Calling for a new way of thinking
JONATHAN ROTTENBERG was a depressive. Now he is a leading researcher into depression and director of the University of South Florida’s mood and emotion laboratory. He says depression afflicts many, is poorly understood and very hard to treat. If the world is to reverse what he calls the current “perfect storm” of depression risk, a radical rethink is needed on how depression is understood.
Some believe that depressive illness is simply the result of a depletion in the brain of certain neurotransmitters and is treatable with antidepressants. But Mr Rottenberg argues that it may be an evolved, protective response to certain stimuli. Depression, or rather what he refers to as the impulse to “hunker down and wait, at least for a while”, might help humans cope with grief, protect them from conflict, or even help them to avoid being socially ostracised by alerting them to “social risk”. But behavioural responses appropriate to early hunter-gatherers are not necessarily suitable for 21st-century society.
It is Mr Rottenberg’s view that the current vogue for the “pursuit of happiness” may perversely push certain people towards depression. Happiness, he argues, is the result of achieving a goal, rather than a goal itself. He cites recent evidence suggesting that depression or low mood can be triggered by setting unobtainable goals. Rather than becoming depressed because of underachievement, he suggests that perhaps depression is an overcommitment to goals that cannot be reached.
“The Depths” gathers descriptions of current research to back up the author’s theories, as well as anecdotes and vignettes from depressed patients, including Mr Rottenberg himself, who suffered serious depression in his early adulthood. The personal connection first led him into this field, and is clear throughout the book.
However, “The Depths” might make depressing reading for a sufferer. Not only is Mr Rottenberg highly critical of current treatments for depression, he also points to evidence that man’s linguistic ability may be another factor increasing depression rates; people can ruminate on their thoughts, mentally chastise themselves for not “getting better” and even develop links between negative thoughts in their memories, all of which could sustain depression or lead to a relapse during or after recovery. It is not a recipe for hopeful reading.
Yet Mr Rottenberg also offers solutions. Throughout the book he emphasises that experiencing low mood is not uncommon; more important, it is not the sign of failure it might sometimes feel like. He believes a new focus on what he calls “mood science” is more helpful than a focus on diagnoses of depression. A fresh way of thinking could be the key to revolutionising people’s understanding of depression, and even for developing new treatments. The book’s final chapter is almost a clarion call to open the discussion about depression, remove its social stigma and break with current scientific convention to help those suffering begin their recovery. As he says, “It is possible.”