Mel Schwartz, LCSW

Is Our Society Manufacturing Depressed People?

An Epidemic of Depression

Our society is in the throes of a virtual epidemic of depression. The numbers are quite staggering. More than twenty percent of the American population will experience at least one episode of what we refer to as clinical depression. We need to look deeper into this phenomenon to understand it and overcome it. My contention is, firstly, that our cultural values and memes induce us to live in ways that are, indeed, depressing. Secondly, much of what we refer to as clinical depression is inaccurate. Most depression is situational. The symptoms of depression are often due to depressing circumstances, not disease. In other words, under certain circumstances, it makes sense to be depressed.

Have We Lost Our Way?

Many of us live dulled lives, somewhat robotic in nature and devoid of deeper meaning and purpose. Our lives, often become visionless and passionless. We live in an intensely competitive culture that rewards achievement and success. Our identity and esteem become reflections of these external markers of achievement. Our pursuit of happiness and well-being become terribly misdirected. The demands of our intensely and neurotically driven culture strain our emotional and psychological balance well beyond its comfortable balance. The cultural paradigm in which we live leaves us disconnected, disenchanted and isolated. When this occurs, we tend to honor and seek material acquisitions at the cost of devoting ourselves to intimate and loving relationships – with others and ourselves.

People that thrive in loving relationships don’t typically feel depressed. Depression is symptomatic of feeling isolated and cut off. In our drive to live the good life, we typically isolate ourselves from relationships that might nourish us. Intimate and loving relations have become somewhat marginalized and have lost value in our very hurried lives. Our frenetic pace of life sees one day blur into another, until life begins to lose its meaning. We don’t have time to nurture our loved ones or ourselves, and we lose our vision of a well-spent life. In fact, the problem is that we don’t know how to live well.

Are People Dysfunctional?

Our therapeutic community attaches labels such as dysfunctional to people and families. People are not dysfunctional; social systems are. People suffer and experience pain. We are human beings, not machines that dysfunction. Such terminology expresses contempt for the human spirit. A society that produces such staggering rates of depression is dysfunctional. Our culture has created this epidemic.

Part of the problem is that we become corralled into a consensus of belief that does not serve our higher purpose. The desire to fit in and conform induces us to lose our inner voice. We are products of a cultural belief system that ignores or devalues matters of the heart and then turns and points its accusatory finger at those who suffer. When we do so, we victimize the victim. If we began to look at the depression as symptomatic of living depressing lives, we’d begin to understand that the cure lies in addressing what our souls are longing for. When we suppress the voice of our soul, depression arises. Depression surfaces for a reason. The symptoms of depression are crying out for our attention. The epidemic of depression is simply indicative of lives lived errantly, without joy or purpose.

People who feel passion for their work and friends and love their families and partners don’t become depressed as often as the population at large. People who are in touch with their spirit and enjoy a sense of community don’t incline toward depression. People who maintain a sense of wonder and awe don’t become depressed. Depression isn’t the enemy. It’s simply a warning sign that we’re not on the right path. Our disconnection and folly pursuits of happiness may have much to do with this.

Before the advent of modern psychotherapy, and well before the pathologizing of the word “depression,” we would refer to such symptoms as melancholia. Life would bring certain periods and events in which one might feel some melancholy. Sadness is appropriate at times. When people experienced such sadness, friends and family may have supported them through the difficult times. But they weren’t told that there was something wrong with them. Loving support is the most powerful agent in the treatment of depression. When we lose our compassion and relegate depressed people to their diagnosis, we tend to dehumanize them.

Is Our Society Manufacturing Depressed People?

A dominant theme in our society is that you should be happy, and if you’re not, there’s something wrong with you. Life can be difficult at times. It is in the labeling of people as depressed that the greatest injustice is done. I’m not suggesting that there aren’t people who are indeed clinically depressed, but simply that the indiscriminate manner in which diagnoses are meted out to people without proper discrimination is grossly absurd.  When clinical diagnosis of depression is made in the astronomical numbers we witness in American culture, it speaks to something much larger: A society that has lost its way.

If we see depression as a signal that something is off, we might use the depression to catalyze positive change. Very often depression makes perfect sense. In my practice, I often treat individuals who are being abused, living in loveless relationships or suffering from loss. Depression in such instances seems quite appropriate. Rather than treat the depression, I prefer to assist these people in coming to terms with their life challenges.  It is essential to treat the person, not the depression. We must come to understand how the depressed person struggles contextually in their lives and to appreciate their particular struggles and challenges. We must, at all costs, refrain from reducing them to a clinical compilation of symptoms.

