Depression: what is it good for?

**Trigger warning: depression, suicide**


Conventional wisdom/lived experience would suggest nothing. But acknowledging this, for me at least, only doubles down on the shittiness you feel when you’re deep in it. Emotions of hopelessness, anxiety, despair, melancholia etc. are common, especially amongst my demographic (“late adolescence”). Though the medically orientated dialogue around depression is incredibly helpful (i.e. it allows it to be seen as a ‘real’ health issue worthy of treatment), it is also, for me, reductionist. By this I mean that mental health, like any other medical issue, doesn’t exist in a vacuum. If we totally ignore situational/cultural/political contexts, when situating a person’s mental health, do we strip them of agency? That is, agency to identify their own mental state as a valid response to the world around them, and in recognition of that, a way of processing the often traumatic state of affairs in which we all live? Or more succinctly, as my housemate said, ‘are you (plural) depressed, or oppressed?’.

“And I was remembering turn of the century, there was a large amount of white, feminist, post-riotgrrl discourse around depression; like depression as an internalized way of dealing with, uh, traumatic things that had happened to you: I’m queer, I’m bashed, and I’m hurt, and that ends up as depression. Anya—9th year High School English and Drama Teacher and Activist (Interview, 08/03/2014).

Of course, the kind of depression I’m talking about, is a white upper middle class depression. That is, one within which ‘feeling bad is frequently a mystery because it does not seem to fit a life in which privilege and comfort make things seem fine on the surface’. That is, while some forms of oppression may be common (such as just existing under capitalism, sexism, homophobia etc), others (racism, colonialism, classism) are not. As Anna Deavere Smith wrote so eloquently, “If whites experienced black sadness… It would be too overwhelming for them”.

B The personal is political?

If the personal is political, then invariably so are our emotions. This encompasses not only positive affects, such as hope and joy, but also their counterparts. ‘In the hope that we might take seriously the routinized violences that (we) are normatively compelled to ignore’ the politics of ‘melancholy, shame, loss, trauma, exhaustion and depression’ have then come to occupy a more prominent place in contemporary feminist criticism— resisting their ‘pathologization and individualization’.

Historically, not all ‘negative’ emotions have been coded as bad. Anger and frustration for example, are generally viewed as powerful — presumably because of their potential for political agency and agitation. By contrast, emotions such as depression, despair or hopelessness ‘politically useless’, and hence negated.

The goal is to depathologize negative affects so that they can be seen as a possible resource for political action rather than as its antithesis. This is not, however, to suggest that depression is thereby converted into a positive experience; it retains its associations with inertia and despair, if not apathy and indifference, but these affects become sites of publicity and community

(‘Depression, a public feeling’ — Ann Cvetkovich).

Can we locate something political in depression? Can it, as Cvetkovich would have, ‘promote certain kinds of queer love or hope?’.

C Happiness as hegemonic?

Far from being apolitical, conceptions of happiness are quite normative. What it means to be ‘happy’ or lead a ‘happy life’ is often intertwined with racist, sexist or patriarchal structures, whereby those who do not fit neatly into its parameters (for example ‘feminists, queers and migrants’ who may not conform perfectly to the white picket fence dream of domesticity) are negated as ‘troublemakers and killjoys’. In a world characterized by systemic oppression of the other, it is in fact not surprising that many would react with feelings of anguish, hopelessness and depression. I.E. “feeling bad IS the lived experience of current neoliberal capitalism”.

‘Saying that capitalism (or colonialism or racism) is the problem does not help me to get up in the morning’

(Depression, A Public Feeling — Ann Cvetkovich).

In Compulsory Happiness and Queer Existence, Heather Love writes that feelings of depression are inherently political, especially in the queer experience, as they ‘express something about how and why (political) action is blocked’.

“The year I told my parents I was gay was also the year of my first sustained encounter with depression. At its bleakest, sadness and self-loathing felt like the sole remainders of a self which in all other aspects seemed untrustable and ersatz.

(Queer Optimism, Michael Snediker).

Love believes that it is in this very depression (or ‘negative affect’) that political agitation can emerge, whereby ‘‘negative capability is one of the historical resources of queer culture, along with more familiar forms of expression including cynicism and bitchiness”. When depression is politicized in this way, it need not necessarily lead to an individual’s isolation: rather, it can create a new, and distinctly modern methods of connection. Academic José Esteban Muñoz too, has written of the potential for ‘feeling down’ to ‘function as a medium of communication by which queers of colour and other minoritarian subjects’ may speak and be heard.

