We need an anti-oppressive analysis of depression

After my last blog post was published, someone pointed out that depression is not usually included in the popular definition of “neurodivergence”. The term is often used by people with autism to explain the fact that they are not sick or in need of a cure – that their brains simply work differently. It is less frequently used to describe people with depression.

Most of the arguments for neurodivergence focus on the “advantages” of certain conditions. For example, this article points out that people with Asperger’s tend to have an exceptionally good eye for detail, and that Beethoven, often considered the best classical composer of all time, was severely depressed, and that his depression may have contributed to his creative genius.

But to argue that depression has upsides is dangerous. Autistic people who argue for neurodivergence do so because they want others to know that they are happy with who they are and that they don’t need to be cured. Their brains work differently, not worse or better than everyone else. Most people who live with—or have lived with—depression don’t argue that they are happy with that state of being. They’d more likely say they would like a cure (medical or otherwise) because depression is actually a horrible thing, and there is no upside for most.

The point of speaking about neurodiversity is not about the “advantages” that any condition might have. It has everything to do with where the problem is located.

People with autism argue that the problem with autism isn’t within themselves. The problem is with society’s expectations of how they behave, how they learn, and people’s attitudes towards them. If we, as a society, understood how to raise, teach and interact with autistic people, we wouldn’t have a problem. Similarly, people who use wheelchairs increasingly argue that the problem isn’t their bodies, the problem is the number of places that don’t have proper ramps and elevators, and (again) the attitudes of those who don’t take accessibility seriously. The solution to these issues isn’t to change autistic people or people in wheelchairs – the solution is to change how we think about them and how we collectively treat them.

What is depression, exactly? Even in progressive circles, we tend to treat depression as any other illness – as something the individual needs to fix. Whether by taking antidepressants, getting more exercise, or seeing a therapist, depression is treated as an illness that needs to be cured individual by individual.

Instead, what if we understood depression to be a reaction that people have to the way that they are treated? Depression isn’t a random illness. If it was, depression would affect everyone equally. Instead, depression is a problem disproportionately felt by the oppressed. Women are more likely to be depressed than men. Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual youth are far more likely to try to kill themselves than straight youth.  Trans people and Indigenous people also face extremely high rates of depression and suicide. It’s not a coincidence that these are groups that have survived historical oppression and continue to be marginalized and dominated.

My own depression was not random either: my first major depression was when I was a young teenager and I was dealing with a cognitive condition that will affect me for the rest of my life. The problem was not the cognitive condition, the problem was navigating the gap between my abilities, and people’s expectations of me—socially and academically. My second major depression was when I was unemployed for several months during one of the periods of the highest youth unemployment in Canadian history, and I was made to feel that that not being able to pay my rent was my own fault. Reading online about how depression is caused by not getting enough exercise and eating the wrong foods was useless for me, and served only to make me feel even more like the problem was my fault.

Depression is how our brains react to being put into situations we should never have had to face in the first place: ableism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, colonialism: these are all causes of depression. So why is depression a part of neurodivergence? There are two reasons: one, because the problem isn’t the person. And two, because it impacts how our brains work and how we handle certain situations, and those things deserve to be accommodated like any disability.

We need to stop treating depression as an individual problem, and treat it as a collective one.  When we assume depression is an individual problem, it makes it easy to scapegoat people and blame them for the injustices that they face. Individualizing depression makes it easier to ignore what a huge problem transphobia, racism, and other injustices actually are. 

Anti-depressants, therapists, exercise, and whatever other cures people come up with, can help with the symptoms of depression, but they can’t solve the systemic causes. When we defeat sexism, homophobia, transphobia, colonialism, capitalism and other systems of oppression, we will see big changes in people’s mental health, too.

One thought on “We need an anti-oppressive analysis of depression

  1. So much love for you!! Thank you, as well. I especially like the last paragraph – that work will be part of my healing.


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