Situational Depression

In some instances, depression is situational. Loss of a loved one, illness or job loss creates circumstances that are painful. Working through the loss is more healing than medicating the pain. It is essential to address the underlying causes and not simply suppress the symptoms. The difficulty is that in our quick fix mentality, we believe that if we can suppress the symptoms then all is well. When we come to see depression not as the enemy but as an expression of struggle, the epidemic will likely subside as we come to honor the integrity of our human spirit. We do not ordinarily grow without engaging struggle. So the irony is that by medicating our symptoms with psychotropic medication, we ensure continued stagnation, for the struggle is never resolved toward a breakthrough; it is merely placated.

Gary Greenberg, in Manufacturing Depression, suggests that depression as a clinical disease may indeed be manufactured. He references best selling psychiatrist Peter Kramer’s assertion in Against Depression that “depression magically skyrocketed after the drug industry introduced SSRIs and that diagnostic criteria can’t distinguish between depression and grief.”

My thesis is, therefore, twofold: Much of what we call depression is a typical life struggle around loss, fear and grave situational issues that have become clinicalized for profit. Yet, there also lies a deeper despair that accompanies living an incoherent life, as a stranger in a strange land. What I am strongly asserting is that depression, and anxiety for that matter, are the most likely outcomes of living in and with the unmerciful and misguided constraints of a tired and destructive worldview. Our constructed reality is for many people depressive and anxiety inducing. Feeling as such ironically suggests that many depressed people are merely mirroring the affects of a somewhat incongruous, if not insane way of living, fostered by the society itself. In effect, the way that we are living is producing tragic results.

More from Mel…

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Les Potton

Mel, a very well observed article.

I think you are absolutely right about society creating depression through unrealistic expectation. I am sure that those with simple values, as you say, around family and relationships, suffer less depression. However, maintaining those values in the competitive western world, is tough these days.

I remember going on holiday to Tanzania and the tour guide showing us a local man sitting on the edge of a jetty fishing. He said “that guy has hardly any money, but he’s happy and wont die of a heart attack”.

I think, similarly to you, that there are 2 types of depression. The intense version that you got when experiencing loss (berievement, redundancy etc). Where someone in this situation is completely dibilitated through the loss, I am sure it can be helped with medication, to kick start the person back into positive habits and behaviours, that then become the longer term cure, when the pills are put away.

The other type, which is probably more deeply embedded in our culture is those people who, as you say, lead these fast paced, robotic but dull and pressurised lives. The worst type of work is that which is tough, pressured but not something you physically enjoy doing. Some pressure is positive, if you enjoy the job content and the expectations are realistic.

I remember having a job like this and you dont realise how bad it was until you experience the weight released from your shoulders by a subsequent change. I think there are people ploughing through these daily routines, masking depression. They probably function, as I did, on a robotic level, not realising there is another world out there, with no-one, including the individual, really recognising there is a problem……. until something cracks.

To maintain high spirits, you have got to be doing things that hit the right buttons for your personal values and motivation. For those who thrive on fast paced activity and material achievement, todays commercial world is probably very fulfilling. However, for those that dont, and a lot of people dont, I imagine it can be varying degrees of hell, made worse by the fear that they have to keep their living standards high or the world will think they are a failure.

Perhaps everyone needs to think again about what high “living standards” really means to them as an individual (there own personal “fishing jetty”) , not what it appears to the outside world.

Matthew Selznick

Hi Les. Yes it is wonderful to take back the authorship of our life! We can write this script differently if we choose.


Mel…A well written article..Depression puts a dark, gloomy cloud over how we see ourselves, the world, and our future. This cloud cannot be willed away, nor can we ignore it and have it magically disappear.

Matthew Selznick

Agreed, but we can learn to think differently and therefore see and experience life differently. I’ve had considerable success helping people overcome anxiety and depression.

