Column: The Public Eye: Depressed America

By Bob Burnett
Tuesday October 30, 2007

These are hard times in America. There’s broad agreement our nation has lost its way and the U.S. is no longer “the shining light on the hill.” We don’t trust our leaders or believe national politicians care about the common good. Americans are uncertain and depressed. 

Depression has become a persistent feature of our national character. One in four Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder. It’s usually clinical depression characterized by persistent sadness and a loss of interest in favorite activities. Depression’s symptoms include anxiety, change in eating habits, over- or under-eating, insomnia, fatigue, irritability, helplessness, pessimism, difficulty making decisions, morbid thoughts, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, and persistent physical complaints that do not respond to treatment. Depression is now the leading cause of disability in North America. 

The depression epidemic explains why Americans have been so passive in the face of the continuing outrages of the Bush Administration: It’s the reason why our fellow citizens didn’t protest the stolen election of 2000; or the invasion of Iraq; or Bush’s subversion of the constitution—to name only three misdeeds. 

In his Oct. 14 op-ed, “The ‘Good Germans’ Among Us,” New York Times columnist Frank Rich discussed our national passivity. Rich attributed it to the duplicity of the Bush administration: “It was always the White House’s plan to coax us into a blissful ignorance about the war … [They] invited our passive complicity by requiring no shared sacrifice. A country that knows there’s no such thing as a free lunch was all too easily persuaded there could be a free war.” 

Perhaps Frank Rich is right and Americans were lulled into lethargy by a sinister plan hatched by George Bush and Dick Cheney. It’s plausible their well-oiled propaganda machine convinced us “war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength.” Perhaps. But I find it hard to accept Rich’s explanation because I don’t believe the Bush-Cheney gang is that smart or their propaganda that compelling.  

It’s also tempting to explain national apathy as a consequence of the declining intelligence of the American people. Observing the amount of media attention lavished on flea wits such as Paris Hilton and Brittany Spears, it’s easy to conclude that between watching hours of television and sucking up mega-doses of corn syrup, our fellow citizens have deep-fried their brains. This explanation suggests the Bush administration has gotten away with their shenanigans because the majority of the American public either doesn’t understand what the White House is doing or doesn’t care—we’ve become self-centered dolts. Nonetheless, while there’s certainly compelling evidence we’ve become a nation of sheep, I continue to believe the majority of our people are smart enough to see the big picture: We get it, we just don’t do anything about it. 

That leaves depression as the logical explanation for our passivity: We’ve been immobilized by our depression. The question is what caused this. It wasn’t all that long ago—the ’60s—when Americans were hopeful; when we believed: “Tomorrow will be a better day. We can build a peaceful world.” 

Then came an enervating message that bred helplessness and despair. Since the Reagan era, conservatives have broadcast a grim homily: “You’re on your own. No matter how dire your circumstances, no matter how unfairly life treats you, don’t count on government to help you.” This conservative ideology reached its nadir after 9/11 when President Bush told traumatized Americans there was nothing they could do to ease their fear and anxiety except to go shopping. As the plight of the average citizen worsened, so did the national mood: In the ’60s most of us believed the future would be better for our children, now we don’t.  

Over this same period we became a nation of depressives. It’s not only that one in four of us has a diagnosed mental disorder, but also that millions of Americans self-medicate: we take prescription drugs for depression—antidepressants are now the most frequently prescribed drugs—or use daily palliatives such as alcohol or marijuana. There are millions more who suffer from the symptoms of depression—chronic anxiety or fatigue, eating disorders, or irritability—and never seek help, who stagger through each day in a funk. And there are millions of Americans who feel chronic helplessness in the face of an Administration that doesn’t listen to the cries of the average person and seems determined to implement their evil agenda regardless of the consequences. 

These are hard times. There’s a rogue president in the White House and the good ship USA is heading into increasingly treacherous waters. There’s good reason to be discouraged but not to be defeated. After all, U.S. history teaches us that Americans have lived through hard times before: the Civil War, Great Depression, and World War II—to mention only three perilous periods.  

We can take solace in the knowledge that during historic hard times, Americans have always come together and worked for the common good. That’s what we need to do now. The next president must preach a message of hope and invite us to make a shared sacrifice for the good of the country. And to help cure our national depression. 


Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer. He can be reached at