This year, don't 'invest' in mental health

The language of ‘investment’ is taking the mental health conversation backwards.

Tanmoy Goswami
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Congratulations to those of you reading this from the US. According to a recently published study, the stigma around depression has fallen in your country for the first time in recorded history. Given the influence of the US on global culture, maybe this will be a happy new year after all?

If you are bracing for an anticlimax to that feel-good paragraph, well done because the same study also says this:

Stigma around schizophrenia and alcohol dependency has increased.

This latest proof of the relatively higher tolerance for depression lends renewed urgency to a frequently asked question: what makes depression a 'good' disorder and schizophrenia or alcohol dependency a 'bad' disorder?

The answer to that question is not strictly related to the actual toll of these conditions on public health and wellbeing. After all, depression is still a leading cause of ill health, disability, and deaths worldwide. The study doesn't elaborate on the reasons for the change in attitude, but you can bet this is among the biggest ones: society is now more at ease with people with depression because the latter have finally managed to prove themselves worthy. I use that idea – worthy, worth – consciously, because the hierarchy of mental distress isn't merely a healthcare issue. It is also, and often primarily, an economic one.

Society's newfound agreeableness towards depression is the result of increasing masses of people living with depression coming out, loudly claiming space, and proving that their condition doesn't render them dysfunctional or useless. It has little to do with any intrinsically motivated mass awakening within humanity. It has everything to do with the mainstreaming and glamourisation of 'high-functioning' depression – the 'good' subspecies of depression that doesn't inconvenience others, doesn't disrupt our economic engines, makes for worthy role models, and thus invokes our acceptance and even admiration.

In other words, a growing albeit still small group of people living with depression – often with privileged identities such as mine – has passed society's productivity test. And nothing kills stigma like productivity (or at least the appearance of it).

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