Strange Brouhaha

Sunday, April 24, 2005

Listening To Peter D. Kramer

Here is an example of how someone really smart still doesn't get it. Free registration is required to read it.

No one can disagree with Peter D. Kramer's central thesis, aka, depression is a disease, it's bad, and we need to get over our romantic association of depression with depth and creativity. But people do have a concern which Kramer has not addressed. The problem is that the way in which they express this concern is clumsy, and Kramer argues the point they *are* making instead of the point they are *trying* to make. People ask him, "Would you medicate Van Gogh?" Well, duh. Van Gogh is a really bad example. The man cut off his ear. Yes, you'd freakin' medicate him. Next question.

What people *mean* is, Would you medicate Goya. Would you medicate Munch. Neither of these artists was known to be mood-disordered, at least as far as I can remember from my classes :), yet most people would take one look at these paintings and say "Something must be wrong with those guys." (And in fact, Edvard Munch's later style of painting dramatically changed when his personal happiness improved. He wasn't ill, as far as I know, but he *was* unhappy, and when that changed, his art changed.)

Kramer doesn't address this issue because, for him, it doesn't exist. He feels confident that he could distinguish between a Munch and a Van Gogh, a man who is suffering and a man who is mood-disordered. Maybe he could. It's the rest of us that people are worried about, the anxious suburban mother who will run to the doctor saying "Look! Little Timmy drew a picture of the Teen Titans beating people up and there's blood and limbs getting hacked off! And he plays alone at school! Do something!" And the doctor, who only has ten minutes per patient and who gets regularly taken out to dinner by pharmaceutical companies, says "Okay, here's some Ritalin." Remember that the United States stands alone in the world in terms of how many children we diagnose with, and medicate for, ADHD. People are worried that the idea of depression, which means different things to different people and which cannot be physically tested for (blood test, etc), will get out of control.

Near the end of his article, Kramer says, "People can be pessimistic and lethargic, brooding and cautious, without ever falling ill in any way." That is exactly the problem. Other people tend not to like "pessimistic and lethargic, brooding and cautious" people and will be quick to assume that if they're like that, there must be something wrong with them. We are a society founded on witch hunts--a people who, when told there were witches, by god went out and found them. ("Hey, now that you think about it, Goody Nurse is...weird! She's old and lives alone and talks to herself! IT MUST BE SATAN.") We are not a people who can be trusted with the power to globally medicate a set of symptoms that are partly in the eye of the beholder and that only sometimes indicate a problem.

I wish Kramer would address *that* question. It would be interesting to know what he thinks.


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