Import/Export—Depression’s now big in Japan

I caught an interview recently on “Marketplace” where Kai Ryssdal talks with Ethan Watters about his book, Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche.

Watters’ thesis is that mental illness is culturally determined, and that big drug companies have systematically worked to change the way other cultures view melancholy, for example, in order to sell them anti-depressant medications.  He cites Japan as a place where melancholy was successfully reframed as depression, with one anti-depressant climbing to a billion in annual sales once the new paradigm of depression was successfully imported.

Watters claims to not be patently anti-drug companies, mentioning that his wife is a psychiatrist and acknowledging that these medications can, and should, be used to alleviate suffering; mostly he suggests that a diverse perspective on so-called mental illness would be unfortunate to lose in the wake of homogenizing globalization.

I reference this interview in today’s blog post because it offers us a chance to widen our own perspective on depression vs. potentially useful melancholy.  In my clinical practice (where I do not prescribe medications, but work in tandem with psychiatrists when medications are called for) some clients benefit tremendously from various medications while others choose not to take them.  With issues like bi-polar disorder, for example, meds compliance is very important.  Where depression is so deep that a person cannot function, again medications can be life-savers; however, there are also times where sadness is appropriate in the context of life’s wounds, and sometimes our feelings can teach and guide us to better decisions and better feelings—if we are willing to engage what the deeper Self has to say to us.

Often I view medications as a lift out of a trench, which then needs to be followed up with a deeper understanding of how one fell in there—so that eventually, in many cases, one can lose the meds and continue along productively and positively without them.

Especially with artistic clients I have come to respect the notion of “productive suffering.”  As the German goes, “Keine angst, keine kunst” (no pain and suffering, no art); on the other hand, some artists fear that their creativity will evaporate along with their depression, and I have found this not to be the case.  Yet the notion of good feelings that last hinges on being able to hold and tolerate painful affect; the very idea of happiness hinges on the existence of unhappiness to give it its relativistic meaning.

Research seems to suggest that talk therapy is equally effective with medications, thus it seems worth figuring out what’s going on within ourselves as a path to more satisfying lives if we feel distraught or lost.  Also, we want to be aware of the desensitizing nature of some medications, and the potential pitfalls of a culture that could, with less sensitivity, grow less compassionate as a whole.  Another issue to be sorted out is the drug plateau—that place where meds no longer add anything anymore, but where people still feel depressed and dissatisfied.

Perhaps Japan, and China on their heels (which the drug companies see as five years behind Japan), would be well-advised to take a closer look at Europe and the U.S. before deciding if they really want to follow-in our mental health footsteps.

While Japan may well have dropped a billion dollars on a single anti-depressant last year, it is also true that Japan has been one of the most vigorous importers of Jungian psychology, where it is held in generally higher esteem than in the U.S. for example.  While I do not follow any specific school, I do believe that Jung has generally been poorly understood and has a marginal impact, at best, on mainstream American psychological thought.  Yet the exploration of myths, archetypes and the collective unconscious is an excellent way to try and understand globalization.

The world marketplace has many of us talking across formerly higher fences; it may not be all that long before we are able to more readily tell modern versions of snake-oil hucksters from trusted members of our global community.  When a pill works for something that a thousand people have, that’s a life-saver; when people figure out how to convince a million people that they need a pill that they really don’t, that cannot be a karmically good idea.

Perhaps in exporting SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) to Japan, we may also end up importing some remnants of Zen.  Just as we are importing a lot of yoga in the past couple of decades, over a long-enough time horizon the truth about what helps will likely prevail.  Given that there is little money to be made in promoting mindfulness (even though it has proven itself effective for depression, for example), eventually people may come to some sort of “money plateau,” where humans collectively realize that while poverty is no fun, great wealth has severely diminishing returns on happiness.

I blog for free and I suspect that certain people would be more likely to read and take these ideas seriously if they cost money.  As parents, the most subversive thing we can do (in terms of working against calculating exploitation, wherever it turns up) is to become happy, particularly to be happy with what we have today, right now—happy in our giving rather than our getting; parenting itself can be like yoga—rather than merely surviving it, maybe we can turn it on its head and willingly surrender to it (like we would to a good trainer, or a tough yoga teacher).

So, let’s dedicate today to “importing” equanimity, compassion, balance and love—importing it by seeing that our inter-relationships contain the true gold, while objects and egotism are fool’s gold.  And let’s be present and enjoy what we can about today—in the service of all our collective children, being happy as best as we can, and suffering productively (i.e. in the conscious service of each other) where suffering cannot be avoided.

Namaste, Bruce

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3 Responses to “Import/Export—Depression’s now big in Japan”

  1. Ambrosia Says:

    An interesting read. I think I will be linking back to this article in the near future. Thanks!

  2. whatsaysyou Says:

    Depression is not just big in Japan, it is now a top problem in many modern and developed countries in Asia too. Don’t be surprised that depression also affects youngsters. By the way, great article

    • privilegeofparenting Says:

      Hi Whatsaysyou, Having worked for many years with depressed children I am well aware that if affects kids. Nevertheless, thanks for taking the time to read and comment. All Good Wishes

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