“The Noonday Demon” by Andrew Solomon, Part 1

the noonday demonPerhaps it was because I just happened to be in the middle of this book when Robin William’s died (and thus, there was much talk of “battling demons”) but I had some difficulty with this book, so my review is going to span four posts.  Mental illness is an issue that I care very much about, which is why I’m bothering to spend the next two weeks discussing this book and putting off my next series. Let’s dive in:  There were parts that were insightful, thought-provoking and funny.  There were other parts that were, in my opinion, offensive, contradictory reinforcing of painful stereotypes that are hindering our society in moving forward on caring for those who struggle with mental illness.  I’ll start where Solomon starts: the title.  He explains his choice of “the noonday demon” on page 293; but I still find it lacking.  Do we say that cancer patients are afflicted with “tumor demons?” Not only is such talk trivializing a very real, very dangerous illness, but it’s totally inaccurate medically (and at least over simplistic spiritually) and prevents people from seeking and/or receiving appropriate help.

Tumors are actual, physical things. In his lectures and other writings on depression, Solomon claims that real, actual, physical things are going on in depression.  You can’t at the same time assert the physicality of depression while mythologizing it by blaming a demon, which most people understand to be figurative and symbolic; regardless of whether I disagree (now is not the place for that discussion), using the term reinforces this idea that depression isn’t a “real” illness.  Or, for (too) many Christians, that it can be “cast out” and all you need is prayer and Bible reading.  Both beliefs are as dangerous as they are false.  While we’re at it, we don’t say that someone with cancer “is cancerous” (and we probably should stop saying people with diabetes “are diabetic”); why would say, as Solomon does, that people with depression “are depressed?”  To say someone “is depressed” could insinuate the very idea anyone who has suffered from the illness knows to be false: it’s her or his fault.

Moving on.  In his second chapter, Solomon states outright that some people are not noticeably affected by severe cases of depression while others can be completely undone by milder forms of the disease.  This just doesn’t make any sense.  In the absence of solid, medical parameters (which is the current state of affairs in the psychology/psychiatry world), there is no objective way to measure depression (why else would they keep changing the DSM criteria for a diagnosis?).  What would constitute a “severe” depression other than being “totally disabled” by it?  At the same time, it is vitally important to remember, though, that, as a substance-abuse worker he quotes on page 429, functionality does not always indicate pain level.

In his chapter entitled “Treatments,” Solomon casually discusses experimenting on animals, as if the rampant cruelty in the industrialized world towards animals is not itself a cause for depression.  According to some, though, animal testing is unnecessary and not very effective anyways; especially for a journalistic work such as Solomon’s, it’s irresponsible to not at least acknowledge this rather than assume everyone’s on the same page with the use of innocent animals in medical experimentation.  Beyond this, though, the introduction to this chapter takes up the conventional two-options approach, which fails to adequately acknowledge the structural and institutional contributors to depression (such as environmental devastation, economic turmoil, social prejudice, inability to find meaningful work, etc.).  Therapy and medication can certainly be effective treatments but there’s a reason they’re not more effective (and why few new drugs are being developed): the “problem” of depression is not always on the individual suffering from it: it’s not, in my opinion, too far-fetched to hope that someday, “caring for the planet,” “getting special interests out of politics,” “eradicating soul-crushing labor,” and the like will be included in “treatment plans” for depression.

 

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