05/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Recession, Depression and Therapy

An interesting article appeared recently in The New York Times explaining how libraries were increasingly coming under pressure as numbers visiting swelled due to the recession. Quite rightly, it pointed out that (like so many other institutions) libraries have been steered in the direction of becoming "more relevant" and "accessible" -- more akin to an indoor digital town square. While some have pointed out that it is not the role of libraries (or museums or art galleries for that matter) to be used instrumentally to try to resolve broader social problems, the larger issue at hand revealed itself when we were told that "The stresses have become so significant here that a therapist will soon be counseling library employees.

Voila. What is a question about resources and provision of facilities -- basically an economic and political situation -- speedily becomes transformed, or therapeutized, in to a psychological issue. What tends to happen next is that the solution is sought in the realm of the personal -- the inner journey, the dialogue -- as opposed to the root of the problem: how we deal with the current economic crisis. Sure, maybe people will get angry -- even furious -- although this is not necessarily such a bad thing -- often historically legitimate anger has led to very positive developments and changes in the world.

The UK sociologist and political commentator Frank Furedi wrote recently about how the UK government was "diseasing the recession" and planned to train 3,600 therapists to set up centers around Britain to deal with what it perceives as a "growing army of mentally ill people."

In the US though, as we know, the dash to therapy has been deeper and more pervasive than in Europe. When Margaret Thatcher's government in Britain introduced counsellors to "help" newly unemployed workers, they were viewed with suspicion as an attempt to pacify any challenges. In our anxious, isolated times, there seems to be little alternative to calling a professional for some counseling. Indeed, back in September Bloomberg reported that calls to Hopeline in NY for those dealing with depression leaped by 75%.

Unfortunately, in an age where anxiety and fear have been key elements of how we view the world, seeing ourselves increasingly "at risk" from it, rather than agents of change and masters of our destiny that can make and remake society, our tendency to view things psychologically ends up being remarkably costly, seductive as it is.

ABC requested feedback from viewers on how financial stress was affecting them. Many have pointed to statistics showing that during The Great Depression suicides increased, and there have been all sorts of other studies, such as the one analyzing children's mental health in Finland during economic troubles.

However, far more important is how we, as a society, view the world around us and our ability to deal with things that happen. In the past, our networks and affiliations did seem to make people more confident and a sense of "can-do" ensured a certain tenacity and resilience. More broadly, there was a sense that even if people were bitterly opposed between Left and Right, there was a fight over something that had meaning, a better potential future that the battle lines were drawn over -- intellectually, politically and at times (of course) physically.

The answer is not, as some have argued, that the recession is good because it is an eco-warning and will slim us avaricious nasty gulpers down to size, but adaptability and perseverance are attributes that humans have in spades. Often we just have to remind ourselves that we are creative and inspiring beings, capable of significant achievements.

We should challenge both the nasty idea that recession somehow will result in a cultural renaissance and the destructive one that we are all in need to therapeutic counseling. We find ourselves, as many others have done before us, facing some tough options with difficult decisions. How we decide to deal with the obstacles we encounter is up to us. It would serve us well to recognize that the matter is not so much that we are fragile creatures who are predisposed to mental illness, but rather find ourselves in a situation where the debate over resources and how we organize the world is still very much up for grabs.

People, after all, make history.