Depression flies 149 innocents into a mountain and into the headlines
Author: Mac Andrews
Few would question that suicide and depression are related. And yet here we are again. Failure to understand both and tend to them effectively has, once again, revealed a dangerous and tragic state of affairs.
As a reformed suicidal depressive and a psychologist who has researched the condition for nigh on 25 years, I have come to reject the idea that depression is, by default, an illness, mental, or other. And yet here we are perpetuating the myth, the media blithely assuming that depression and mental illness are one and the same, in my opinion a dangerous assumption.
Here comes a can of worms!
Yes, of course if insufficient serotonin is released across the relevant synapses then depression is the result.
Serotonin is the neurotransmitter most associated with depressive symptoms. Its release and mood-related effects are the brain’s biochemical response to recognizing that there are pleasing events, objects and people in our environment. So if you’ve longed for something for ages and suddenly it arrives in a beautifully gift-wrapped package labeled with your name on it, bingo — serotonin flows, and the accompanying pleasant mood effects occur. We feel good (cue James Brown da da da da da da).
There are people who have physical conditions that limit serotonin release, for example, an under-active thyroid gland can cause depressive symptoms, Lyme’s disease and diabetes to name a few. So if you have symptoms of depression, it is wise to visit your GP to eliminate any physiological causes.
Sometimes, rarely, people simply do not produce sufficient serotonin in their pre-synaptic neurons, where the reservoirs are located. They have a special need to make the most of what they’ve got, and if you read on I’ll let you into the secret of doing just that.
However for the vast majority depression is caused by an environment that does not stimulate the release of serotonin. A serotonergic (serotonin rich) response comes with a serotonergically supportive environment. If your life is not seratonergically supportive, you will by definition become depressed. Early years spent in non-serotonergic environments train us to expect life to continue in that vein. So even if our adult environments offer us a feast, we encounter them as if they offer only famine. The negative stimuli originate in the environment past and/or present and not in the person. We carry our depressing environments and our expectations of present ones with us wherever we go. Our unconscious expectations permit us to remain unfed. Our response to this impoverished environment, one that fails to meet our perfectly normal ‘human needs’ is a healthy dose of depression.
In Western cultures, ‘need’, is a bit of a dirty word, frowned upon, disguised or even disowned. But needs are like all hungers. They are facts that persist regardless of our opinions about them.
For instance, if you are thirsty and denied access to water, you will search to find it. You might try to distract yourself from it, but the thirst will persist regardless. The thirstier you get, the more unpleasant the symptoms become. The great thing is that the worse the thirst, the more pleasant the effects of finding water. One sip and in floods the serotonin.
If you remain with an unmet need for long enough the symptoms of its hunger expand, branching their tendrils into all sorts of functional networks to affect more and more aspects of your wellbeing.
A plant in the wrong soil, with insufficient light, poor nutrition, incorrect temperature, etc. will not compromise. It will throw out a bunch of normal ‘healthy’ symptoms, the ‘planty’ forms of depression like wilting, browning leaves, poor flowering, etc. If these are ignored, then the plant will ail, becoming more susceptible to pathogens in the environment, and it will eventually die.
Human beings are precisely the same, except that we are the only species to persist in the wrong soil, with inadequate light, poor nutrition, uncared for, un-nurtured, isolated from others, in the wrong jobs, wrong relationships, enduring all sorts of abuse, and then we blame ourselves for not thriving.
So depression is almost always a healthy response to an environment that does not feed our hungers. The symptoms of remaining in non-serotonergic environments can leave us susceptible to illnesses and can become so serious that medical intervention is necessary. But the medicine can only treat the symptomatic ailments. The underlying causes of the depression reside in our world, not in us. And if you are one of those rare people who simply produces insufficient reserves of serotonin? Then managing your environment is the key to making the most of your limited supply, and building a world that supports your thriving.
