Several mental health experts over the past couple of years have proposed the idea that depression can actually be useful. As someone who has dysthymia, a chronic form of depression, I beg to differ.
Diane Barth, a blogger for Psychology Today and a psychotherapist, wrote in a June 12, 2011 blog post titled “Can Depression Ever Be Good For You?” that indeed, depression can be useful in changing your life around. Depression can allow a person to realize there are issues that need to be solved through talk therapy. She stated that talk therapy can help patients work through the cause of depression and overall improve areas of their lives. She suggests that medication usually isn’t necessary for depression and that talk therapy can solve most issues in a few months’ time. The blogger focuses on the case of one woman who appears to be depressed because she is a stay-at-home mother and her children started attending school and don’t need her help as often, which she realized through talk therapy.
Although talk therapy might have helped the one woman featured in the blog, I believe it’s inappropriate to make generalizations about the merits of talk therapy and depression, especially when only one successful case is mentioned. Therapy can help everyone in some way, but that doesn’t mean it’s a cure for everyone. The type of depression wasn’t even addressed, just that the woman has “depression.” There are different types of depression, such as major depressive disorder (MDD) and dysthymia, according to the National Institute of Mental Health website. It’s doubtful that if the woman had MDD or dysthymia she would’ve recovered only in a couple weeks with talk therapy. If anything, it appears her depression might’ve been situational or just a prolonged sadness. If so, it would be more understandable that talk therapy helped her recover quickly.
Another issue is that the author suggested that depression is usually caused by a life occurrence. This isn’t always the case, and many experts confirm that the brains of people with depression function differently and there can be a chemical imbalance. In some cases, a negative comment from a loved one might trigger an episode, and after thinking about the trigger, a person with depression might realize it was silly to get upset over such a little thing, but there was also no real way to control the descent into an episode.
It might be a personal bias and the fact that I have dysthymia, but I also have trouble believing that depression can be helpful for the most part. I understand that the fleeting depression the woman in the blog post suffered from did eventually lead her to therapy to discover what was supposedly causing the depression for her. But there isn’t always this successful discovery process for everyone else with depression, and many sufferers need medication, therapy and alternative treatments in order to cope with depression. I’ve had dysthymia since I was about 10 years old, and I still have it today, despite going to multiple therapists and trying medication. I’ve been seeing my current therapist for several months, with no noticeable improvement. Although it seems I’ve been able to “control” my depression better than during my childhood and teen years, it’s still alive and well. For people like me, hearing that depression is helpful is almost like a slap in the face.
Has it really been helpful to be unable to get out of bed for weeks at a time, to either overeat or have no appetite, to feel hopeless and unloved, to basically have no self-esteem at times, to lose track of life and lose interest in all of the goals made during a lull in the chronic, ongoing depression? I don’t think so. Has it made me stronger in some way, provoked an interest in psychology, and enabled me to understand the problems of others and sympathize with people who are going through similar battles? Yes. But it definitely hasn’t been helpful in allowing me to change my life and solve my problems effectively in the sense that I know many of my issues, and they’ve only gotten worse or stayed the same because of my depression, or they are currently unsolvable because my issue is depression and all of its symptoms. It’s a constant battle, and isn’t easily solved through months of therapy.
Other depression sufferers explained their reasoning for why depression isn’t good for them in a Jan. 20, 2009 article in the Daily Mail online. Virginia Ironside, an advice columnist, stated in the article that depression is anything but helpful.
“How can the researchers say that depression could motivate us to change our lives for the better?” Ironside said in the article. “When I've been seriously depressed in the past - episodes that have led me to two spells in psychiatric hospitals - the only way I thought I could motivate myself for the better was to consider every single way I possibly could of killing myself; of removing myself from life, not improving it.”
Linda Kelsey, a former editor of Cosmopolitan magazine, attacked researcher Jerome Wakefield's apparent suggestion that people should embrace their depression and not treat it like a disease. She argues that depression is not good for her and other sufferers.
“Well, it wasn't good for my grandmother, who committed suicide as a result of a deep-rooted depression that went on for years and years,” Kelsey said in the article. “Or for my mother, whose intractable depression, associated with Parkinson's disease, has continued for two painful decades.”
Lewis Wolpert, a developmental biologist, also disagrees with the researchers who suggest depression is overall helpful.
“I claim that if you can truly describe what it is like, then you have not had a true depression,” Wolpert said. “It's an illusion, and completely unlike anything else. When you are immersed in it, you enter a world without reference points, so once you recover it is very hard to relate how you felt. For someone like myself, the idea that a severe depression can have positive effects is beyond belief, as my depression was the worst experience of my life, and I was suicidal.”
The idea that depression can help you fix the “root of the problem” is also false in many cases, since depression can be so debilitating to where there is no way you can think of self-improvement beyond seeking treatment for depression (if you are even able to do that).
Other researchers, Paul Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson Jr., presented the idea that depression can be beneficial in a Scientific American article in August 2009.
“Depressed people often think intensely about their problems,” the researchers stated. “These thoughts are called ruminations; they are persistent and depressed people have difficulty thinking about anything else. Numerous studies have also shown that this thinking style is often highly analytical. They dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time.”
The researchers expand on this supposed benefit of depression, but I wonder if they’ve ever experienced a severe form of depression? When you’re depressed, you might ruminate on all your flaws and what you’ve failed at, and maybe even all the things you still need to do. You might even think about what you can do to fix these issues, but this type of thinking is unable to be acted on for many sufferers. Depression to me is the state of being able to do the bare minimum and nothing more. If I am able to think of how to solve my issues, then my mind is laughing at me because I’m unable to physically solve anything.
Do you think depression is helpful, hurtful, useful or useless? Share your stories in the comments section.
Reviewed June 15, 2011
Edited by Alison Stanton