The Joy of Depression

Posted on March 3, 2008

A major study revealed that most antidepressants don't work any better than a placebo, which was in itself kind of depressing. But don't give up hope yet. No, they haven't found a new miracle drug. There are a bunch of new books out that buck the "happiness at all cost" trend and espouse the usefulness of depression.

Apparently, depression has been around since caveman times and evolution has not seen fit to wipe out the genetic predisposition to being sad. Now scientists believe that mild to moderate depression actually helps people in the long run.

What depressed the cavemen? It may strike us as a particularly modern malaise for a time-poor, fast-paced society but a new reappraisal of depression suggests it has always been around. A leading psychiatrist says that depression is not a human defect at all, but a defence mechanism that in its mild and moderate forms can force a healthy reassessment of personal circumstances.

Dr Paul Keedwell, an expert on mood disorders at the Institute of Psychiatry, King's College London, argues all people are vulnerable to depression in the face of stress to varying degrees, and always have been. The fact it has survived so long -- and not been eradicated by evolution -- indicates it has helped the human race become stronger. "There are benefits and that's why it has persisted. It's a tough message to hear while you are in depression but I think that there's a life afterwards," he says.

"I have received e-mails from ex-sufferers saying in retrospect it probably did help them because they changed direction, a new career for example, and as a result they're more content day-to-day than before the depression." One woman left an abusive relationship and moved on, he says, and might not have done if depression had not provided the necessary introspection. Similarly, unrealistic expectations are revised when depression sparks a more humble reassessment of strengths and weaknesses.

The experts stress that this theory has nothing to do with major depression, which must be treated by mental health professionals immediately. We suppose that there is some sense to this theory but we have to wonder how willing people would be willing to go through a depressive episode if modern science eventually comes up with a quick, side effect-free cure. Aren't they really saying "well, we can't really treat it very effectively, so try to see depression as a positive thing"?