I’m often struck by how deeply affected our common discourse has been by the language psychology. Nowhere is this clearer than in the absolutely pervasive use of the term “depressed” to refer to virtually any negative emotional state. One rarely hears the word “sad” anymore — everything that was previously “sad” is now “depressing.”
What changes with the shift to “depressing”? The negative affect is subtly pathologized, as the vocabulary for talking about the natural response to bad events is collapsed into the terminology used to talk about a general disposition — a distinction that we might previously have made by contrasting momentary and understandable sadness with a broadly melancholy disposition. There is of course a distinction between situational depression and “clinical” depression, but the pervasive use of depression leads toward a sense that all depression is, at bottom, clinical depression. The result is a tendency to want to treat depression “directly” rather than, for instance, making life less depressing. If people are more depressed nowadays, maybe it’s because life sucks more for people and seems to be on a path toward ever-greater suckiness — less job security leads to more worry, for instance, which has cascading effects on family relationships, etc. But since changing that is supposedly impossible, we must simply face up to reality and learn to love it, or else take some psychotropic drugs to rewire our brains until we can tolerate it better. (That latter solution couldn’t possibly have any negative side-effects, of course.)
One can see a similar pattern in the widespread diagnosis of AD/HD. Doubtless many people do have some kind of persistent problem concentrating, such that medical intervention is justified and necessary. Yet it seldom seems to occur to people that maybe kids have trouble concentrating in school because school is unengaging. Again, the symptom is pathologized and worked on “directly,” while the overall situation doesn’t come into question — leading to the strange circumstance where a whole generation of younger people seems to be mysteriously afflicted with the inability to concentrate. Kids these days, huh? Must be something in the water! It couldn’t be, for example, the fact that funding for art and music is always the first thing to do, or that kids are increasingly being “taught the test,” etc.
Examples could be multiplied, and I’m pretty sure the same pattern would emerge in each case: pathologizing individual emotional states provides an alternative to any broader systemic critique. The problem is never with the social system — the problem is that you are not able to adapt to it adequately. The question of whether some things shouldn’t be adapted to never comes up.