When it comes to campaigns against stigma in ‘mental health’ that actually restigmatise their objects, Stephen Fry is not the only offender, or even the worst. He is one of the most famous, however, and has spoken openly of his own experiences. Nonetheless, the above comment, seemingly part of an anti-stigma campaign is, (with the exception of the words on friendship), utterly incorrect and a counsel of despair.
Depression, like all emotions, is defined principally by its subjective component. The psychiatric classifications make this a sine qua non condition of diagnosing the disorder. Yet Fry, like so many anti-stigma campaigners, wishes us to believe that our own subjectivity is alienated, has nothing to do with us, is much like the weather. Not only is this false – there are vast numbers of reasons why people become depressed, and many ways in which they perpetuate their condition – it also makes those with depression the passive victims of their condition.
Fry is not the only one to peddle these kinds of fantasies in the interest of fighting stigma. Unfortunately, these sorts of campaigns tend to promote two key falsehoods: firstly, a reductionist (usually biological) distortion of a subjective condition, and secondly, the foreclosure of any ethical implication on the part of sufferers. We are led, absurdly, to a subjectless disorder of subjectivity, and one for which nobody has any responsibility. Individuals are constructed as the passive victims of problems beyond their control, a conception which is implicitly belittling. The logical corollaries of this are, of course, defeatism, drugs, and techniques of distraction.
This is a great shame, as there may be some benefit in supporting those with various difficulties in life in getting help. Nonetheless, they will be implicated in those very difficulties, and far from being stigmatising, this is a very good thing, as it means that even the most wretched of melancholies may yet have a way out. An attitude of bad faith to one’s own subjectivity – pretending that it is ‘like the weather’ – can only intensify alienation, and hinder the movement of one’s subjectivity to a better place.