The Possible Benefits of Depression

And why our approach to depression may be misguided.

As many as one in four Americans will at some time in their lives suffer from a mental illness called “Major Depressive Disorder”. Despite the growing concerns about their effectiveness, sales of antidepressant drugs continue to grow, and, in England, have more than doubled since 2008. Clearly, the approach to depression that we as a society are taking is not working. But why?

The concept of depression as a mental illness may be helpful for the more severe cases treated by hospital psychiatrists, but probably not for the majority of cases, which, by and large, are mild and short-lived, and readily interpreted in terms of life circumstances, human nature, or the human condition. Indeed, for many people, the concept of depression as a mental illness is likely to be positively harmful. How?

By pushing us towards doctors and drugs, the belief that we are suffering from a mental illness or chemical imbalance in the brain can prevent us from identifying and addressing the important real-life problems or psychological issues that are at the root of our distress, and that are, quite literally, crying out for our attention. To treat this cry out of the depths as a simple biological problem is effectively to ignore and suppress it, while ever more people join the legions of the depressed.

Depression as a signal

Crushing though it may be, depression, or the depressive position, can present a precious opportunity to come to terms with deep-seated life problems.

Just as physical pain evolved to signal injury and prevent further injury, so depression may have evolved to remove us from distressing, damaging, or futile situations, situations that do not serve us well as human beings. The time and space and solitude afforded by depression can enable us to reassess our needs, reframe our perspectives, and round up the resolve to break with established patterns. In other words, the depressive position may stand as a signal from our unconscious to our conscious that something is seriously wrong and needs working through and changing, or, at the very least, processing and understanding.

In the normal run of things, we may become so immersed in our daily life that we no longer have the opportunity or perspective to think and feel about our self. The adoption of the depressive position invites or compels us to shed our defences, stand back at a distance, re-assess our needs and priorities, and formulate a modest but realistic plan for fulfilling them.

At a deeper level, the adoption of the depressive position can enable us to develop a clearer understanding and appreciation of our self, our life, and life in general. From an existential standpoint, the adoption of the depressive position obliges us to become aware of our mortality and freedom, and challenges us to exercise the latter within the framework of the former. By meeting this ultimate challenge, we are able to break out of the mould that has been imposed upon us, discover who we truly are, and begin to give deep meaning to our lives.

Light at the end of the tunnel

Looking at it like this, it can be no surprise that many of the most creative and insightful people in history suffered from depression, or a state that might today be diagnosed as depression.

The roll of names includes the politicians Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln; the poets Charles Baudelaire, Elizabeth Bishop, Hart Crane, Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, and RM Rilke; the thinkers Michel Foucault, William James, JS Mill, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Arthur Schopenhauer; and the writers JK Rowling, Agatha Christie, Charles Dickens, William Faulkner, Graham Greene, Leo Tolstoy, and Evelyn Waugh, among many, many others.

To quote Marcel Proust, who himself suffered from depression, “Happiness is good for the body, but it is grief which develops the strengths of the mind.”

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Madness and Growing from Depression.

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