Democratic Party presidential candidate Marianne Williamson has set off a storm with recent comments to BuzzFeed News that anti-depressant drugs are being overused to treat normal human responses to adverse circumstances—what was once referred to as the “blues” or melancholia.
Williamson points out that normal human suffering is not a mental illness and shouldn’t be treated as a condition warranting chemical treatment. It’s very rare that I agree with a Democrat, but Williamson is right on the money with this one.
According to BuzzFeed, Williamson believes anti-depressants are routinely overprescribed and that they aren’t needed to treat situations she categorized as instances of “normal human despair.”
“The twenties can be very hard. They’re not a mental illness. Divorce can be very difficult, losing a loved one, someone that you know died, someone left in a relationship and you’re heartbroken—that’s very painful, but it’s not a mental illness,” Williamson said.
“You had a professional failure, you lost your job, you went bankrupt. Those things are very difficult, but they’re not a mental illness.”
And she’s right, they’re not mental illness. They’re a normal human response to the inevitable losses we all experience.
“The answer to depression is more scientific research only if you think of it simply in biomedical terms. The medicalization of depression is a creation of the medical industry. For millennia depression was seen as a spiritual disease, and for many of us it still is,” she wrote.
Again Williamson is right. For millennia, normal melancholia was treated as just that—normal. If your spouse or child died, it was not regarded as aberrant, or worthy of “treatment,” to feel intense emotional pain.
Many of history’s great poets wrote exquisitely on human loss and pain—and left us valuable guidelines on how best to respond to it.
Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet” looks deeply at the pain of loss. Can you feel the intensity of Romeo’s grief as he gazes upon Juliet’s lifeless body in these simple words? “Death lies on her like an untimely frost. Upon the sweetest flower of all the field.”
In “Henry IV,” Shakespeare tells us to embrace grief on the road to healing: “To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”
In “Paradise Lost,” Milton tells us that external conditions need not define us. It’s how we respond to those conditions that determines our true character.
“The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven./And that the true road to recovery from loss will lead through darkness./Long is the way and hard, that out of Hell leads up to light.”
The classical poets recognized that loss and grief are essential parts of life, that we are measured not by how much we can avoid pain but by how much we can embrace it and push on through to the light beyond.
In this century, few have written better about human suffering than Austrian psychologist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl. His book “Man’s Search for Meaning” is a classic in the field of understanding human suffering and the potential for spiritual growth found therein.
After experiencing and witnessing extreme suffering in Theresienstadt Nazi concentration camp, Frankl developed a new psychological theory based on man’s search for meaning in life. Frankl observed that those who around him who didn’t lose their sense of purpose and meaning in life were able to survive much longer than those who surrendered to despair.
Frankl saw that suffering is not just something to be conquered, but also something to be embraced. That suffering properly experienced and confronted could lead to a better understanding of the meaning of life and could greatly enrich future life experiences.
Few have suffered as much in the modern era as China’s Falun Gong practitioners. Thousands of innocent people have been imprisoned and enslaved in communist China for their spiritual beliefs. I’ve personally heard many of their stories of long years of extreme slave labor, brutal beatings, starvation, and degrading treatment. Many saw their friends or family members executed.
Some succumbed to the constant torture and mistreatment. Others found deep meaning in their faith and refused to succumb. It’s remarkable to me that these people are now as well-adjusted and happy and purposeful as any I have ever met.
I can only put that down to the faith in their principles that sustained them through their torture and the meaning they get from their beliefs, as well as the work they do to free China from the grip of evil.
Every committed athlete understands the concept “no pain, no gain.” I only personally know one ex-Navy SEAL, but I’m very sure that while he might have hated every minute of “Hell Week” during his BUD/S training, he’s grateful every day of his life for the strength he can draw from that experience.
Most of us don’t starve and freeze in Nazi death camps or endure torture and privations to produce goods for U.S. supermarkets in the Chinese labor camp system. Most of us never spend hours at a time up to our necks in freezing cold mud during Navy SEAL training.
Most of us, however, will lose a child, a parent, a spouse, or a lover or friend during our lifetimes. Many of us will suffer rejection, be cheated on, feel socially awkward, or endure a loneliness that it seems will never end. Many of us will miss out on a promotion, lose a business, or fail an important exam.
Few of us welcome these experiences, but if they have happened, why waste the opportunities they provide? Why blot out that experience with “anti-depressant” drugs? Why deny ourselves the opportunity to grow and gain strength through embracing and conquering our suffering and loss?
Physical pain teaches young children not to put their fingers on hot stove elements. It’s good to catch a cold once in a while to boost the body’s immune system. Emotional pain, too, can be a spur toward better future mental health. If a young woman has a string of disastrous love affairs, maybe the pain will teach her to raise her standards in men. If she masks that pain with drugs, whether a legally prescribed anti-depressant or marijuana, heroin, or alcohol, will she ever learn the right lessons? Will refusing to confront the pain today lead to even worse pain in the future—to a future of perpetual emotional infancy? Will confronting the pain now be a surer path to becoming a stronger, fully functioning independent adult?
In some extreme cases, chemical treatment may be needed to prevent a suicide or self-harm. But these reasons aren’t why most anti-depressant drugs are prescribed or consumed.
Legally produced anti-depressants are certainly safer than black market heroin or cocaine, but the principle behind them is the same. They’re consumed simply to blot out emotional pain.
Which is morally and practically superior? To deal with the inevitable pain and grief we all experience in life through personal fortitude, spiritual reflection, and the counsel of friends? Or to chemically deny yourself the opportunity to learn and grow?
For most people, in most circumstances, the answer is clear. Every great poet and every sound faith tells us that experiencing grief and pain is an inevitable, necessary, and often beneficial part of life.
Yes, anti-depressant drugs are over-prescribed in every Western country. I disagree with Williamson that this is primarily the fault of the medical industry. I think it results from a failure to heed the words of poets, philosophers, and religious leaders since the beginning of time. We try to avoid the fact that pain and loss will always be with us.
Either we embrace it, learn from it, and grow; or we run from it or try to mask it with drugs—and be condemned to repeat it.
Trevor Loudon is an author, filmmaker, and public speaker from New Zealand. For more than 30 years, he has researched radical left, Marxist, and terrorist movements and their covert influence on mainstream politics.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.