Depression is a manifestation of a character flaw.

For the record, the title of this post is ironic in tone. So to my chronically depressed readers, no animadversions intended. You do indeed have a character flaw if you’re depressed, but character flaws are pretty common so I wouldn’t worry about it.

I say depression is a manifestation of a character flaw not to further afflict the afflicted; I hardly want us to think of the depressed the way we think of shoplifters.  But it would be progress if our attitudes toward shoplifters became more like to our feelings toward the depressed.  And for that to happen, we need to ditch the unwarranted distinction between character flaws and a malfunctioning brain.

Most people — at least within the coastal wine-and-cheese crowd — accept that depression is not something for which blame is an appropriate response.  For example, here’s Judy Bolton-Fasman writing in the New York Times:

In the summer of 1980, I was 19 years old and had a defining panic attack that divided my life into a very clear before and after…  During one particularly long jag of crying and rocking myself back and forth for hours, my parents took me to the emergency room. The doctor prescribed sleeping pills and told me to “get a hold of myself.”

No one suggested that there could be a physical condition underlying my anxiety and depression — at least, not to me. The research that shows that anxiety and depression can be treatable conditions caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain — chronic illnesses that respond to medication like high cholesterol or diabetes — was not widely known. Instead, I confused my brain’s failure with individual failure.

Nineteen years old and depressed, Ms. Bolton-Fasman was obviously in severe emotional pain and should have been treated more compassionately by her doctor — but not because her depression came from “her brain” and not “her self”.  That’s a silly distinction.  Ending up in an emergency room because you’re severely depressed is no less a personal failure than ending up in jail because you’ve stolen expensive jewelry or ending up unemployed because you’re too hung over to show up for work.  Mental illness carries less stigma than it did a generation ago because we now look at the brain with a more powerful microscope.  Look at the brain with an even more powerful microscope and all individual failures will be revealed as brain failures.

This isn’t just intellectual masturbation and the question of free will isn’t just an intellectual game.  It affects the way we think about privilege, because if there is no free will then there can be no distinction between “earned” and “unearned” privilege.  All privilege is unearned.  All unequal outcomes derive from unequal opportunity.  Moreover, human nature being what it is, a belief in earned privilege has the pernicious effect of distancing the happy and well-off from the unfortunate.  Compassion becomes pity.  Respect becomes condescension.  Me and my friends have struggled heroically with depression; those people over there are just lazy.  

This doesn’t mean that everyone should be treated the same.  There are very good practical reasons why a doctor is paid more than a janitor.  There are very good public policy reasons why some people should be incarcerated.  We don’t want people who are stupid and emotionally unstable in positions of power and authority.  But these are pragmatic reasons for inequality that have nothing to do with cosmic justice.

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6 Responses to Depression is a manifestation of a character flaw.

  1. newguy says:

    Just to be sure that I am not misreading your point (which I don’t think I am, but want to verify), there is no such thing as free will? I guess if you say that is true then your article can make sense.. but that doesn’t square with reality.

    Taking the subject of your post, ending up in the hospital because you are severely depressed is SIGNIFICANTLY different than being in jail for doing something illegally that put other people in danger. It would be great if no one was depressed.. but if a depressed person internalizes that instead of taking that out on others.. that is DEFINITELY less of a moral failure than trying to hurt others or steal from them.

    How could that not be so?

    Stealing from others is generally a much more conscious decision than being depressed? no?

  2. The theory that depression is due to a chemical imbalance is now being treated with skepticism by psychiatrists. I am a manic depressive, and I do feel I should be held responsible for my actions. I have found a medication that seems to modulate my hypomanias, thereby avoiding inflicting pain on my loves ones through my anger. I knew about this medication a long time ago, and would not take it because I was afraid of its side effects. So I do feel morally responsible.

  3. Yes, I am arguing there’s no such thing as free will. The reason for this is that every aspect of who we are is determined entirely by a combination of our environment and our genes, neither of which we choose. Whether or not an individual works hard and expends effort in order to develop her natural talents depends on her personality, and her personality depends entirely on her genes and environment. So, free will is an illusion.
    As to your second point, when I said that being severely depressed was “no less a personal failure” than stealing, I meant that there’s no good reason to make the distinction between “brain” and “self” in the case of depression but not make this distinction in the case of antisocial behavior. If the depressed person can say, “It isn’t me, it’s my brain” then why would the thief not be able to make the same claim?
    I do agree that engaging in criminal behavior is usually significantly more harmful than being depressed, and there are good public policy reasons for treating a severely depressed person much more gently than a habitual thief. But I think it’s a bit misleading to label depressive behavior as less of a “conscious decision” than stealing, since the decision whether to engage in theft is entirely determined by an individual’s environment and genetic makeup.

  4. miga says:

    Whatever, I have no character flaws whatsoever–except when I’m a horrible human being all around! (a little chronic depression humor…rimshot)

    But seriously, folks: I think there is such a thing as free will, and without it I could never hope to get better. My condition is in large part a chemical imbalance and not my fault. It’s largely a history of shitty things happening to me, which is not my fault either. But it’s also largely the behaviors that arose from those two things- that is something I can change. I can adapt.

  5. newguy says:

    I appreciate your response and you at least articulate what you believe well. I just refuse to think that how hard you work, or if you decide NOT to steal… or even how you handle depression is not partially a choice. Certainly genetics and environments are massive components of how things work. However, without what I call free will how could you even hold someone responsible for anything?

    Not trying to be too trivial, but don’t I have the free will to decide whether to eat ice cream or not tonight? I could make either choice, and while genetics and environment certainly make one more likely, I fundamentally can choose either. If you acknowledge I could choose either then i ahve free will….right?

    “since the decision whether to engage in theft is entirely determined by an individual’s environment and genetic makeup.”

    You don’t think people can decide to either make good, moral choices or not (leaving aside how the moral ethos is formed)? If “free will” and character couldn’t be learned then wouldn’t many more adults get in fights, or steal, or lie… which little kids often do until they are taught through a variety of methods that those are not good things? I mean, it just sounds like you are saying there can be no such things as personal responsibility.

    Just have rarely heard people argue there is not free will, particularly when they seem intelligent like yourself so I appreciate understanding yoru view point better.

  6. wriggles says:

    Free will exists just not the absolutist construct we’ve been taught. The reason behind declaring depression a chemical imbalance-which if you think about it describes the fact that our bodies are a chemical soup-was to free PWD from “stigma”. Definition for effect rather than description.

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