The Depression Epidemic

February 20, 2008, 10:30 am; posted by
Filed under Articles, Chloe, Featured  | 4 Comments

Several friends have told me that they’re depressed these last few weeks. Symptoms have ranged from not feeling like doing homework, to not wanting to get out of bed, to avoiding other people at all costs. Most attribute their sadness to the fact that the sun hasn’t shown its face more than twice in the past three weeks. We’re in the lull before break right now, when everything is cold and white and icy, and a day consists of getting up, doing schoolwork, then going back to bed. In other words, this too shall pass, and soon.

But these conversations, combined with how many people I know who are medicated for clinical depression, has sparked me to question what might be causing an apparent epidemic of depression.

The National Institute of Mental Health reports that 18.8 million American adults suffer from depression, two-thirds of whom are women. Depressed Americans make up 6.2% of our population. This may not seem like a staggering statistic, the idea that 6 of every 100 people has depression, but that statistic is talking about clinical depression. It doesn’t include brief bouts of melancholy, or the type of depression that hits you with a razor blade and leaves you smiling and sunny six months later. The World Health Organization estimates that 15% of the world’s population has a depressive episode in a given year (which could range from two weeks to a full year). That’s 990 million depressed people. 990,000,000.

So there are the staggering statistics. Now I’ll introduce something that will sound entirely unrelated. I’m doing research on self-consciousness right now, and one study I came across tested boredom proneness (yes, they’re related, but it would take another article to explain how). Boredom proneness has, in several studies, been linked with depression.

I’ve found nothing that states which is the cause and which is the effect, but here’s my hypothesis: we as Americans are bored because of how used to being entertained we are. As a result, we have trouble finding interest in everyday life, and on some level we believe that our lives are unfulfilled, perhaps because they don’t look like television lives. Why should we get out of bed? What new and exciting thing will happen?

And again, we have lost our ingenuity, our ambition to create new and exciting ways to live life — because we can live on a mysterious island on Thursday night, and be the next top model or superstar any day of the week. All we have to do is turn on the TV. But the show always ends, and none of it is real. Is it any wonder that we are bored and depressed?

An important point I must make is that I don’t think boredom causes depression across the board. Sometimes depression comes from childhood abuse or trauma in one’s life, and sometimes it’s a chemical imbalance. The frustrating thing is that so little is known about the chemical aspect of depression that no definitive hypothesis can be formed. We can only tinker with dosages until a medication seems to work, while we play connect-the-dots with cause-effect relationships in research.

The thing that perplexes me is the sheer number of people suffering with bouts of depression (not clinical depression). Surely that isn’t common! Surely men and women haven’t suffered mind-numbing sadness like this since the beginning of time! I mean, I don’t deny that it’s possible. However, I suppose that when you had to run a farm to feed your family, you didn’t have the choice to think about how you didn’t see the point in getting out of bed. But that’s just speculation.

This is the part in the article when I provide some concise conclusion, or offer some advice on where to go from here, what we can do to alleviate the epidemic. I, of course, have no solutions. I only have hypotheses and questions and an urgency that something should be done. But I’ve found that often the best way to find a solution is to talk to people and get other opinions. So comment or email me your thoughts.


4 Comments to “The Depression Epidemic”

  1. Steve on February 20th, 2008 10:51 am

    Seems that gloom is the theme of the week.

    Defining ‘depressive episodes’ as the WHO does would probably result in a higher rate than 15% in America, right?

    Surveys I have seen show that people’s assessments of personal happiness, and corresponding objective measures of comfort and wealth, continue to rise in modern times. This is part of why I think the secret to having a pleasant adult life is to go without (but not TOO without) in childhood. The more spoiled you are at an early age, the farther you must go to recapture that pleasure — the more dissatisfied you become when you cannot.

  2. Emily on February 21st, 2008 11:03 am

    Chloe, I’m highly intrigued with your current study. What researchers are you following for this?

  3. Marcus on February 21st, 2008 3:04 pm

    Over the years I have been both a student and a sufferer of depression and I think that your hypothesis is spot on. The staggering amount of time we put into our entertainment culture has its affect on our perception and on our expectations.

    When massive tragedy strikes (think school shootings or 9/11 etc.), the most common response from eye witnesses is that the event “was like something out of a movie.” This tells us that our reality has been so influenced by our obsession with image-based communication that we have cinema as our “primary experiences.”

    We have a fundamental shift from reality to media.

    Consider the boy who (nearly a year ago) used the video camera on his cell phone to capture the school shooting as it happens. How is it that his first response is not to run to safety but rather to view the situation through a camera’s lens? Safety takes the backseat to the voyeuristic eye of image technology. Something compelled him to turn on the video… something told him it was an acceptable risk.

    It is a related impulse which compels us to video/photograph/scrapbook every second of our lives–nostalgia has become huge business in recent times. We live in a society that obsessively forces daily events into digitally-edited, teleological packages. We order our lives according to the rules of the image culture for the same reason we look to images to structure our world (and subsequent events)–image-based communication has become a necessary component of our ideology.

    But we should stop and consider the images we see. The celebrities, (most of) the media anchors and talking heads, and the adverts depict a physical ideal that is not representative of the average person. The lifestyles represented in our movies and television shows is likewise unrealistic (the beautiful homes in our sitcoms could never be afforded by the characters, etc.). Our films promote escapism–happiness is rarely found in the “mundane” (i.e., what we might expect in our daily life). We get our expectations from a well which has been poisoned by make-believe. Inundated with images, we come to view (if only subconsciously) a manicured reality as natural reality.

    As with eating disorders, there is a direct relationship between depression and a image-saturation (and by “image” I mean modern commercial images). This is not to say that our technology is inherently evil, but that the “less is more” argument Steve presents is especially needed regarding our voluntary exposure to these images.

  4. David on February 23rd, 2008 1:46 pm

    I picked up a book several years ago by a man named Henry C. Link entitled The Return to Religeon (The MacMillan Company 1948). Link was a psychologist who used his experience of counseling 4,000 people over a period of 15 years to arrive at the conclusion that depression in modern times, quite often, is a result of people being self absorbed. He found depression, such as plagued himself and his 4,000 clients, was best treated by getting people to stop focusing on themselves and to return to religion where they were forced to get caught up in something larger than themselves and serve others.

    i know we are already Christians but my worst bouts of depression are always when my eyes are on me, and they dissippate quickly when a broken marriage is set before me in counseling a young couple, or I end up preaching in the jail—really anything that puts me into contact with people who force me to look at them instead of me.

    I say all that to say that what Marcus and Chloe draw from our TV culture, and Steve draws from a childhood not centered on fulfilling every wish of the child, converge in the point that depression can be the direct result of my preoccupation with myself.

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