January 9, 2023 - 4:25pm

In my youth, ketamine was generally associated with passing out in a pool of someone else’s vomit at a squalid illegal rave in some decrepit warehouse. No longer. Now it’s a “psychedelic therapy”, courtesy of Mindbloom, a start-up that promises ‘transformative results’ for anxiety and depression. For $89 a week, customers receive a neat, stylish matte-grey ‘Bloombox’ with a meditation mask, blood pressure monitor, a journal and access to clinician support, plus six doses of ketamine and access to Mindbloom’s support staff and online support groups.

TikTok has no shortage of videos posted by customers documenting their ‘journey’ with Mindbloom. Many rave about the treatment’s benefits, with one describing how thanks to its transformative effects she can now clean her house, go shopping, make a sandwich and brush her hair: tasks which felt Herculean before.

Major depression can be crippling for those who experience it. It’s affected people close to me, and I would never make light of the suffering experienced by anyone in its grip. But what’s striking about these videos is how many of them are women — and thus how neatly this ‘psychedelic therapy’ slots into a well-trodden history of licit mind-altering substances marketed at women’s psychic distress.

Back in 1963, Betty Friedan claimed that housewives were taking prescription painkillers “like cough drops” to deal with “the problem that has no name”. In her 1963 book The Feminine Mystique, Friedan argued that women had been tricked into viewing their ‘mild and undiagnosable symptoms’ of ‘malaise, nervousness and fatigue’ as a medical issue. In Friedan’s view, the malaise was really due to the alienated, empty, oppressed suburban existence women enjoyed in their allotted social role, which confined them to a cramped existence as the drudge and helpmeet to a man and children.

If Friedan were right, you’d expect mass entry into the workforce and the rise of ‘child-free’ lifestyles to have improved American women’s mental health. But this doesn’t seem to be happening: instead, antidepressant use has climbed steadily over the decades, remaining consistently higher in women. And a recent study suggested that, despite this, the overall incidences of major depression rose steadily between 2015 and 2020.

A glance through the history of medicine suggests that this isn’t new to the twentieth century either: though the name it’s given varies, past ages suggest women are consistently more prone to ailments of the soul.

I’ve argued elsewhere that a characteristic feature of the post-industrial (cyborg) age is the way it extends the logic of resource extraction from the natural world to human bodies and emotional landscapes. To my eye, this began in earnest in the 1960s, so it’s no surprise that the (highly profitable) medicalisation of emotion began in earnest around then. But the internet has radically extended the scope for this extractive approach to the human soul.

We see this, for example, in the social media commodification of mental distress, which in some (especially young female) circles appears increasingly to function as an identity. This in turn propagates contagions: experts are increasingly calling for more research into online self-diagnosis of mental health issues fuelled by such communities. Another related change is those ways in which the digital age has extended and enhanced the business opportunity presented by such mental distress, as witnessed in the satisfyingly stylish ‘Bloombox’ and its ancillary personal services.

Putting these two phenomena together should make it clear that while one profits from selling you ‘cures’, as long as needing a cure functions as a social identity that cure will at best only work temporarily. For an actual cure would come at the expense of other social goods.

We should be deeply troubled by the proliferation of such self-licking ice cream cones. And we should be especially troubled by the vision they imply of vulnerable, suffering individuals: less humans in need of compassion, rather a market from which value may be extracted.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.