Mental Illness In Catcher in the Rye

I hated Holden Caulfield. I thought he was an arrogant, self-absorbed, snotty idiot who did not pursue the opportunities granted to him. I thought I couldn’t possibly understand Holden Caulfield.

I was wrong.

In the spirit of honesty, I picked up the Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger, because of its status both as a classic and my dad’s favorite book. It was a book I had heard of, a book I had browsed through before. But, when I dove into it, I struggled to adjust myself to the peculiar writing style, adapting myself to the unadulterated waterfall of Holden’s thoughts. I believed we diverged in one critical way. I care. Holden didn’t.

Holden went through his life with the dispirit of one with no means of succeeding. Despite his obvious intelligence, his opportunity by means of education and wealth, and social ease, he almost obsessively shot himself in the foot. When granted opportunities, he intentionally failed them as demonstrated by his performance in school and his little interest in actually working, or when given the position on the fencing team, he almost subconsciously hindered himself by leaving the fencing equipment, giving his teammates no choice but to kick him off the team. He got kicked out of school after school, mimicking some level of sorrow, but making no real effort to change. This is what I thought. But what I would discover is that it wasn’t that Holden didn’t care, it was that Holden was mentally ill; a child wandering the streets of New York City in a depressive spiral.

J.D. Salinger expertly illustrates how mental illness affects teenagers by displaying the symptoms and causes of Holden Caulfield’s depression and anxiety in a devastating first-person account.

The Mayo Clinic cites anxiety, apathy, hopelessness, guilt, loss of interest, sadness, insomnia, fatigue, restlessness, agitation, social isolation, lack of concentration, thoughts of suicide, repeatedly going over thoughts as symptoms of depression. These characteristics present themselves in Holden’s character. Holden wrote, “He knew I wasn’t coming back to Pencey. I forgot to tell you about that. They kicked me out. I wasn’t supposed to come back after Christmas vacation, on account of I was flunking myself in four subjects and not applying myself at all. They gave me frequent warnings to start applying myself-especially around midterms when my parents came up for a conference with old Thurmer-but I didn’t do it. So I got the ax”(Salinger 4). This demonstrated Holden’s lack of interest in school and his complete disregard and apathy for failing his classes and getting expelled. Holden socially isolated himself, but criticizing his friends, never getting close to the people he rooms with at various boarding school. Holden additionally isolated himself by categorizing almost everyone besides himself as phony, lashing out mentally with incisive commentary. “One of the biggest reasons I left Elkton Hills was because I was surrounded by phonies. THat’s all. They were coming in the goddamn window...I can’t stand that stuff. It drives me crazy. It makes me so depressed I go crazy. I hated that goddamn Elkton Hills”(Salinger 13-14). His restlessness followed him around New York as he loitered in the streets. As readers, we don’t learn until the final chapters that Holden is writing from a mental institution.

Another symptom was his loss of concentration, which Holden admits often. Suicidal thoughts proliferate the book, often masked kind of a matter of factly. speaking often of how he’s rather ‘just die’ or how he’s feeling ‘lousy and depressed’: “I almost wished I was dead”(Salinger 90).

As the book progresses, the thoughts of suicide become more pervasive. “It took me quite a while to get to sleep—I wasn't even tired—but finally I did. What I really felt like, though, was committing suicide. I felt like jumping out the window. I probably would've done it, too, if I'd been sure somebody'd cover me up as soon as I landed. I didn't want a bunch of stupid rubbernecks looking at me when I was all gory”(Salinger 104). Holden revealed later in the book, that he witnessed a boy at one of his boarding schools, Elkton Hills, commit suicide. “But I thought something fell out the window, a radio or a desk or something, not a boy or anything...and there was old James Castle laying right on the stone steps and all. He was dead, and his teeth, and blood, were all over the place, and nobody would even go near him...That was all I could think of, though”(Salinger 170). A surely shocking, and scarring event for any adolescent, but Holden views the event with a detachedness, critical of someone distancing themselves from their own grief.

Due to the fact that I am not, in any way, a psychologist, I cannot formally diagnose Holden Caulfield, but to my unprofessional opinion, Holden Caulfield is clinically depressed. This is not a far-out conclusion. Holden was left reeling from the death of his brother, with whom he was close. Holden remembers: “You’d have liked him. He was two years younger than I was, but he was about fifty times as intelligent...But it wasn’t just that he was the most intelligent member in the family. He was also the nicest in a lot of ways. He never got mad at anybody”(Salinger 38). Shortly after the funeral, Holden was sent to boarding school. In a short span of time, he was abruptly separated from his family in a time of intense grief, which likely caused abandonment issues. Holden has also done little to none to acknowledge and deal with his grief, nor his residual feelings of survival guilt. The competitive boarding school environment likely did not help. “I was only 13 and they were going to have me psychoanalzyed and all, because I broke all the windows in the garage. I don’t blame them. I really don’t. I slept in the garage the night he died, and I broke all the goddam windows with my fist, just for the hell of it. I even tried to break all the windows on the station wagon we had that summer, but my hand was already broken and everything by that time, and I couldn’t do it. It was a very stupid thing to do, I’ll admit, but I hardly didn’t even known I was doing it, and you didn’t know Allie”(Salinger 39).

