Is Depression a Western Luxury?

Jim R. Bounds

Rapper/actor Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson recently told a talk show he thinks “depression is a luxury.”

“I think depression is a luxury,” the New York rapper, born Curtis Jackson, said on syndicated hip-hop radio show “Big Boy’s Neighborhood.” “Where I’m from, you can’t afford to be depressed.”

For the 47-year-old “Candy Shop” emcee — who grew up in the tough South Jamaica section of Queens — it’s a matter of survival.

“You gotta pay the bills, right? So you gotta go to work,” he said. “You gotta get up, gotta go do what you gotta do. You got people right now that’s at work that don’t feel like being there. But they got responsibilities.”

Is he right?

Let’s set aside the reality of depression for a moment, agreeing that depression is real and debilitating. As someone who was formally diagnosed with depression as a young mother, I’m not in the mood to dispute that such a thing exists. It does. I wish it didn’t.

This is a very subjective discussion. Even as I researched rates of depression around the world, I found the data to be highly fluid. It depends on how the researchers define depression, how much mental health is available in any given country, and the interpretation of cultural attitudes. Some studies use suicide rates to extrapolate depression rates in countries that don’t really keep track of such data. That is certainly a flawed data point, because suicide isn’t always linked to chronic depression. It’s all very difficult to pin down.

I’m not a scientist or a researcher and I don’t do numbers very well. That’s something for people smarter than I to figure out, but I will say this…I think there is some truth to Jackson’s statement. I have often pondered it myself, as I’ve lain depressed and defeated in my dark room for hours on end in the past.

When I was first diagnosed, I was ashamed and embarrassed. It felt like a weakness. I didn’t want to tell anyone, and in fact, I didn’t even know what depression was until I finally sought help for my inexplicable malaise that had become so bad it was hurting my family. My first therapist, an excellent practitioner whom I am still so grateful for, told me, “Kira, you don’t have to live this way. Life isn’t supposed to be this hard.” I fell apart. I fell all the way apart.

“Why are you crying?” she asked, in that soft, this-is-a-question-but-not-really-a-question way therapists often do.

I was weeping because I had convinced myself that everyone felt this awful inside all the time, and some people were just better at hiding it than others. Not only had I discovered I was terrible at hiding it, I wasn’t even normal. I was doing life wrong. That represented a huge failure to me.

I asked her, “Why now? I’m in my 30s, and I have everything I’ve ever wanted in my life. A good husband, loving children, a nice home and the comfortable American Dream. Why am I suddenly overwhelmed with depression when life has never been better?”

She told me it isn’t uncommon for depression to spike when life becomes more comfortable. I’d basically been on a war footing my entire life, battling my different demons and life circumstances. It was a job, in a way, and one I had become very good at. The war ended when I found a home in my own family and a calling, but my mental state was still engaged in battle anyway. I was not only mourning the loss of purpose (being at war with my circumstances) but I now had the time to contemplate all those feelings rolling around inside of me. Becoming a mother had likely triggered a lot of childhood issues I’d long buried.

In short, I had the luxury of time and it was eating me alive.

This is all anecdotal. An opinion, as opinion writers are wont to give.

What I have found over the years is that the busier I am, the fewer depressive episodes I have. It’s almost as if I don’t have the time for it. I don’t just mean busy with work. We all get busy with our obligations and yet depression can still become an issue. I mean busy with life. Work, family, community, projects…busy with purpose.

I used to try to limit my activities when depression would surface. Sometimes that is helpful, actually. I don’t mean to knock it. Sometimes when you’re sick, you just have to rest. As I approach my 50s, however, I find when I’m obligated to purpose, I don’t really get depressed at all.

I was concerned for myself when I ran for school board. What if I hit a depressive downturn in the middle of the campaign? How would it affect my duties? Running for office is a real bummer a lot of the time, so I certainly had days when I felt discouraged and down, but my depression disappeared. Why? I think it was because I just didn’t have the time. I didn’t have time to sit and contemplate my failures and let it drag me into that familiar, brutal cycle of guilt and regret. I didn’t have time to cry and slumber and wish I didn’t have to deal with depression.

I simply did not have the time.

Things had to get done. I had to campaign. I had school board meetings. I began taking my obligations to socialize far more seriously, because they were connected to my race for school board. You never turn down an opportunity to meet with people when you’re running. And then there was my family…if I wasn’t working on the campaign, I had to keep my crap together so I could be with my family, help my daughter with homework, or help her get ready for the school dance. I had obligations to my husband in his professional pursuits. I had neighbors who wanted to chat and hang out. Of course, I had work too. Thankfully I work with amazing people who supported my extended absences as I ran for office, but I still had to check in and produce whenever possible.

I had to do things. Depression simply did not fit in, so it didn’t get in.

I have a friend with a similar experience. She suffered terrible childhood losses, and it morphed into crippling adult depression. She found it subsided when she began a successful landscaping business. She was always outside, performing manual labor, very busy and very focused. She still says it’s the best medicine she’s ever found.

I do think Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson is on to something. Does that Haitian mother who can’t nurse her baby because of her own malnutrition and can’t afford formula lay in bed all day and contemplate her failures? Probably not. She has pressing life matters to attend to that cannot be ignored. Did my slave ancestors ever say, “I just can’t get out to the fields today. I am sick with depression”? I do not believe so. Some certainly had situational depression (for obvious reasons) but chronic depression doesn’t even seem like a concept in populations that struggle with survival basics daily.

So yes, to me depression does seem like a “luxury” of western living. That doesn’t make it any less real. Lots of problems pop up with the luxury of comfort. Money doesn’t solve sin or the sickness that results from it. It just makes it easier to focus on that sickness, since we’re not having to go out and kill our dinner anymore.

I have the sense that we – and yes, I include myself here – have too much of the wrong kind of time on our hands, and it’s driving us crazy.

What do you think? Drop your thoughts in the comments, and remember, being busy in this context doesn’t mean being obligated to the point of unavailability…it means being engaged in life.


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