I am not advocating that we all sit complaining about how our environment condemns us to powerless victimhood, and that’s that. That in order for us to be happy our husbands, wives, children, colleagues, partners, bosses… are the ones who need to change. “If only…’ and then the world would be fine. That we keep turning up to environments we feel or are indeed victimised by, is the symptom of a learned response. And in that learning sits our powerlessness.
In learning the rules, “Don’t be selfish”, “Think of others first”, “Who do you think you are?” and these are the polite examples, we stopped the person-we-could-be from his/her natural developmental process and diverted our energies into generating a fictional, more acceptable person for social consumption. One that would enable us to avoid the consequences of being ‘found out’ as the undeserving person we knew, not so deep down, we really were. In the process, we learned that we do not deserve to have environments rich in serotonin. We learned to do without some basic human needs.
Being free to say “no” with confidence is a human need. Being free to change one’s mind is too. Being free to accept all of your emotions and learn from them is also a need. Being able to find someone to hold you while you cry, someone to laugh with you, to accept your eccentricities, to accept you as you discover yourself in this great experiment called ‘life’, all these are needs that without feeding becoming subtle, nagging hungers. And because we can’t feed them with those emotions that are essential to our well-being we feed our needs with other stuff. But no matter how much chocolate we eat, it will never hold us while we cry. We learn that we have to be ‘other than the person we truly are’ we experience some of our emotions as unwanted. But virtually all humans have all human emotions for a reason — we need them…all of them.
And who is this person we have become that is not?
As the great Alice Miller says in her seminal book “The Drama of Being a Child”, the person-we-are-not is like strapping on a false limb, “it has no blood running through it.”
No blood equals no source energy.
No blood equals no genuine feelings.
The person-we-are-not cannot feel authentic emotions.
Depression tends to wear a reassuring smile in public, to feign competence and control.
In living life divorced from our emotions, we lose our natural drive. Enthusiasm becomes dangerous. The person-we-are-not cannot know what he/she truly wants because envy, passionate wanting, frustration and even anger cannot be used for the signposts that they truly are.
Real authentic emotional experience plugs us back into our real self, the self we are pretending not to be.
Depression then is quite simply a symptom of a frozen authentic self, made immature as a result of being denied both permission and the range of tools needed for its proper and full development.
I still get depressed. I love my depressive symptoms when they arise now. They teach me that it is time to take better care of myself. When I get that right, the symptoms disappear, and I thrive again. It is the symptoms that provide the ‘thrivometer’, the compass, the guidance to get back on track. Without them, I wouldn’t know where I was.
So, here goes, time to stick my neck out.
If you are depressed, the chances are… you are not ill, you do not have a medical condition. Except when it is driven by a real physiological condition, like hypothyroidism, depression is a sign of health. And that healthy response is to an environment that does not stimulate your serotonin. Ignored, inappropriately attended to or simply tolerated its symptoms will almost certainly intensify leading to other ailments. At worst it leads to self-destruction, and the potential to take others with it as we have seen all too starkly in recent events.
Anti-depressants can certainly give people some relief from the worst symptoms of depression, but in the long term, without the symptoms we cannot tell whether or not our needs are being dealt with effectively.
Far better to learn how to locate, listen to, and align yourself with your essence and bring it into plain sight. Taking care of its needs like the best parent in the world is the art that is missing, not yet another prescription of anti-depressants.
Finding this out has left me for some time wondering who gains most from persuading people that depression is an “illness”. Positioning it in people’s minds as an illness suggests that there is something wrong with them as members of the species, it disempowers them from listening productively to their symptoms and makes a great deal of money for the producers of anti-depressant medication.
There, I said it.
I must also say that if you are taking anti-depressant medication then it is vital that you do not stop taking it suddenly. If you choose to stop taking anti-depressant medication then you need a progressive programme of dosage reduction, overseen by your GP or qualified medical practitioner, alongside an effective therapeutic programme to support you in identifying your unmet needs and implementing simple strategies for organising for them to be met.
Whatever your choices, I wish you the best of good fortune.
[Mac Andrews BSc Hons (Psych), MBPsS, RBC dip.]