However, after speaking with my grandmother, Dr. Carole Lewis, a psychologist, she informed me Holden likely had situational depression, a display of depressive symptoms as a result of a specific trauma (the death of Holden’s brother). Situational depression is also called adjustment disorder with a depressed mood and can be just as intense as major depressive disorder.

When Catcher in the Rye was published as a novel in 1951, the American public was just beginning to differentiate mental illnesses like depression and anxiety from psychotic disorders. American had a whole generation who were experiencing PTSD from World War II, then called ‘shell shock’. J.D. Salinger, the author, experienced PTSD following his eleven months in WWII. He was part of the group who liberated Dachau Concentration Camp. He self-checked himself into a mental hospital after experiencing thoughts of self-harm (shooting himself in the hand). He wrote the book as soon as he got out. In fact, Holden ‘writes’ the book from a mental hospital: his brother visits him once a week, he meets with a psychoanalyst in this ‘crumby place’.

When the book was published, it was not the mental illness the American public noticed. The book was banned for its profanity, and some of the ‘immoral’ activities Holden involved himself in. While most critics enjoyed the books, several conservative sites such as the Christian Science Monitor stated that the book was not suitable for children, describing Holden as “preposterous, profane and pathetic beyond belief.” The book went through several periods where it was harshly censored. During the years of 1966 and 1975, the Catcher in the Rye was the most frequently banned books across schools. Some teachers were even fired for requiring the book to be read by students. An intense debate launched about its placement in the classroom. It is still banned in conservative districts, claiming it is immoral and profane.

Yet, Holden Caulfield is known as the poster boy for the American Teenager. The Washington Post called Holden Caulfield, “An American Boy”. The New York Times in their original review of the novel wrote, “Mr. Salinger's rendering of teen-age speech is wonderful: the unconscious humor, the repetitions, the slang and profanity, the emphasis, all are just right. Holden's mercurial changes of mood, his stubborn refusal to admit his own sensitiveness and emotions, his cheerful disregard of what is sometimes known as reality, are typically and heart-breakingly adolescent.”

The idea that Holden was mentally ill was not the topic of discussion when the book was released. Mental health was just beginning to enter the public sphere. The people coming back from World War II were suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. It was four years before the publication of the book that President Truman signed the National Mental Health Act. But people mistook and continue to mistake his situational depression for typical teenage angst, which is a severe mistake.

Holden Caulfield is not a typical teenager.

Or, more appropriately, Holden Caulfield should not be a typical teenager. It lends to the assumption that mental illness in teenagers is not serious, but a symptom of adolescence.

For many years, depression was not diagnosed in teenagers, especially during this time period, because the drugs, antidepressants, to treat depression were considered dangerous and only prescribed to adults. Approximately twenty percent of teenagers will experience depression before becoming an adult. An yet, only thirty percent of teenagers with depression are being treated for it according to suicide.org. Depression in teenagers is not new, but newly diagnosed. The book, The Science of Well Being noted that forty years ago, the ‘average first depression episode’ occured at roughly at 30 years old, but this just proves how depression in teenagers was not considered valid.

Many readers take Holden’s words to appear dramatized, typical of teenagers, many would note, but that is deceiving. Towards the end of the book, Holden talks many times about suicide, about leaving and never coming back, and about his own death. In the second to last chapter of the book, Holden and his younger sister, Phoebe, stood at a turning point. Holden had told her of his plans to leave, but Phoebe refused to let him leave without her. “I’m going with you”(Salinger 206), Phoebe stated resolutely. When Holden disagreed, she broke into tears, utilizing every trick she knew to convince her older brother not to go. Even when he acquiesced, she refused to let him alone, skipping school to make sure her brother won’t leave without her. If you read farther, the scene becomes reminiscent of a conversation convincing someone not to commit suicide according to heartspot.com.

