Yesterday’s comments prompted me to do some thinking, especially about one of the questions — “Does depression ever have a useful purpose?”
My first inclination is to say, “No,” at least when we are speaking of clinical depression.
There are different types of clinically diagnosed depression, and they all represent organic ailments that can disrupt life and lead to serious consequences if not treated. These range from milder forms of atypical depression to major depressive disorders that are persistent and may be experienced in connection with psychoses and event catatonic states. Some types are associated with bodily changes that occur when people experience life or health changes, such as perinatal depression in new mothers, depression in those with cardiovascular disease, or various forms of geriatric depression that beset the elderly. Some people respond poorly to the annual changes in nature and suffer from seasonal depression, and of course there is depression associated with grief that affects people in a variety of ways. Treatments for clinical depression may range from lifestyle adjustments to cognitive-behavioral therapy and antidepressants or other medications all the way to electroshock treatments and hospitalization.
Clinical depression needs to be taken seriously. According to this site about depression, major depression is the leading cause of disability in the United States, and it affects almost 19 million Americans in a given year, costing an estimated $30 billion annually. Up to 15% of those who are clinically depressed commit suicide.
“Depression is like being in a totally round room and looking for a corner to sit in.”
• Laura Sloate
If you suspect that you might be clinically depressed, if you are experiencing the following symptoms to an extent that it seems unusual to you or those who love you, and if they are disrupting your life in any significant way whatsoever, I urge you to seek some help.
- Sadness, anxiety, or “empty” feelings
- Decreased energy, fatigue, being “slowed down”
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities that were once enjoyed, including sex
- Insomnia, oversleeping, or waking much earlier than usual
- Loss of weight or appetite, or overeating and weight gain
- Feelings of hopelessness and pessimism
- Feelings of helplessness, guilt, and worthlessness
- Thoughts of death or suicide, or suicide attempts
- Difficulty concentrating, making decisions, or remembering
- Restlessness, irritability or excessive crying
- Chronic aches and pains or physical problems that do not respond to treatment
I went through a period of depression about fifteen years ago. I’ve always been a melancholy type, but when I had a hard time sleeping during a particularly stressful period of my life, I knew something had changed. I can always sleep (it’s one of my spiritual gifts!) and insomnia was so unusual to my life experience that it got my attention. That moved me to get help, and I’m glad I did. There have been other seasons in my life when I failed to do that, and I carry regrets with me to this day.
If you need it, I hope you will get some counsel and assistance. The most “useful” thing about clinical depression is that it might cause us to realize we need help.
• • •
But let’s get back to our question.
Despite what I say above, upon further reflection, I think the answer to “Does depression ever have a useful purpose” is more complex and nuanced than a simple “no.” One reason for this is that people use the word “depression” to cover a wider range of human experience than clinical depression.
Some of us are more prone to be melancholy people, but we do not have a major depression disorder.
Some of us cry more easily than others.
Some of us are more “low energy” than others.
Some of us are introverts and find certain social situations emotionally challenging and draining. We withdraw. We’d rather be alone or with one or two others.
Some of us are not optimistic people. We tend to see the glass half-empty and think being realistic means not always smiling or saying everything will be okay. Others tend to see us as negative party-poopers who need to lighten up.
Some of us find the sadness and brokenness of the world overwhelming; we are sensitive to that and to some extent, preoccupied with it.
Some of us actually enjoy the profundity of a world that is filled with both darkness and light, sadness and delight, tragedy and comedy. It’s far more interesting and compelling. Sad songs, rainy days, and painful experiences satisfy something deep within us.
“You say you’re ‘depressed’ – all I see is resilience. You are allowed to feel messed up and inside out. It doesn’t mean you’re defective – it just means you’re human.”
• David Mitchell, Cloud Atlas
Some of us find lament more true to life most of the time than rejoicing.
Some of us are analytical and we tend to emphasize the “down” side of things in conversation because everyone else is looking at matters from an upbeat perspective.
Some of us struggle with guilt and regret, and we tend to beat ourselves up.
Some of us have trouble concentrating.
Some of us are not very confident about ourselves and we tend to think others don’t like us or might not if they knew us better.
Some of us tend to be worriers and we find it hard to let our worries go.
Some of us have a lot of fears — some rational, perhaps some not — and they can restrict or even paralyze us at times.
What I want to say is that the world is filled with a wide variety of people who might use the word “depressed” to describe themselves at any given point in time, or who others might suspect are “depressed.” But the characteristics they display are simply part of the rich tapestry of being human, of having a human personality in a world like ours. And these human peculiarities can all be useful and beneficial as we learn to appreciate one another, trust one another, and love one another.
Not everyone is meant to be a Tigger. We need Eeyores too to make a world. And everything in between.
And God might even use people with clinical depression to bless the world (in fact I’m sure he has). Some of those psalmists and prophets should’ve seen the doctor as far as I’m concerned. But God used them anyway, so in a way I guess you could say that even the clinical forms of depression can be useful.
But that’s up to God. If that’s where you think you are, don’t be a hero — get help.