesman.

I find myself resenting what I perceive to be an artificial need to pursue money.  I am particularly disgusted with those who obsess about money and the making of it.  Especially those who try to get something for nothing.  I have nothing but contempt for those.  Understanding those beliefs that I harbour, it would then make sense that I find I must immerse myself in that foetid mess – almost on a daily basis – in order to avoid starving and freezing to death in the dark:

Psychoanalyst and social critic Erich Fromm (1900-1980) argued that the increase in depression in modern industrial societies is connected to their economic systems.  Financial success in modern industrial societies is associated with heightened awareness of financial self-interest, resulting in greater self-absorption, which can increase the likelihood for depression; while a lack of financial self-interest in such an economic system results in deprivation and misery, which increases the likelihood for depression.  Thus, escaping depression in such a system means regularly taking actions based on financial self-interest while at the same time not drowning in self-absorption – no easy balancing act.  In Fromm’s culminating work, To Have or to Be? (1976), he contrasts the depressing impact of a modern consumer culture built on the having mode (greed, acquisition, possession, aggressiveness, control, deception, and alienation from one’s authentic self, others, and the natural world) versus the joyful being mode (the act of loving, sharing, and discovering, and being authentic and connected to one’s self, others, and the natural world).

I particularly enjoyed this paraphrasing from the story of Siddhartha Gautama, who became Buddha, mostly because it is so true:

Think what would become of a rich young man today who rejected his family and his class for homelessness, then wandered unhappily for six years, and finally resolved to sit under a tree for several weeks until he was enlightened.  Most likely he would be picked up by the police, given a psychiatric evaluation, hospitalized, drugged, and perhaps electroshocked.  In an assembly-line society, there is simply no time to allow anyone six years or six months or even six weeks just to be.  Many Americans feel like cogs on a great wheel.  This is why many people turn to psychotropic drugs – prescription or illegal – which can dull pain and facilitate remaining on the wheel.

Reading the above paragraph, I was reminded of the treatment of the time travelling character convict James Cole, portrayed by Bruce Willis, in the movie 12 Monkeys.

But is it all bad?  Hopeless?  I don’t think so and neither does Noam Chomsky:

At one of world-renowned linguist and political activist Noam Chomsky’s talks, a somewhat demoralized man in the audience asked Chomsky whether he too ever went through a phase of hopelessness.  Chomsky responded, “Yeah, every evening….If you want to feel hopeless, there are a lot of things you could feel hopeless about.  If you want to sort of work out objectively what’s the chance that the human species will survive for another century, [it’s] probably not very high.  But I mean, what’s the point?…First of all, those predictions don’t mean anything-they’re more just a reflection of your mood or your personality than anything else.  And if you act on that assumption, then you’re guaranteeing that’ll happen.  If you act on the assumption that things can change, well, maybe they will.  Okay, the only rational choice, given those alternatives, is to forget pessimism.”

So how do we gird our loins against pessimism?  How do we stop ourselves from falling into despair or depression?  It’s very difficult to get or remain in good mental health because, according to Levine, it’s largely due to our consumer culture.

Consumer culture has increasingly become one that that numbs and diverts us from pain, and I spell out the negative impact of such a culture on our ability to deal with life’s trials and tribulations.  I also discuss how our society actually encourages illness, and how, when it comes to genuine mental health, extreme consumer culture is unhealthy.

Levine apparently does offer solutions, but I will have to await the postman’s delivery of my copy before I can read about them, though.  When I do, rest assured that I will share them with you.

Bruce E. Levine is a clinical psychologist and his latest book is Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic: How to Find Morale, Energy, and Community in a World Gone Crazy (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2007). His Web site is


  1. When I was thumbing through the book, I was reminded of the first months after Will was diagnosed. There was a lot going on and I was still expected to work full-time in addition to being a mother to a baby and care for a very sick man with dementia.

    At the suggestion of my doctor, I went to a counselor a couple of times, she – naturally – wanted me to go on an anti-depressant. I can’t even count the number of times over the course of Will’s illness and after his death that drugs were the suggested remedy.

    “How will that help?” I asked.

    “It will take the edge off the stress,” she said.

    “So I’ll be drugged to not mind?”

    “NO, no. That’s not what anti-depressants do.”

    Of course, that’s bullshit. It’s exactly what they do. They are no different from alcohol or pot in that they dull the senses and maybe even induce a bit of euphoria. The whole culture of “chemical imbalances” is smoke and mirrors.

    “But how is that going to do the laundry, the shopping, take care of the cooking and the child and go to work for me?” I asked her. “Because if it can’t help me out with that, I don’t see that being much use.”

    And that was my standard response ever after. I needed down time. I needed sleep. I needed people to help me out on a regular basis and not just when I put the screws to them and they felt too guilty to say no.

    It was other people who needed me zombified. It made them feel better.

    I don’t really believe the standard medical line on depression. Most people just need time to decompress and think and regroup and our society doesn’t allow for it. And the drugs simply create a temporary sense of okay until the side-effects (and they are legion) negate them or cause worse dysfunction. I know it makes people feel better to think they are sick rather than simply in need of an attitude adjustment, but I don’t know how it is helping them in the long run.

    • One of the more interesting things that Levine details in the book is the fact that most, if not all, of the anti-depressant drugs are psychotropic. So, it’s basically legal to manufacture and sell them to people under the guise of “medicine”, while using other psychotropic drugs – deemed illicit and illegal – like marijuana or cocaine can result in criminal records and/or incarceration.

      Psychotropic drugs are psychotropic drugs. They all can eventually lead to brain damage.

      It’s hard to say how “things” would have gone if you’d capitulated and taken the anti-depressants, but I suspect it would not have been for the “better” in the long run. Thank you for sharing.

  2. As you know, a dear friend was pressured onto the anti-depression route and it made her situation worse because what she needed was rest and a mate who was a partner. Thankfully she found a counselor who recognized that she was not “depressed” but just in a situation that needed addressing. Things got better for her physically when she quit the meds (though I believe there was a certain amount of withdrawal – which is why people stay stuck on these things. They go off, feel worse – drug withdrawal – and conclude they are still “depressed”. Vicious circle).

    I researched but concluded that the way I felt was normal given my circumstances at the time. Too many people feel pressured by Doctors to skip the unpleasant feelings b/c sometimes it takes time to manage them and because other methods (like exercise and finding someone to talk to) are less convenient.

    It’s all about convenience of others in the end. Or it seems to be. Employers, friends/family, medical professionals. God forbid they should have to be inconvenienced by one’s less than stellar life events.

  3. I like what Noam Chomsky had to say, saw him speak once and he had the audience in the palm of his hand

  4. the day i discussed my cancer diagnosis with my general practictioner he immediately offered me paxil, xanax, prozac or whatever i needed. he actually was going to let me PICK the psychotropic drug for my condition – which was FINE. i was calm, comfortable with the diagnosis and treatment plan. and that should have been obvious to him… but it’s standard.

    i’m in the throes of an ‘anti-consumerism’ abyss of my own… balancing my own personal interest in ‘playing’ and my own personal disgust with ‘buying’. i buy airline tickets to play. hmmm…

    thanks for sharing your journey through these reads. i’m still mired in ‘omnivore’s dilemma’, and am about to give it up. ok. corn is bad. next…

  5. […] Zoloft to help me deal with the stress. I declined and I still think I made the best choice. Chemically diminishing unhappiness doesn’t necessarily mean that happiness will pour into the …especially if the circumstances that cause the stress or heartache or whatever remain the same. I am […]

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