Not only is excusing Holden’s depression as teenage angst detrimental, but the depression disguised as existential, intellectual angst is as well. Holden frequently used terms such as phony throughout the book to describe his peers and the adults he encountered. Everyone around him was phony or too blind to see as clearly as Holden did. This institutes a damaging idea that depression is the only route to sophistication and intellectual enlightenment, instead of a mental illness that should be treated and worked to heal. Depression is not a lofty intellectual state. Many, including myself, can connect to the sense that everybody else is living in a state of false belief, especially when one takes a foray into existential philosophy, but there is a difference between a constant, and consistent view that life is meaningless and/or hopeless, and an exploration into the philosophy of existentialism. Yet, it is easier to call yourself intellectual, or cognizant of this grand truth, than accept depression, which still holds a negative stigma.

The curious thing is that almost every adult I’ve spoken to when I’ve mentioned the book has gone on about when they read it, in tenth or eleventh grade, and how they felt Holden was expressing exactly how they felt. Why does every adult I speak to connect with Holden’s character so keenly when most of what Holden is expressing is due to his depression? Does it say something of our society that we can all empathize in someone in that state of mind? Perhaps it is the fatal flaw of humanity, or these past few centuries, when we have enough time to think, to live beyond our means for survival, we think long enough and find life meaningless. Why is the meaningless of life so difficult for human beings to fathom? Melancholy or depression is present in every culture. Hippocrates of Ancient Greece cited melancholia as “fear and despondencies, if they last a long time.” The World Health Organization estimates 350 million people display depressive symptoms.

The European Journal of Epidemiology estimates that 30-50% of people have experienced major depressive disorder at some point in their lives. An article in the Scientific American, “Depression’s Evolutionary Roots”, tried to decode why depression is so prevalent, and why it is possibly a evolutionary adaptation. According to the article, the 5HT1a receptor which binds to serotonin determines depressive symptoms, which would lead researchers to believe our brain can ‘turn on’ depression. But why would human beings want/need to be depressed? Studies have shown that when a person is depressed they are able to “think intensely about their problems” or ruminate. These ruminations consume the mind of the depressed person, but the style of thinking is ‘highly analytical’ according to the American Psychological Organization, which is very productive in terms of serving complex problems. Depression or the special receptor also assists in allowing analysis of problems without getting distracted. The article notes that the need for no distractions may explain why other symptoms of depression are ‘desire for social isolation...inability to derive pleasure from sex or other activities...loss of appetite’. Social dilemmas are also generally easier for people in depressed mood states to solve according to the Clinical Child and Family Psychological Review. Perhaps, throughout our evolution, we needed depression to solve difficult social dilemmas by utilizing a better analysis of the pros and cons. The article concludes by saying that maybe depression is not a disorder, but an intricate process for dissecting complex, and social problems.

But this is not the only theory that ponders why humans becomes depressed. A psychiatrist and professor at the Royal Cornhill Hospital, believes that we evolved to depression to make sure we didn’t exert unnecessary energy, he called it “an adaptive means of inactivity.” Or that depression lead to protective behavior, growing our chances of survival. This theory is mainly in response to post-partum depression, and depression in women during fertile years, because depression kept women at home, caring for children and safe from danger.

Another fascinating theory, is that there is an correlation between gene variants involved in risk of depression and immune responses. Two physicians at the Emory University and the University of Arizona, Dr. Andrew Miller and Dr. Charles Raison, wrote a paper called the “The Evolutionary Significance of Depression in Pathogen Host Defense”, which supports this theory that depression helps stave off infection, due to mutated versions of a gene, “NYP” which is usually associated with inflammation, an immune response, but also has demonstrated to be in individuals with major depressive disorder.

Some believe, that the fluctuation of moods that depression causes is critical for forging creativity, which leads to innovation, potentially life-saving.

No matter whether humans have evolutionarily adapted to depression, Holden Caulfield clearly shows symptoms if not major depressive disorder, then situational depression.

We know what Holden Caulfield of the 1940s/50s looks like, but what about Holden of 2019. Would he be overmedicated, over diagnosed? Would his parents been tracking his cell phone on the streets of New York? Would Holden have fallen to the traps of social media, while simultaneously mocking his peers for using social media, by using it himself? Would he realize the irony? Would he be a Twitter troll with some snarky username? Would Holden be anonymously internet famous like Banksy, like he promised he would be, “If I were a piano player, I’d play it in the goddamn closet”(Salinger 84). Would the internet suffice as a closet for Holden?

Depression in teengagers is as serious a problem now as it was then, perhaps even more so, with the continued pressure of college, and the acute universality of social media. But the teenagers themselves are not so different, we are all struggling to find our place in a world that is shifting, interacting with adults who believe in us, and the adults who doubt us, trying to solve the complex mystery of human relationships, dealing with grief, with siblings, with rivalries, with school, with money, with the madness of a fully realized self. Many teens today suffer from depression, and like Holden, don’t know the right words to describe how they’re feeling, why sometimes the world can feel hopeless, and people can feel phony, but every teen should understand that if these feelings persist, there is no phoniness in getting help.


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