The recent New York Times article, “Depression’s Upside,” by Jonah Lehrer, explores modern psychology and psychiatry’s (slowly) increasing acceptance of the darker sides of the human emotional experience. In the faintest of voices, heard only occasionally above the stadium roar of the status quo, there are those suggesting the possibility that not everything that hurts must be eradicated.
The title of the article, however, is a bit of a misnomer. Depression itself does not have upsides. Periods of depressions are nothing but deaths, some of them more violent than others; indeed, some of them like massacres that seem to insist on coming back to their victims for more and more. In my mind, and as I think the article suggests, it is only what comes after a depression clears that can bring the benefits, and renewal, of life.
To help make the point that world culture is enriched by depressions, the author quotes Keats: “Do you not see how necessary a World of Pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?” Similarly, the community of analytic psychology, drawing on the archetypal stories of human history, point to necessary descents into the darkest reaches of our souls to allow rebirth and new life. Persephone’s abduction by Hades into the Underworld turned the world into a barren winter through her mother’s grief. It was not until Persephone returned to the world above ground that spring and a harvest returned.
Jung and his intellectual descendants, perhaps most vocally James Hillman, have been asserting for 100 years that darkness is an inherent part of life and that its destruction will only hasten our renewal. Not only does common sense suggest that we will not build character and learn from our own life, our own failures and injustices if our pain is easily masked, but it should be plain that our society will not build character either. While not mentioning it directly, the article alludes, in a single patient story, to the tenets of social psychology: by alleviating individual pain, we may be missing considerable social issues that are causing individuals to suffer, therefore destroying the agents of change rather than the illness itself. Women may medicate to tolerate their alcoholic or abusive husbands (as the article cites), when the real solution may be to leave the marriage. On a broader scale, one might see that recreational drugs in the inner cities are medicating the inherent depressions of an unjust life; without the drugs, perhaps broader social change would be possible. Perhaps.
At least in mild depressions, the article cites studies which show high relapse rates for those individuals who treat their depression primarily with medication.
The high relapse rate suggests that the drugs aren’t really solving anything,” [psychiatrist Andy] Thomson says. “In fact, they seem to be interfering with the solution, so that patients are discouraged from dealing with their problems. We end up having to keep people on the drugs forever. It was as if these people have a bodily infection, and modern psychiatry is just treating their fever.
But, as Thomson’s critics are quick to point out, an occasional mild (or even severe) depression is an entirely different animal from a major depressive disorder (the massacre). As psychological memoirists Kay Redfield Jamison, William Styron, and Elyn Saks have written, medication cannot be discounted or vilified for those individuals who are truly suffering from a disease. Indeed, medication is a critical part of the solution. Diabetes is not equivalent to the occasional spike in blood sugar, and if it is treated as such, people die.
Nonetheless, the trend now has swung so far in the direction of psychiatric prescriptions to palliate psychic pain that we may be stunting our own psychic evolution from killing those pains that we should endure and learn from. As the article concludes, the researchers’ “speculation is part of a larger scientific re-evaluation of negative moods, which have long been seen as emotional states to avoid.” Thank goodness.
Still, the article cites researchers looking for the evolutionary goal of depression as if consciousness were a biological principle and not an entirely separate aspect of science. One cannot look at the activity of protons as if they were cells, nor at moods and psychic states as if they were equivalent to principles of the biology of the body. Depressions add to culture, build character, shake-up the status quo. Depressions lead revolutions, lead to revolt, lead to transformation and growth, for individuals and societies. Depressions write poems and symphonies and remind us why we are alive. When we come back from the darknesses into the light of life, when we are reborn from death, we see life with new eyes. Without winter, we cannot understand the gift of spring.
I contend, therefore, that the basic research of the principle researchers mentioned in the article is of importance but somewhat flawed. As the article wonders, I do think it’s a bit of a “Just So” story that attempts to explain scientifically their, I believe, correct sense that some depressions are not to be destroyed. But there is soul involved in this story. I would suggest not looking for the answer in the brain, though certainly there are answers to be found there, but at us collectively, and at us archetypally, historically. Life, consciousness, culture, transformation, the moral of the human tale, may not be able to be seen until one gets high up over our world and looks at our communities from 35,000 feet. The goal of depression may not be found in a single individual, unless viewed over the course of a life; nor in a single brain, unless viewed in connection with thousands of others. What is the purpose of depression for the course of a single life and for all of us, and what do we lose when our depressions are too easily killed, either by the hand of their hosts when the pain cannot be endured, or by the drugs of their doctors when the pain cannot be rationalized or allowed?