The Depression Epidemic
But when compared with preceding generations of Americans, we are, on the whole, healthier, safer, better off financially, and more educated. So where is the disorder?
The truth is, these barometers don't tell the whole story. In the workplace, many of us sit in comfortable surroundings compared with those of our ancestors, who fought cold, wind, and rain. Yet we feel as much uncertainty as they did and much less control over our work. Our jobs are not secure, and due to specialization, many of us do not have the flexibility to move easily and quickly from one job to another. We work long hours, often with a sense of being "behind," and do not recognize boundaries between work and non-work. (Is the office Christmas party work or recreation?) We compare ourselves with other colleagues when comparisons are fruitless, or find ourselves being compared unfairly. When we come up short, we feel the burden of unrealistic expectations we have placed on ourselves or have received from others. We are given responsibilities with little authority and even fewer resources, and feel we have no control over job expectations or even how we use our work time. Many of us are subject to sometimes dehumanizing corporate or economic systems not of our own making and seemingly beyond our influence. We feel small, insignificant, and expendable.
Some Americans find their everyday reality so tough that they try to escape it via substance abuse, sexual promiscuity, petty theft, or embezzlement. Consider substance abuse. Nearly 15 percent of Americans will struggle with alcoholism in their lifetimes, and over 10 million Americans are actively using illicit substances. Among those who are dependent on opiates such as heroin or prescription pain relievers, depression rates may be as high as 50 percent. Though depression can lead to increased substance use, the much more common path is for substance use, often begun as an escape from the pressures of life, to lead to serious episodes of depression. At that point a vicious cycle ensues, as depression leads to increased substance use, and substance use to worsening depression.
While most of us have daily contact with many people, our generation is nevertheless a lonely crowd. In his classic Bowling Alone, sociologist Robert Putman suggests that America's stock of "social capital"—networks among individuals and the reciprocity and trustworthiness that arise from them—has declined substantially over the past few decades. We are less likely to vote, give blood, play cards, join in league bowling, or have friends or neighbors over for dinner. Perhaps some of these opportunities to build social networks have been replaced with others, such as soccer games or Facebook. Yet we are increasingly disconnected from family, neighbors, and friends.
And the nature of the relationships we do have is changing. Many have become what British sociologist Anthony Giddens labels "pure relationships"—"pure" in that they are detached from any social context, external structure, or security. There is no covenant, community, or being to orient the relationship or provide ongoing assurance, direction, and support. All of this must be generated by the relationship itself, which exacts a heavy burden. We can never relax in pure relationships because there is no pledge of fidelity or constancy on which to rest. We must "maintain" these relationships ourselves. Over time, constant vigilance and sustained insecurity often lead to frustration, anxiety, and weariness. These relationships are just too hard to keep up.