donna trainor

having suffered from clinical depression all my life(possibly from the age of 5 but first officially diagnosed at age 16 and now being 50)and having experienced all the emotions that go along with being human in a real life. i know the difference between sadness and clinical depression. society is manufacturing depression in 2 ways:1) in taking difficult emotions,crisis situations and particularly mental illness and wanting treat it all with a quick fix in the most compact and convient way(for everyone but the suffer) and quickly sweep it under the rug. 2)society has become lost on where its priorietes should lie. it should not be a priority to buy something. it should be a priority to help one another. it should not be a priority to have as much money as possible as to have meaning and purpose in your life. peace should sought more than war,violence or should rein over hate. to name a few. i think also there is alot of confusion about what a real life is like is not what you see on tv or what is shown in reality shows or of celebrities,etc. it is also not what all the happiness gurus spout. you cannot just believe,affirm or create your own happy life that is a fairy tale-not life. life is like the ocean. it ebbs and flows. sometimes it sweeps gently onto shore,sometimes it crashes violently on the beach. life is full of moments of sadness and moments of joy,moments of hate and moments of love,moments of distress and moments of distress. all of these moments together make up a full life. “life is for growing souls” the negative of life teaches us lessons that allow us to better experience the positives of life. the quick fix is inadequate. no crisis,no difficult emotion and no mental illness can be healed if the individual involved is not seen in total-mind,body,heart and soul;physical(biological),psychological,social,environmental and in their unique individualism. having been living a real life,i know the difference between clinical depression and sadness. it is partly based on the degree of the”signs and symptoms”,partly due to the duration,and due to some particular attributes that are far more likely to be seen in the suffering of clinical depression than in the suffering of real life. the attributes that are particular to clinical depression and not to sadness are a feeling of impending doom,a sense of hopelessness to the extent that one if not actively suicidal is waiting to die by fate or by god’s mercy. there is nothing left in life that calls to them above the pain. there is an endless desire to escape. there is also the feeling that one merely exists,one does not live. real life is about living,attempting to deal with and overcome the pain and remaining in some way connected to others. clinical depression causes people to slowly withdraw till they end up really only talking to their psychiatrist and therapist if at all;with others they either hide or wear a facade. most likely they will eventually be unable to maintain the facade and withdraw. if we keep looking for quick fixes and looking for what we want rather than what is possible;if we keep setting our priorities in the wrong direction rather than what is essential to our lives and the existence of the earth there will be nothing but despair.

Matthew Selznick

I really enjoyed your thoughts on priorities Donna!

Matthew Selznick

Hi Donna,
Thanks so much for your clear distinction between clinical and situational or typical ebb flow, highs and lows.
Your comments about society’s role in most insightful.


So beautifully and truly said, Donna.


I have also been clinically depressed and agree very profoundly with what you said. As well, at times that I have been recovering from a period of depression, it seems to me that part of the cause of my depression has been facing a very difficult situation that I had no resources, no support, and no professional support, although such was sought, for situations that my family was in. In other words, being aware that something very serious was wrong and believing that there was nothing I could do to change it or to cope with it, and seeming to find that everyone else thought that what was bothering me was a figment of my imagination.

Leah Shapiro

Hi Mel,
Great article!
I agree, I think society manufacturers depressed people. It doesn’t encourage us to be the brilliant, diverse individuals that we are here to be.
I think this impacts us in a few different ways. First- it teaches us to hide who we are, which feels awful. The discomfort of fitting in, following the rules, and conforming causes people to ignore their feelings and tune out. The sad part is that when you tune out the bad feelings you are also tuning out the good stuff!

I also find that we are instilled with so many beliefs about who we’re “supposed” to be, we loose touch with who we are- and this causes a lot of inner conflict. We make ourselves wrong for wanting something different or not being able to live up to expectations.
It’s not surprising that so many people are depressed. They are shutting down their feelings and surrender to the quiet desperation of not being able to be self-expressed.

I think depression can also become a familiar energy. You tune out and ignore the part of you that is crying out for something more long enough it becomes your normal.

I’d like to see a shift in society where people are encouraged to be who they are-in all there amazing diversity. I’d like to see people encouraged to be self-expressed and bring forward their own unique perspective. That is when things will get really interesting.

I find the place to start is with self-acceptance. Giving yourself permission to be who you are, and giving other people permission to be who they are as well. It’s all good!

Rock on!

Matthew Selznick

Glad you found the site Leah..


Mel, I am lucky to come across your link and be able to have access to your articles.
I am not in your field but I would like to comment based on my observation,
Most of us become robot as a result of the competitive world we live in, also subconsciously some of us conditioned to value ourselves based on someone else’s benchmark. In addition to that Change is inevitable, if not now sometimes in the future we can face some sort of life challenges. As a result we go through different type of emotion time to time. The lack of knowledge and skills to manage those leads to depression.

I think Depression suppose to be a short term . This is because what we need is to understand the cause of the problem and a tool to handle it. I believe we are work in progress; we develop and learn from our life experience. Unfortunately the current system is quick to give labels and put us some sort of box, as well as promoting medicine for it.

I would have ended in this box if not for my mother that taught me the following principles at early age.

– If you cannot change it get the best out of it
– If it’s changeable ask your self how
– Do not ask WHY when you are going any form of life challenges


I like these principles, Becky.

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