Mental illness, privilege and the myth of ‘success’
- Published: 14 May 2011
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Mental illness, as we are told by public awareness campaigns, is non-discriminatory. It affects individuals of all different classes and creeds. This is corroborated with media reports of celebrities suffering with anxiety, depression and bipolar disorder as well as high rates of mental illness among students at prestigious universities and people in the corporate world. How does privilege affect people’s experiences of suffering? Erin Stewart reports.
15 May 2011
Every so often there is a media-fuelled revival of Princess Diana. She is the quintessential example of a privileged individual who suffered deeply in the midst of success, perhaps because of it.
She’s hailed as the people’s princess, the woman who boasts an excellent track record supporting charities and the arts, a kind motherly type.
Yet, she was haunted by deep pressures associated with living a high-profile life with a man who the media speculated lacked genuine feeling for her. The privileged life she led eventually became her undoing. Lady Di allegedly suffered from depression and bulimia and on a 1995 BBC television interview she revealed that she had been engaging in self-harm.
Celebrities and their rich, glamorous lifestyle, giant houses, shiny cars and designer outfits are no less immune to mental illness, it would seem. Billy Joel, Buzz Aldrin, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, JK Rowling, Jim Carrey, Olivia Newton John and many others have admitted to suffering from depression.
For others in the public eye, we speculate over their mental health – a suspicious scar on Lindsay Lohan’s wrist, the impulsive behaviour of Charlie Sheen, the skinniness of Mischa Barton, are all things the public wonder about out loud.
Meanwhile, the mystifying thoughts, habits and behaviours of many creative types who are now deceased (everyone from Winston Churchill to Virginia Woolf) is often ascribed to the work of bipolar disorder in post-mortem diagnoses.
The world of celebrity isn’t the only setting of privilege in which people are affected by mental illness. Academia as well as the corporate world seem to be breeding grounds for the proverbial black dog. A recent ABC report found that rates of depression in Australian university students are five times higher than in the general population, and professions such law are associated with high incidences of depression, as is dentistry.
When we think about mental illness in those less fortunate or privileged, we surely think, ‘Fair enough, I’d be depressed too.’ But for the rich, the famous, the elite, depression makes less sense.
In fact, suffering makes little sense to them as well.
Meg Wang details her experiences with bipolar disorder at Yale, an educational institution among the most prestigious in the world. She was treated poorly by psychiatrists and warned by peers to not ever tell anyone if she was contemplating suicide because it would mean that she would be asked to leave her academic programme. This eventuated and she was to surrender her student ID, and never got to graduate, a great blow for someone who defined herself ‘through overachievement’.
She is far from alone in her struggle. Elizabeth Wurtzel, author of Prozac Nation, details the mental illness she suffered at Harvard. She explains that her mother made her work hard to achieve success in things from spelling bees to writing competitions. “She convinced me this would lead to the Holy Grail: Harvard. A place where I would finally be surrounded by people I had something in common with.”
Yet, at Harvard, her problems compounded, she attempted suicide and had a very difficult time coping with life, despite a strong intellect and the fact that she had been admitted to the most distinguished and widely recognised university in the world.
Aside from the fact that going to a prestigious school can’t cure unhappiness, such places can also be sites that instigate mental illness.
Popular young adult author John Marsden also talks about his time at Sydney’s prestigious Kings’ School where the rigours of academic life and structural routines can’t save you from a crippling brand of misery and in fact ‘left a few scars’.
Although this upbringing was barely a working-class struggle, he says, “If you're unhappy, you're unhappy, no matter whether you're at a private school or a public school, no matter whether you're rich or poor… [it had] quite a destructive atmosphere in many ways. Quite a negative energy.”
Harvard alumina Lena Chen writes of her university, “The consensus among my friends is that Harvard drives normal people crazy and drives crazy people to suicide. I wish I were making some sort of exaggerated statement here but I’m not.”
The pain doesn’t stop at the stage of higher education. Blogger for Lawyers with Depression, Daniel Lukasik writes, “Lawyers, young and old alike, find it difficult to live out their values in the workplace, to search for “meaning as well as daily bread. There are challenges and compromises, some more difficult than others. For example, we may really value spending time with our family. But as the demands of our career mount, we become untethered from this life-giving sustenance as we spend more and more time toiling at the office.”
This leaves many professionals suffering, he says. “Dr. Benjamin found that approximately 20% of lawyers – about twice the national average – aren’t just unhappy; they’re suffering from clinical anxiety or depression.”
Hierarchy of suffering
There is something incongruous about coupling suffering with privilege. People say, “Oh, poor little rich girl”, they compare life conditions of the privileged to those starving in Africa.
In our imaginations, suffering is hierarchical. If you can rank pain obviously you’d prefer to be a rich person who has a shiny car with depression than a homeless person with depression, or even a homeless person without depression.
Suffering in the privileged is jarring. We assume that we could make it work if we were in their position and we denigrate those who cannot make it work. Wutzel’s book, for instance, is criticised as being “melodramatic: and “annoying”, suggesting that she’s complaining over what must have been a very good and privileged life.
The problem is that the critics have a point.
