The seats were packed at the first keynote speaker’s lecture on manic depression in America at the University of Alaska Southeast’s Power & Privilege Symposium on Wednesday morning.
Andrew James Archer, a licensed clinical social worker and trained psychotherapist, talked to the audience about bipolar disorder, otherwise known as manic depression, and its relationship with biology, industry and culture. Archer was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in his early 20s, and he wrote about his experience in his memoir “Pleading Insanity” and took a biological approach to understanding the disorder. In recent years, he has started to explore the relationship between cultural and economic forces with mood disorders, and not just the biological side.
“The critique is that in western culture, especially America’s culture, we tend to believe that a person is their brain, that the mind is a manifestation of the brain,” Archer said. “I think that perspective tends to empower, like I said – psychiatry, pharmaceutical companies, a cure with biological agents … but the problem with that perspective is that it tends to eliminate culture.”
Archer brought up the issue of globalization, and how technology connects us all now in an unprecedented way, which he said in a follow-up after his presentation can bring about a “manic stress” to uphold our digital representations of ourselves as we treat ourselves as “mini-corporations.”
“We are exporting this idea of what it means to be human. Why this is problematic is because it deemphasizes culture and local understandings of illness,” Archer explained by focusing on the biochemical component of mood disorders, the sufferer can escape stigma, or at least that was the idea behind these movements, he said. But doing so removes the other factors at play that leads to these disorders.
Archer did a quick trace of the how pharmaceutical companies and the understanding of mood disorders has changed over the last several decades. People understood mood disorders to be caused by cultural and environmental factors, Archers said, but in recent decades the pendulum swung to focus heavily on biological causes of mood disorders and biological treatments of disorders through drugs; this, he noted, is a highly profitable industry for drug companies and the rates of people using these drugs have increased, even in children.
Archer made the case for people to stop treating the symptoms of these disorders but go after the root causes of them; while some may have roots in biology, many roots can come from society.
“I think all of us have different brains but for the most part we’re all pretty similar. The diseases we should probably be focusing on as a society are racism, xenophobia, misogyny, sexism and not these pathologies that are really products of that activity going on.”
In Archer’s own case, he recognizes the traumatic past of both his grandparents, how his father had manic depression, and in his early 20s Archer was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. He suggested that perhaps this had to do with transgenerational trauma.
Archer referenced the work by anthropologist Emily Martin and the ties she noted between mania and economics.
“She made this tie-in between mood disorders and specifically the idea of mania and bipolar disorder followed by depressive lows – that these highs and lows seem to be a part of contemporary life,” Archer said, displaying a timeline marking big financial collapses like the Great Depression and the 2008 stock market crash, and spikes in mood disorders during those times.
“When you think of financial markets, when you have a boom in the market, it’s sort of like a manic high in that it’s predictably followed by a low or recession.”
To summarize Martin’s ideas, he said, mania and depression do not just come from the individual but are also products of society and capitalism.
To further illustrate this idea, Archer presented a graph to the audience of developed countries where one line represented the amount of mood disorders and the other the level of income inequality in that country. Near the upper right hand of the graph sat the U.S. beating every other country for income inequality and a high number of people diagnosed with mood disorders. He drew attention to the country sitting at the bottom left side of the graph: Japan. The reasons, he said in a follow-up with the Empire, is that the Japanese people and other eastern countries have a different cultural perspective than the U.S., which has the American Dream, the idea to transcend previous generations in prosperity. Also, Japan has less income inequality and thus less manic stress.
He told the Empire that he didn’t bring a lot of hard data beyond some statistics and the works of a few others in his field because the relationship between economics and mood disorders is still relatively new. But while understudied, from the correlations he has seen so far through his own studies and work as a therapist, it’s one that should be more closely examined.
Archer suggested people interested in these subjects read Ethan Watters’ book “Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche” and Emily Martin’s “Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture.” He recommended for everyone to practice mental self-care and mindfulness, and to remember to unplug themselves from the internet, especially before going to sleep, and get at least 7-8 hours of sleep.
“The line between illness and health is really economic and not so much biological,” Archer said at the close of his presentation. “We must remember that there is always an existential element to a person suffering.”