“docu-mental is high quality, passionate, thoughtful.
Your authentic voice makes it a rare gem.”
~Madelyn Glist, producer, The Smithsonian Channel, Morning Edition, and PBS/Frontline
Thank you to Substack for choosing docu-mental as an Independent Writer’s Grant Winner in April 2020!
I’m Whitney M. Fishburn, a Washington, DC-based health sciences and policy journalist and cultural critic, and now publisher of docu-mental, an online journal of American thought and culture, founded in February 2019. I admit to having more questions than answers. I like to say to myself and others: Test your truth.
Something that was true yesterday might not be true today. You won’t know until you give it a little nudge. I gave a short speech about this once to a room full of very accomplished people. It has turned out to be even more true now that I have become the publisher of an online journal dedicated to stress-testing the authenticity of the american (little “a”) mindset.
A compendium of approaches to mental health
If you’re experiencing an acute mental health crisis, or are looking for actual mental health support, this isn’t the right place for you at this moment. It’ll always be here for you, but if you need a lifeline or a technique for helping to cope, I don’t really focus on that. I am more interested in why we think and feel what we think and feel and how that leads to various mental states, particularly in the US, and to some extent, other Western countries like the UK where I have a handful of regular readers.
The funny name of this publication comes from my ecumenical (not religious) approach to viewing mental health. I believe that one’s state of mind is inextricably linked with our collective cultural expression and our political processes, and that all three are inseparable components of our search for meaning. Think of docu-mental as both a compendium of approaches to a better state of mind, as well as a record of the ways we have made our minds sick and in need of healing.
Herd immunity to anxiety and depression (TM)
In 2018, I trademarked “Creating herd immunity to anxiety and depression (TM)” because I thought that the epidemic rates of both were not being addressed properly by policymakers. If they were, then the rates wouldn’t continue to skyrocket. I figured if I framed things in a public health model, and sought the infectious agent — the “thing” that was spreading these illnesses — we could find ways to contain it. With that in mind, I began writing docu-mental.
A political observer, I’ve never been overtly political myself but if there were any point of view I would have averred it was that I was fiscally conservative, socially liberal. Identity politics, although generally understandable to me, ultimately struck me as tedious and often precious. And as someone who’d spent time covering healthcare on Capitol Hill, I was properly cynical about Congress overall (because the institution has well-earned our cynicism), although some lawmakers in particular would always stand out as especially rotten or especially not rotten.
All of which is to say, I thought of myself as having street smart, sensible American values and ideals, nothing radical or revolutionary. Plus, I am a child of the late 70’s and early 80’s, born in the 60’s and so have dutifully absorbed my role as a sensible mediator between the respectively narcissistic and anxious ages before and after me, like so many others of my generation have. This leaves little time for rabble rousing.
Shock and Ow
So, imagine my shock when after I spent an entire year specifically focused on determining the transmission route of anxiety and depression, I realized that the epidemics were not actually the illnesses themselves, but were symptoms of a larger sickness: Americanism. I concluded through podcasted interviews and plenty of essays and reports (all of which are in the archives) that what we truly suffer from is a collective bad dream: the American Dream.
If the dream ever actually existed, it doesn’t anymore. Now, the idea of the dream is either just propaganda of those who seek power, or is the bad pill those who still have yet to come to their senses continue to swallow, thinking it is their duty. Most upsetting to me of all has been to discover the actual lies and hypocrisy behind this sham, as the past year’s worth of docu-mental has demonstrated.
The dream is predicated on the concept of freedom, loosely defined as one’s right to pursue happiness as stated in our Bill of Rights, the original amendments to our Constitution. But the power of the Constitution has been rendered meaningless thanks to surveillance and venture brands of Capitalism, Big Data, monopolies, and the systematic dismantling of Congressional powers, not to mention executive branch overreach, all of which have stripped us of our individual freedoms and helped concentrate power and resources in the hands of a few…and they’re not sharing.
After all, how are we free if a secretive data company such as Facebook can own every detail about our personal lives and never have to relinquish those details?
It’s from this perspective that I view our freedom as having been taken hostage.
Even though in truth my material needs are met, I felt pretty stupid and angry when I started to see how much power I had given over to this dream, and how I had let it twist me over the years into self-hating knots as I tried to live up to what the dream conveyed what was expected of me.
I hear some of you laughing: Duh, lady. We’ve been trying to tell you that for years…But in research, nothing is as powerful as a discovery you make on your own. This is how I came to adopt the motto:
Test your truth.
