Manufacturing Depression: The Secret History of a Modern Disease by Gary Greenberg – FOUR STARS
I’m interested in the topic of depression right now, since I believe myself to have serious depression and as soon as I get un-pregnant I’m going to seek both talking treatment and medicinal treatment. That makes this book from Gary Greenberg come along at an excellent time for me, since it is decidedly skeptical on the question of depression as a diagnosis and then how we choose to treat it.
Manufacturing Depression isn’t just a book for depressed people, though. While Greenberg tells his tale from the perspective of someone who has experienced depression, the book covers enough historical, political, and philosophical territory to be of interest to a wide audience.
For example, while I often find reading history to be quite tedious, I found the history in this book very compelling. There was the section tying together the new waste products of the industrial revolution, the creation of artificial dyes that let everyone dress like royalty, and the invention of medicines into one fascinating swirl of creation and marketing. I also enjoyed the historical look into how mental illness has been viewed over the centuries and the different treatments that have been developed, gained popularity, and then fallen away. Looking at the way the treatments of mental and physical illness have changed over time gives us a glimpse into how we view not just our sick and well selves but our very natures as well.
I was especially interested to find a chapter on (now) illegal drugs, like MDMA and LSD. While I anticipated Greenberg diving into this arena and the effect of “recreational” drugs on mood, what I didn’t expect was how much experimentation with LSD factored into the current trajectory of legal medicinal drugs.
I also found myself feeling compassion in a surprising area: towards pharmaceutical companies. I have perviously joined the chorus of blaming these big companies for inventing illnesses to then sell us drug treatments for. However, the analysis in this book led me to conclude that these companies are simply doing what we want them to do. Two things seem to be true in the American consciousness: we want to take drugs to change our bodies and our minds, but we want those drugs to be morally superior to the drugs one might take “for fun”. Through the legal system, we demanded that drugs must be treating a specific problem in order to be the “right” kind. The big companies have simply given us what we want: drugs we can feel good about taking because they treat a problem the experts say we have.
As a person with depression, I appreciate that Greenberg didn’t try to wrap this book up into nice, easy answers. He shows that there are problems with the diagnosis of depression itself, without denying that people have real problems. He shows that there are problems with the methods of treatment, especially antidepressant medications, without denying that millions of people have found comfort in these drugs. His perspective is from someone who both has depression and treats patients with depression, and I found his views honest and insightful.
One of the primary things I look for in a book is readability. It doesn’t matter how important the topic is, I want to have a good time reading about it. Greenberg succeeded in that area for me. Manufacturing Depression is both highly informative and highly entertaining, and I fell into an easy groove reading his lighthearted, sarcastic, yet also academic style. If you are interested in reading about how depression came to be the modern illness that it is and how and why it is treated the way it is (and the quality of those treatments), or if you simply have an interest in the progression of psychology through the years and how it is intertwined (and not) with medical science, then I highly recommend Manufacturing Depression.
by Gary Greenberg