Depression’s Silver Lining

A lot of people are depressed these days: in 2015, one study showed that 6.7% of American adults suffered from a major depressive episode in the previous 12 months.  Meanwhile, an estimated 12% of Americans are taking antidepressants, which suggests that the study may have underestimated the problem.

A major depressive episode, according to the National Institute of Mental Health, is defined as a period of two weeks or longer where there is either depressed mood or loss of interest or pleasure, along with at least four other symptoms that reflect a change in functioning: disorders in sleep, eating, energy, concentration and self-image.  Sometimes the condition lasts for years.  Sound depressing?

Recently, researchers have proposed that depression actually serves a useful function, which psychologists might consider when treating patients, and patients might consider before they start popping pills.  Evolutionary psychologist Paul Andrews of McMaster University in Canada notes that depressed people often spend more time ruminating about their lives, get more REM sleep (a phase associated with memory consolidation) and pull away from the normal pursuits of life to experience deeply a problem or challenge they’re facing.  From an evolutionary standpoint, depressive episodes might actually be a healthy way for people to stop all the distractions of their lives and give full attention to whatever has wounded them, as a way to find a resolution of the problem.

Viewed from this perspective, depression is an altered state that allows (some would say forces) individuals to assess problems and prevent future mistakes.

This reframing of depression as a space for reflection might be empowering to people suffering from depression, and recognizes that they might be achieving positive results as a consequence of their misery.  Vanderbilt psychologist Steven Hollon notes that most episodes of depression end on their own, and the depression-as-adaptation narrative may explain why.  Rather than antidepressants, maybe a retreat from work and the pressures of life would bring about faster, more reliable healing.