As we witness on tumblr, ‘First World Problems’, the difficulties faced by those in privileged positions is a legitimate source of satire. Car troubles getting you down? The silent button on your iPhone has stopped working? Earning a $200,000 salary still doesn’t lift your malaise, your anxieties, your fears about the world? You feel as though you aren’t truly living your ‘authentic self’?
Spend a month in Somalia and you might be able to put this all in perspective.
The problem is, on the experiential side, mental illness and even just sadness generally knows no relativity. ‘Endless tunnels of darkness with no sign of light’ and ‘being in a cage without keys’ are analogies that cast imageries that approximate what living with mental illness is like.
Yet no such tunnels or cages exist. On the surface this hopelessness, this idea of perpetual torment, endless sadness and sleep deprivation somehow is able to manifest itself in a context of capitalist dreams of modern-day success.
In professional life, in higher education institutions, in celebrity. In sandstone buildings, libraries the size of country towns, in the penthouses of high rises, underneath the silvery light of the Hollywood sky.
We can talk about mental illness as a biological phenomenon, and certainly there is evidence to support this. We can reduce the human emotional experience to hormones like serotonin and the passage of electrical currents in the brain from one node to another.
Doing so is valid and brings relief to those who respond to cocktails of drugs to manage what would otherwise be an unbearable existence.
But if we leave it at this, we might miss something. We might miss how sometimes our society is responsible for making us sick – that its inner logic is the equivalent to emotional and spiritual poison.
The myth of ‘success’
The way we think about suffering and privilege being an impossible pair (unless there is some kind of biochemical explanation) may also have something to do with the way we position success, the benefits that success is supposed to bring us.
Success is about being famous: it is about earning money and becoming a professional, it is about being admitted to the most elite institutions imaginable. So transfixed are we about these external measures of success that we are unable to question them, unable to ask ourselves, ‘Is this what I really want?’ So this is what most of us strive for, perhaps recklessly, perhaps with every ounce of our being, defining ourselves by the achievement of success or lack thereof.
The result is that if you can’t achieve success, money, fame and fortune, then you are unhappy. If you do achieve these things because you have the luxury and the resources to do so, the fact that success is a delusion emerges.
There’s this myth that if we get into the top university, we’ll be happy. If we get to be a partner at a top firm by the age of 30, we’ll be happy. But really, these goals are empty. The whole story we were told by our parents, by newspapers, by TV shows, by school, was a lie.
What numbing sadness reveals for people from all walks of life is that the goals are unfulfilling, regardless of whether or not one has the means and the luck to achieve them.
Combine this with the fact that the successful can’t be weak and the institutions synonymous with success highlight whatever vulnerabilities someone has, though only to the person feeling vulnerable in the first place.
“I hesitate to say that Harvard was built to create unhappy people, because it wasn’t. It’s built to create successful people,” writes Chen. “The problem is that ‘success’ is defined by social notions of prestige, reputation, and wealth. And given how difficult it is to obtain those things and how frequently my peers and I were told that we must obtain them, is it any wonder that people feel fucked up for not being able to simply do what seems to come so easily to their classmates?”
In addition, nobody talks about it. In the mind of a sufferer, they think ‘everyone is doing well except me’. Little do they know that many people around them are thinking the exact same thing.
Certainly, the stigma of not coping and of not being successful makes things worse.
Julia Lurie writes of her time at Yale, “This culture of silence – the expectation that despite any problem you may have, you must come across as happy, productive, and successful – leads students to believe that mental health problems are embarrassing and that admitting to them is a display of weakness.
“As a result, students struggling with mental health issues often feel alone or not good enough for Yale's standards. When combined with the already intense and competitive nature of Yale, this culture of silence creates an awful environment in which to be unhappy.”
An event that made Lurie realise that she wasn’t alone was at a bar where there was a party going on. “The crowd, dressed up and slightly tipsy, was making small talk and passing around large, silver goblets of various mixed drinks. Looking around, I had one of those, ‘There's no way I'm good enough for these people’ moments; these were the people who write books and run businesses, the people who win Class Day awards and Rhodes scholarships.
“But on top of that, they made it look easy… At a glance, these were perfect people: smart, talented, and social. But everyone has a battle.”
Indeed, she later spoke to two people at that party: “One admitted that he had had a panic attack in the middle of the event because of all the work he had left to do, and was only just calming down. The other had just broken up with his boyfriend, an event he framed as an add-on to what's proven to be an anxiety-ridden semester. He recently scheduled his first appointment for counselling.”
Perhaps it is true that the sufferings of the very privileged are indeed trivial when compared with the suffering of starvation or of lacking shelter. But emotions are still real and depression can still be life-threatening.
Here, even the very privileged are victims of the expectations that are placed upon people, what we should want, how we should act. We get so caught up in manufacturing wants in things that we don’t really want but feel that we ought to want, that the result is an alienating, unhappy reality.
And, as in Wang’s case, if your story doesn’t sound the way it is supposed to, it’s hushed and the place for that person disappears in a cloud of thick, unrelentless fog.
The stigma remains. The real waste is squandering your privilege by putting up with feeling this way.
But then again, if we abandoned these silly goals of becoming part of the elite, then there wouldn’t be privilege in the first place, would there?
Erin Stewart is an associate editor at the Scavenger.