Midway through our life’s journey, I went astray/ from the straight road and woke to find myself / alone in a dark wood’

— Opening lines of Dante’s Inferno

Depression is (presumably) not unique to our late capitalist world. Our reaction to it, however, is culturally specific. Jeffery Smith, for example, notes that to 19th-century Romantic thinkers in Germany and Great Britain, depression was viewed as a great gift, with potential to ‘‘deepen and enrich one’s soul’’. Allegorical readings of Dante’s Inferno may similarly ‘craft a sense of depression as a meaningful experience to be explored’. I should note that Smith’s book doesn’t attempt to romanticise depression (it’s in part a personal account of his own horrific experience with it). Rather, it’s an attempt to intellectually conceptualise a depression which ‘even the newest antidepressants can’t alleviate’— occurring within a society in which depression must necessarily be immediately medically alleviated — if we are to remain ‘productive’ (read: worthwhile).

D Feel Tank Chicago

“Can hopelessness be transformed? Is there anything useful about guilt? How might we collectivize our despair, and our joys?”

Pathogeographies: or, Other People’s BaggageExhibition by Feel Tank Chicago, June 2007.

Feel Tank Chicago’ is an tongue in cheek academic/artist collective, which seeks to link negative affect to the political sphere. They are interested in oft ignored emotions: such as ‘detachment, discontent, coolness, hopelessness, and ambivalence’. They do not consider these emotions as useless, but rather, a rational response to a broken neoliberal/capitalist political system — most especially in the US.  Their goal then, is to ‘depathologize negative affects so that they can be seen as a possible resource for political action rather than as its antithesis.’

This ‘political action’ has taken vibrant, satirical forms. The Feel Tank have organised three ‘Annual International Parades of the Politically Depressed’, complete with ‘depress-ins’ (the equivalent of a ‘sit-in’).

E Depression as ordinary?

Depressingly perhaps, depression is not an uncommon emotion. Certain academics, such as Lisa Blackman, believe that this commonality is inherently political: that suffering is ‘part and parcel of the costs of neoliberalism’, rather than a personal failure. Even private, nominally apolitical/‘boring’ spaces such as the domestic home, then become important sites of depression. Kathleen Stewart, for example, views the home as “the soft underbelly of capitalism”– a site where ‘the current state of things is expressed through a complex range of feelings’.

But it is perhaps in this very ordinary and mundane private sphere, that a more radial politic can emerge. In a private world often characterised by ‘economic precarity, ongoing wars, racist violence, and enduring sexism and homophobia’, we should perhaps view the inevitably negative emotions stemming from such a state, as capable of being weaponised for political action. “Dyke anger, anti colonial despair, racial rage, counter hegemonic violence and punk pugilism” for example, are all valid (and radical) responses to an oppressive present.

Though the pathologisation of depression is of course valid, it is not the only lens through which we can view its increasing and encroaching grasp on the modern populace. Aiming to de-pathologise and re-politicise such horrific feelings may be a more rational (if more radical) response to our dramatically inequitable world: especially for those which the system does not favour: immigrants, asylum seekers, queers, the working class, and so on. That the lives of these groups are distinctly less enjoyable than that of those who fit neatly into the mainstream should not be accepted so readily. That asylum seekers held on Manus Island have the highest mental illness of ‘any surveyed population’  is not a pathological issue, but a political one. A similar statement could be made of the disturbingly high suicide rates of the Indigenous Australian population: whereby 95% will be affected by a suicide in their lives, and are six times more likely to suicide than non-Aboriginal people.

F Conclusion

Evidently, nothing that great can come out of depression. It is unlikely that on reflecting on its potentially politically origins, one would suddenly become rejuvenated. Equally however, I don’t believe it is helpful (for me at least) to accept its pathologisation and medicalisation at face value. With over 10% of Australians on anti-depressants (one of the highest rates in the world), it is not totally cynical to suggest something larger could be at play. Sadness on such a deep, systemic scale indicates (perhaps) something deliberate- rather than wholly pathological and abstracted entirely from the world

Image: lefortune


Jemimah Tarasov has written for Overland, SMH, Stir, Bossy & others. She is a current editor of Overpass ( and a previous editor of Demos Journal. You can see all her work here:

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