In the decades since the 1960s, when the television program "Mad Men" is set, we have made advance after advance in mental health and treatment of emotional disorders. Yet it is hard to argue that we are better of emotionally.

 

The Stanton Peele Addiction Website, August 14, 2009. This blog post also appeared on Stanton's Addiction in Society blog at PsychologyToday.com.

Why Weren't "Mad Men" Depressed?

Mad menThe new season of the hit TV series "Mad Men" begins on Sunday. We view these 1960 ad men with smug complacency from our modern perch. It's hard to imagine how they faced every kind of emotional turmoil and disorder without knowing all that we have learned in the last half century. But here's the rub: these mad men were less depressed than we are today.

New York Times contemporary culture writer Alessandra Stanley notes about the program: "Retrospective winks at past ignorance are what makes Mad Men so funny and, at times, so chilling. . . . [I]n this age before chat rooms, support groups, confessional talk shows, self-help books and 24-hour hot lines became commonplace, each crisis, from the Cuban missile to the midlife, seems encountered as if for the first time, uncharted and befogged by bewilderment and fear."

I recently wrote about the great "improvement" in our mental health system, where, in 2006, 27 million Americans were prescribed antidepressants, a doubling of the figure from a decade earlier. And nearly everyone bets that this and similar figures will continue to rise. What the hell did they do in the 1960s without modern psychiatric medications, and when people were so much less able to access mental health therapies (as per the PT therapist guide).

Here are five explanations for what was, and is, going on in our society:

  1. People were really depressed, addicted, and had all kinds of other emotional problems in the first sixty years of the last century, but everyone ignored these problems. One reason was because nearly everyone was struggling economically before the Reagan-Clinton-early Bush II booms. Now that we've had several decades of prosperity, we've had a chance to focus on and deal successfully with all the emotional issues we used to ignore.
  2. A variation of the first argument is that we used to have just as many problems, but we were too stupid to recognize them. For example, although many young people took drugs in the 1960s, hardly anyone ended up in rehab like they do now. This harkens back to the nineteenth century, when tincturated opiates (e.g., laudanum) were sold without prescription in every pharmacy, and even on street corners. Yet narcotic addiction was almost unknown before the twentieth century. Maybe they didn't know they were addicted since they could get as much dope as they wanted and so they never discovered they couldn't do without drugs.
  3. Perhaps you can tell, I'm skeptical of modern explanations that point out that we are better and smarter than our ancestors, even though we seem to feel worse. (Doesn't that strike you as the height of arrogance?) So an alternate explanation to the two above is that we have lost crucial satisfactions that used to buoy human existence. Here's one - a sense of community. Do you remember bowling leagues, where adults used to go out once or twice a week to compete with friends, have a few beers, and shoot the breeze between frames? You know, that would seem like the sappiest way a human being could spend their time nowadays. We'd rather be home alone watching sexually saturated sitcoms on TV and round-the-clock news discussions, playing video games, and surfing the Internet.
  4. If spending more time alone and with electronic equipment is a predictor of depression, obesity, and substance abuse - our society is really headed for trouble! Because kids are many times more likely to be wired up to electronic gadgets than their parents. And if this is true, then kids would be likely to experience more emotional disorders today despite all the remarkable advances we've made in psychiatry and psychology. Do you realize that mad men didn't even know what "bipolar disorder" meant, and kids with conduct disorders, ADHD, and mood imbalances were just called rowdy? How ignorant they were!
  5. In the 1970s, psychologist Albert Bandura theorized (and demonstrated) that the single greatest concordant for emotional health and happiness was something called "self-efficacy" - the expectation that, and ability to, impact your own destiny. How the hell does a person learn to be self-efficacious? Here's the rub - it's not so much what you're taught, but what you experience that gives you a sense of self-empowerment. That is, simply going out and confronting the world, other people, and life challenges and finding success in doing so is your passport to success and contentment. But if that's true, our kids are on a steady trail away from such naked experiences. Who would let their kids out on the street by themselves today?

So I guess we'll have to see whether we're turning the corner on mental health these days. Perhaps we're just a few years away from - as neuroscientists Richard Restak held out the promise in 1977 of - "alleviating, or even eliminating, such age-old medical bugaboos as pain, drug addiction, and, among other mental illnesses, schizophrenia." It hasn't happened in the three decades since then. And in fact, it seems quaint to focus on schizophrenia as a mental illness when depression, bipolar disorder, autism, and ADHD, among other emotional disorders, now dominate our attention. But perhaps we're just ready to turn the corner and to vanquish all of these modern afflictions, conquer mental illness, and achieve widespread happiness.

Check back in 10, 20, and 50 years, and let me know.