Sharon O’Brien, professor of English and American studies at Dickinson College, spoke at Shippensburg University as part of its disability studies spring lecture on Thursday evening in the Old Main Chapel.
Her presentation “Depression in America’s Happiness Culture” addressed the effects that America’s culture has on the way that mental illness is viewed and treated.
O’Brien is a published author, having written two biographies of Willa Cather and a memoir, “The Family Silver: A Memoir of Depression and Inheritance.” The event was sponsored by the departments of English, history, psychology, sociology, anthropology and the gerontology minor.
“Depression is the only illness that has a double meaning,” O’Brien said.
She went on to explain how “lowercase depression” and “capitalized depression” are two totally different experiences.
She defined “lowercase depression” as a passing feeling of sadness, while “capitalized depression” refers to the illness itself. O’Brien believes that the double meaning can often leave those who suffer from the illness to feel isolated and misunderstood.
The misconceptions that surround the illness share a big part of the blame for society’s negative attitudes toward depression. It is not uncommon to overhear someone making a joke about the illness or to read a comic that mocks those who rely on antidepressants for treatment. It is no wonder why society still views depression the way that it does, O’Brien said.
The first memoir about the illness, “Darkness Visible,” was not published until 1990.
“Very little suggests the possibility of quick rescue,” said the memoir’s author, William Styron.
O’Brien explained just how long it takes for a person suffering from depression to receive treatment. Not only does it require plenty of courage for someone to ask for help, but since depression is still an elusive illness, the first few medications might not even work.
O’Brien even argues that America’s culture is what really gives depression its meaning, and how it can often be the cause of the illness itself. She believes that since those suffering from depression are often unable to compete with America’s work ethic that they are viewed in a negative light.
O’Brien ended her speech with just three words, “Depression is un-American.”
At the end of O’Brien’s presentation, the audience was encouraged to voice their opinions in a Q&A session. Many shared their experiences and struggles that they faced while trying to achieve their own sense of happiness.