The number of things that the standard left wing narrative is entirely wrong about is of course impressive. But this one, I have to admit, is a new one on me. Apparently it has been a standard insistence – and who the hell knew this? – that poor peeps don’t suffer from depression. Or, perhaps, that people in poor countries don’t suffer from mental illness and depression. What looks like it, feels like it, tastes like it, is instead just a righteous and just reaction to the iniquities of colonialism. Or capitalism. Or Whitey. Or summat.
Because it is that economic structure of the world that causes mental imbalance and thus it must be only the oppressed proletariat that suffers from it.
The observant will note how close this is to the Happy Darkies argument of that colonial era. When people would – with a straight face and actually meaning it – argue that being enslaved in the Americas was better than being free in Africa. Because, summat.
But people really did believe this:
For decades, many psychiatrists believed depression was a uniquely western phenomenon.
You what? Seriously, people thought that chemical imbalances in the brain only affected those of us oppressed by capitalism?
In 1993, Patel, who was born in Mumbai, finished his training as a psychiatrist in London and moved with his wife to Harare, the capital of Zimbabwe, to begin a two-year research fellowship at the national university. His purpose was to find evidence for the view, then widespread among psychiatrists, that what looked like depression in poor countries was actually a response to deprivation and injustice – conditions stemming from colonisation. The remedy in such cases, he believed, was not psychotherapy, but social justice.
An entire profession went this far off the rails?
For most of the 20th century, the view that “mental health” was exclusively a problem of the wealthier west was widely held by doctors, mental health professionals and cultural theorists. JC Carothers, a psychiatrist and consultant to the WHO, represented one typical branch of this belief. In 1953, he published an influential paper on the “African mind”, in which he argued that the continent’s inhabitants lacked the psychological development and sense of personal responsibility necessary to experience depression.
Even by the late 1990s, versions of this thinking survived. There was a heated debate going on in the US about whether the triggers for depression in wealthier countries could possibly have the same effect among the world’s poor, recalled Melanie Abas, a reader in global mental health at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience at King’s College London. Abas characterised the sceptics’ position as: “If your baby died and you had seven already, you didn’t experience it in the same way.”
Curiously, many people with leftist views arrived at the same dismissal of the need for mental health care, although via different routes. Critics of colonialism argued that calling what looked like depression an illness needing treatment was an act of western cultural hegemony: it medicalised experiences that were not considered illnesses and were dealt with perfectly well by the local culture. Others believed that the more communal nature of society and the stronger family ties in poor countries inoculated people against depression, which was linked to the loneliness, stress and materialistic culture of western life.
Err, yes, an entire profession was clearly and obviously insane.
Something to remember when we discuss the childhood obesity crisis perhaps. You know, that thing for which there is no evidence whatsoever but to deal with which we’ve got to entirely change society?