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Floating on a sea of sadness

By Conrad Gershevitch - posted Monday, 31 October 2005

I’ve been feeling a bit depressed lately. I was contacted by On Line Opinion a few weeks ago and they invited me to write an article about the cultural dimensions of depression. In under 1,500 words. And because I’ve been procrastinating, it’s the deadline today. So I’ve been worried how I could possibly deal with such a complex theme in such a short article. I’ve been lying awake at night thinking about it, so I’ve missed sleep and I’m tired and feeling pretty down.

At times of stress, when we’re feeling under pressure and things aren’t going our way we often say we’re depressed - although the difference between clinical depression, and a (relatively speaking) sense of unhappiness is vast, although linked by a continuum of ever deepening malaise. But it’s easy to get depressed: indeed, entirely human to be “depressed” at times. In fact coping with depression in one form or other is an almost necessary human condition.

I recently had the privilege of participating in a seminar with Professor Beverley Raphael where we explored cultural identity, cultural maintenance, and how this relates to mental health. Throughout the program we looked at the experience of diaspora or displaced peoples, not only in Australia, but throughout the world. There are tales of triumph, rebuilding shattered lives, irreplaceable loss, cultural genocide as well as the construction of new identities and new heritage in new places and in new ways. Professor Raphael (who is a psychiatrist, internationally respected as an expert in population post-trauma recovery) described with deep passion the overwhelming sense of sadness and loss with which people deal with their migratory or asylum seeking experiences.


What is often forgotten is just how unsettling any move can be. Contemplating a relocation within Australia can be a daunting prospect for those of us born and bred here. But we know the language, the customs, social norms, the elements of the legal system, how “everything works”. Even for a skilled and affluent migrant who chooses to come to Australia voluntarily and who actually finds employment of their choice (often a rare privilege!) faces, at times, some sense of this cultural and social dislocation - sadness and loss - which can lead to depression.

For asylum seekers - the most marginalised, dislocated, traumatised and dispossessed people in the world - the experience of finding refuge has much more of an impact. Given that these people are already vulnerable, leaving a culture, a community, lifestyle, a physical environment, all their possessions behind them, probably experiencing murder, torture, rape along the way, to then face indefinite periods of detention, isolation and stigmatisation, it is axiomatic that all refugees will be depressed. If they are very unlucky they will be deeply depressed. Most probably they will be damaged so profoundly that the remainder of their lives will be a battle to manage the emotional and psychological demons that plague them.

And yes, refugees, indeed all people from culturally diverse backgrounds, really are human too - no matter how much the tabloid media tries to depersonalise and demonise them.

Professor Nicholas Procter has been working with the Dari community in South Australia - Afghani asylum seekers who have been drifting in a world of uncertainty, unsure whether they can try and rebuild their lives here, or whether they’ll be forced to return to the violence, persecution and uncertainty of their homeland. There is no Dari word that exactly describes depression, but the concept is all too familiar to them. “Mualagh” is a word that approximates our depression best, it means “floating on a sea of sadness”. It is a rather poetic term that describes well what the experience of depression entails for many of us.

Much of our lives can be spent in the process of this melancholy floating although our external lives are constantly bombarded by conflicting messages that are intended to have the opposite effect. Big business, governments, the commercial media, all constantly feed us with images of what our lives should be: the materialist, consumer vision where buying more, having greater wealth, enjoying greater “choice”, possessing more things, will give us extra happiness.

The rich and popular are paradigms for our aspirations, but this is an aspiration, which - except for a minute fraction of the population - will never be more than a passing fantasy. Instead, frustration, envy and greed are our lived experience. Dr Clive Hamilton, in one of the most impressive books I have read in a long time - and of course almost completely ignored - has described this population-level disappointment with the economic agenda imposed upon the developed world (The Disappointment of Liberalism and the quest for inner freedom, 2004).


At the same time we are fed this toxic diet of aspiration and resentment, our consumption is supplemented with xenophobia, anxiety and paranoia - particularly since 2001. The Cold War bred a generation obsessed with fear and concern about imminent nuclear holocaust. Now this has been replaced with a far lesser threat which is, nevertheless, being transmogrified into a greater one. George Monbiot has expressed this far better than I can …

Economists are exposed by climatologists as utopian fantasists, the leaders of a millenarian cult as mad as, and far more dangerous than, any religious fundamentalism. But their theories govern our lives, so those who insist that physics and biology still apply are ridiculed by a global consensus founded on wishful thinking … When terrorists threaten us, it shows that we must count for something, that we are important enough to kill. They confirm the grand narrative of our lives, in which we strive through thickets of good and evil towards an ultimate purpose. But there is no glory in the threat of climate change. The story it tells us is of a yeast in a barrel, feeding and farting until it is poisoned by its own waste. It is too squalid an ending for our anthropocentric conceit to accept. (Guardian Weekly Vol.172/no.10)

The World Health Organization - as is frequently quoted - projects that by 2020 depression will represent the second largest burden of non-communicable illness at the global level. It is not surprising. And the processes of globalisation are largely to blame. I am not one who accuses globalisation for all the world’s ills, nor sees it as an entirely damaging event (it is actually a process that has gone on for several centuries). But there is a necessary correlation between the untrammeled expansion of multi-national oligpolies and the instruments of international monetary development, and the harm that is being visited upon our planet.

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About the Author

Conrad Gershevitch joined FECCA as Director in June 2002. FECCA is the national, not-for-profit peak body which represents Australians from diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.

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