In fact, anxiety and depression rates are especially high in my demographic — educated, white collar, middle class, children who came of age in the 80s. (They are also high in those aged 18 years to 25, but while not flat, not as high, in Boomers…) Much evidence points to these rates being correlative with some kind of instability in five certain areas that are inherent in the American Dream. In a public health model, you can think of these as the five main risk groups that the corrosive dream state is attacking:
2) Access to resources (scarcity)
3) Equality (replaced with hierarchy)
4) Autonomy/personal agency
Here’s more about them on my personal website.
But what is the actual infectious agent (even if it’s not technically biological)? I am still working on that, but I suspect it’s shame. Perhaps as a subscriber, you will follow along as I continue to explore that.
In the meantime, addressing the epidemics I believe means debriding the wounds created by the ethos that America is the land of plenty…but only for a chosen few. We can’t cling to the insanity of hierarchies and extreme consumption and remain a great country. Certainly doing so can’t support a sane nation.
One last thing. I might feel outrage at times, but I am not built for rage. I am one of those plodders who just turns over the rocks in the field as she plows along, offering up what she finds for inspection before getting back to plowing along, testing truths.
That is to say, don’t worry, I won’t burn down your email box with fiery rhetoric. And I even might make you laugh from time to time.
Sound minds + sound information = democracy.
After more than 30 years of reporting on and analyzing policy and culture, I have noticed three parallel trends: the rising rates of anxiety, depression, and suicide across all demographics, the rise of surveillance capitalism, and the shrinking of personal agency at the expense of expanding corporate reach (and recently, the executive branch of government) in America. I share my personal story with this here.
I believe where these intersect is the place where democracy is eroding, so I have been mapping these intersections. Sometimes they’re in the arts. Sometimes in the sciences. Usually in policy. Definitely in commerce. And always in our minds.
Generally, docu-mental publishes most Fridays and occasionally a few days in between. I have podcasts, usually one a month, and often with mental health experts looking to innovate how we conceptualize sanity and a sound mind. The newest series dedicated to healing the american states of mind will publish one Monday each month beginning in July 2020.
To access only the podcasts and skip scrolling through the archives, visit the podcast page on my website, here.
I am pleased to report that Substack tells me I have an unusually high conversion rate from free to paid subscribers. I try not to annoy my paying subscribers with too much content, but I do send them additional insights on my free-to-the-public essays, random thoughts, the occasional special podcast, reading suggestions, poems I like, and highly personal observations or revelations.
It’d be so nice to have you along.
For the foreseeable future, I am running a paid subscriber special:
Privacy note: I don’t sell your data. I don’t track it other than to see how many readers I have and what posts got opened the most. I don’t think you should be kept in the dark about how any site uses your information.
I hope you will join me!
The rough stuff:
Sometimes I write about personal experiences including healing myself from two major depression episodes in my life — three if you count the time I entered a facility and realized everyone there was more nuts than I was and so I once again, it was up to me to get my shit sorted out.
I also write about my years as a reporter covering the mental health field, healthcare economics and policy, as well as cults I have hung around, religions, alternative healing practices, political parties, Capitol Hill, homeschooling my son, growing up in a divorced family, my own divorce, my struggle against a corrupt Wells Fargo, my love of horses and the American West, and all kinds of unusual things I have gotten myself up to.
Also, since I began publishing this journal, I have come to see that it’s essential to look at how differently the generations are experiencing the fall out of the American Dream. Boomers’ America is decidedly nothing like my son’s America. I didn’t see it when I started, but being a member of the middle seems to make me and my fellow Gen X’ers tougher than the rest. Do you realize how much crap you have put us through, Boomers? Do you realize how worried we are for you, Millennials?
In any case, I love everyone (mostly) and it’s all in service to making sense of our american states of mind (I like to use a little “a” to cool it down some) in hopes that you can find some peace and be proud, not scared, of being a citizen in this incredible, phenomenal, awe-inspiring, if just a little sick in the head, country that we cherish so much.
The formal stuff:
Up until the coronavirus virus put the local arts community on ice, I was the chief opera and classical music critic and assignment editor for DC Metro Theater Arts. Formerly the managing editor of Psychiatric Annals, Pediatric Annals, and several lifestyle and trade publications, I also was an award-winning reporter of policy and practice in Clinical Psychiatry News, Pediatric News, and Internal Medicine News, among other medical titles. Named 2017 Journalist of the Year by the Washington Psychiatric Society for my coverage of mental health policy and practice including for the video series Mental Health Consult, and one of Mergermarket’s most read journalists globally, my essays and other writings have appeared in numerous publications, including the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, NJ Monthly, and Grace and Gravity. I am the author of a handful of books, most recently, Big Mike, Uncle Dan, and Me: How I Beat 20th Century New York State’s Most Corrupt Political Machine, for which I served as the collaborating writer. I have also programmed and produced numerous programs for NPR affiliates and am a member of the Music Critics Association of North America, and a grantsmaking committee member of the National Association of Science Writers.