Capitalist Palliatives: Antidepressants, and How Not to Talk About Them

Vivek Santayana | March 30, 2018

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Photo: Gemma Planell / MACBA

A few weeks ago, the philosopher and literary critic Timothy Morton took a dig at his late colleague Mark Fisher, who committed suicide last year after a lifelong struggle with depression. Morton claimed the one big difference between himself and Fisher was that he took antidepressants, and so is still alive to write his new book. He was commenting on Fisher’s critique of neoliberal ideologies that shape discourses around mental health and pharmacological treatment. Morton’s tweet read like an insensitive gloat about outliving his colleague whose opinion he disagrees with. At best, it was an ad hominem attack dismissing Fisher through a crude, mischaracterised version of his argument.

Fisher argues in Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? that the dominant tendency of treating depression using antidepressants is a manifestation of a wider neoliberal ontology that depoliticises mental illness. This obscures exploitative social relations that cause or aggravate people’s mental illness because of its capitalist drive towards atomistic individualisation (37). Antidepressants can be prescribed as a palliative that ensures the labour of people with mental illnesses can still be exploited by capital, despite the same exploitative relation causing them harm in the first place. None of this is to say that all mental illness is caused by capitalism, that resisting capitalism would solve mental health problems, or that the use of antidepressants is not a legitimate way of coping with depression. Fisher’s claim is more nuanced: he gives a socio-political explanation of circumstances that contribute to particular types of mental illnesses; he also critiques the coercive medical discourse around accelerated recovery, especially through medication.

Morton deleted the tweet because of the backlash it provoked. To respond to the backlash, he published a blog post where he explains that the tweet was out of grief and anger at Fisher’s death. However, his handling of the controversy was poorly judged, as he made the issue all about his feelings and mental illness: in a follow-up post, he claims that the criticism he received was ‘an indication of how unacceptable mental illness still is’. Far from it: the responses were a way for his critics to hold him accountable for the hurt that his remarks could cause. It is rather disingenuous for him to dodge responsibility for his comments by describing this criticism as an attack on him because of his mental illness. While one can sympathise with Morton’s pain and grief, his feelings do not excuse his comments.

Morton nevertheless clarified that his tweet was in connection to a study published in the Lancet recently which was a meta-analysis of the efficacy of different kinds of antidepressants in treating unipolar depressive disorders. This paper attracted a lot of attention in the press, and The Telegraph even exaggerated irresponsibly to claim that ‘antidepressants should be given to a million more Britons’. The authors’ claim is actually much more modest: antidepressants are more effective than placebos in mitigating symptoms of depression, a finding which might give clinicians more evidence to guide their decisions. None of the findings of the Lancet study told us anything we did not already know. But even a modest claim like this is valuable in a climate where misinformation about medication is rife (especially given recent coverage in the tabloid press), the understanding of mental illness scarce, and the stigma surrounding both widespread.

However, the discussion of Morton’s tweet was confined to a debate on whether antidepressants work, or were a legitimate method of treating depression. It missed the central point of Fisher’s work: the social causes that contribute to mental illness and the social change required to address these issues. From Fisher’s analysis, depressive conditions are often symptoms of the forms of exploitation in capitalist societies. The use of antidepressants alleviates these symptoms, but a holistic approach to addressing mental illness would require dealing with the various issues that exacerbate them: the widening income inequality, continued cuts to social care for the elderly and the disabled, the widening epidemic of loneliness, et cetera. This intersection between mental illness and race, class, disability and gender, are already prominent themes in critical race studies of mental illness.

Despite being a scholar in an elevated position, Morton instigated an unproductive conversation around mental health and its treatment. Not only did his attitude make the entire discussion about him, it further neglected the social forces that contribute to mental illness. It is vital that in order for a widespread understanding and redressal of mental illness that social justice also remain on the agenda.

About Vivek

Vivek is a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of Edinburgh, writing on the late style of Nadine Gordimer. Even though he’s not from Edinburgh, he finds himself most at home in this city. He enjoys nothing more than learning.

Article edited by Valentina Paz Aparicio, Anna Kemball, and Penny Wang

Works Cited

Fisher, Mark. Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? Winchester: O Books, 2009.


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