Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Depression: No Homo

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Samael Kreutz under Creative Commons 3.0
Depression-- the most common mental disorder-- is defined as persistent sadness that interferes with normal functioning and daily life. 
The National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) describes depression as a disease with varying symptoms, depending on the individual.  These include feeling helpless, hopeless, worthless or guilty, as well as restless, irritable or anxious. Depression can cause, fatigue, insomnia and increased or decreased appetite, loss of interest in activities that used to be pleasurable, difficulty concentrating, and even thoughts of ending one’s life. 
Teenagers are especially susceptible to the disease.  The NIMH explains that “Depression in adolescence comes at a time of great personal change–when boys and girls are forming an identity distinct from their parents, grappling with gender issues and emerging sexuality, and making decisions for the first time in their lives.
Depression in adolescence frequently co–occurs with other disorders such as anxiety, disruptive behavior, eating disorders or substance abuse. It can also lead to increased risk for suicide.”  In 2007, the NIMH found suicide to be the third leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 24.
As many as 1 in 8 teens are suffering from depression, making up a significant amount of the 17 million people affected by this disease in the United States.  And reports show that for gay teens, the numbers are even higher.
Psychiatrist and President of the Child Mind Institute, Dr. Harold Koplewicz thinks homosexual teens are four times more likely to attempt suicide than heterosexual teens. 
These statistics were enforced by anecdotes from the “gay suicide epidemic;” the very event that prompted Koplewicz to write the article directed at worried parents.  By the time his advice was published, Tyler Clementi, Billy Lucas, Asher Brown and Seth Walsh had all commit suicide. 
These tragedies had celebrities flooding the internet with encouraging messages for “at risk” youth.  Widely read (and openly gay) columnist Dan Savage started the official campaign; “It Gets Better,” which was followed by a frenzy of uploaded support.  Everyone-- from President Obama to Project Runway’s Tim Gunn-- was chiming in, hoping to hearten their marginalized viewers.
Suddenly, suicide prevention was sexy and song-worthy.  Pop stars were cranking out music directed at young, gay audiences faster than the radio could play it.  Katy Perry dedicated “Firework” to bullied gay teens and the video even features a dude-on-dude lip-lock.  Pink’s “Raise Your Glass,” invited underdogs to toast themselves if they were “wrong in all the right ways.”  And Ke$ha told Rolling Stone “We R Who We R” was inspired by the gay teen suicides that briefly captured the media’s attention.
However, professor of developmental psychology at Cornell University Ritch Savin Williams told National Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” that there is no gay suicide epidemic.  Scientifically, “it appears to me when I look at the data that they're actually just as healthy, and just as resilient, and just as positive about their life as are straight youth,” he said.  The author of The New Gay Teenager specializes in gay, lesbian and bisexual research.  
Williams told NPR people pick their studies to support what they already think—which would explain the statistics asserting gay teens are more likely to be depressed or driven to suicide.  
He believes “in the vast majority of life situations, that gay youth really are not that different from straight youth.”  He is also strongly opposed to victimizing gay teens and empowering bullies with the assumption that one is fragile and the other is strong. 
Williams is more concerned with the new image the “It Gets Better” campaign may have projected on gay teens and whether that weakness is being internalized.
Yet when Dan Savage was interviewed on the same NPR program, host Melissa Block opened the segment by saying this:
 
Last month, the suicide of Tyler Clementi, a freshman at Rutgers University, focused attention on a nationwide problem: Gay teens are more likely to attempt suicide than their straight peers. And studies have found a large majority of gay youth experience bullying and harassment.
 
This “factual” information is widely accepted and often repeated.  It’s also understood as “just the way things are,” which opens another debate; if gay teens are more susceptible to depression and its terrible consequences, what causes the disease? 
The NIMH says “Substantial evidence from neuroscience, genetics, and clinical investigation shows that depressive illnesses are disorders of the brain.”  However, other influences have been given some consideration. 
The NIMH concedes “a combination of genetic, cognitive, and environmental factors is involved in the onset of a depressive disorder.  Trauma, loss of a loved one, a difficult relationship, a financial problem, or any stressful change in life patterns, whether the change is unwelcome or desired, can trigger a depressive episode in vulnerable individuals.”  Perhaps oppression or second class citizenship could also be to blame? 
For instance, women are more depressed than men.  According to the World Health Organization, depression is twice as common in women.  
Modern medicine believes women are increasingly vulnerable at every stage of their reproductive lives due to changing hormone levels.  Just like a century ago when doctors discovered hysteria and thought having a uterus made women “naturally” crazy.  Sometimes “illness” is reactionary to limited autonomy and mobility.    
So perhaps environmental factors like social inequality, economic disparity and constant discrimination should be examined as the primary causes of mental disorders like depression, rather than blaming estrogen or bad genes. 
Sexism could certainly cause persistent sadness interfering with daily life.  And homophobia could certainly interrupt normal functioning—especially when same sex relationships place individuals outside the realm of normal.
So before you believe that depression is a natural, biological dysfunction developing predominantly in some groups of people, but not others, consider the fact that medical authorities like the APA used to classify homosexuality as a mental disorder. 
Gendered science has always found ways to make biological justifications for social problems.  But some data is just too coincidental.  

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