Mick Bramham, mental health consultations  

A closer look at "depression" within a cultural context

There are many reasons we might feel depressed

Any attempt at reducing depressed feelings to brain molecules (that supposedly need correcting with drugs) or to faulty thinking (that should be re-trained by simplistic techniques) conflicts, I would suggest, with the complexity and diversity of human experience.

As we touched on here, there are numerous reasons that we might feel depressed, including, for example: pressures at work, ill-health, past and/or present abuse, stress, distress, trauma, the loss of a loved one (which could be a much loved animal), a difficult or failing relationship, ongoing tensions and conflict raising youngsters. We also noted here that sometimes there are physiological factors that can lead us to feeling depressed (including some dietary deficiencies) and some medications have a depressive effect (as does alcohol). Furthermore, how we feel about ourselves can also bring us to feeling low, especially if someone has been mentally and even physically put down, such as with domestic violence - though this can happen too in childhood with bullying or abusive parenting.

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Factors such as being female in a male dominated society or from a black minority group should not be discounted. In saying these things I am in no way wishing to group people together or justify the diagnostic classification of depression as some sort of medical condition. My intention is rather to be open to 1001 reasons that people may feel sad, down and even despair of life. Individual experiences of what it means to feel depressed are varied, as are the causes. It may be one particular experience that de-presses a person. It could be a whole series of events that lead to a cumulative impact that finally breaks a person’s ability to continue as before.

But there are also attitudes, expectations and pressures associated with modern-day living that could be compounding factors. I raise some of these below before we look at what might be helpful when someone is feeling down or overwhelmed by life [See here].

The dangers of introspection

There’s an enormous difference between having an awareness of how we feel (sad, happy, anxious etc) and the act of being introspective. I fear we look too much within.  And what do we find? For many people who are feeling low they find a sense of guilt, shame and failure. Thus, when already beginning to feel down, an introspective search can be demoralising and depressing. Unfortunately, some therapies seem to reinforce this inward gaze. Insight, in the sense of seeing clearly, and not as looking within, is quite different. Through insight I may, for example, recognise harmful relationships and choose to make changes in my life. I see insight as more outward and forward looking: it is liberating without a superficial “I must think positive” attitude.

Drained of energy: where is the energy going?

It is not unusual for people who are feeling depressed in spirit to feel lethargic, such that even getting up and out of bed can be a hurdle. A question I consider with people is: what is sapping your energy, where is your energy going? There are countless possibilities. It may be the constant emotional demands of others. It might be the effort (maybe unawares) of trying to keep painful memories suppressed.  It could be the perpetual and overwhelming demands of each day or worries and fears for the future. Painful experiences and memories are not restricted to brain activity but have an impact across our bodies. The tensions, discomfort, and deep inner pain and turmoil can soon be re-experienced in situations or conversations that touch the raw nerves of previous trauma. All this drains our life and energy. Others may then say that we are depressed.

Retreating into ourselves

The weight of sadness, injustice, trauma, and/or a feeling of powerlessness to stop or change our circumstances might lead to us retreating - stepping back from others and the life around us. This may be a withdrawing into oneself, perhaps a wish for self-protection from pain: there may be an overwhelming sense of despair and foreboding too. When this has happened, it takes time and courage to re-emerge and face the pace and pressures of life again.

When living seems unbearable

There are those who frequently think of death and perhaps ending their lives. It may be that this is more a cry that the pain of living seems unbearable, rather than a wish to die. I am not suggesting that some people do not want to kill themselves, but that if their pain in living could be reduced they might regain the wish to live.

Bereft of meaning

For the serious thinker, the popular aspirations today for riches, fame or celebrity do not bring meaning or purpose to life. Is there a sense in which life and our lives are meaningless? Many people are enlivened by the sense of purpose in raising a family. This can give new meaning to the grandparents too. But what about those who would love to have children but are unable? Might they struggle to find meaning and purpose? To dismiss anyone weighed down by these and similar existential questions as simply suffering from a so-called depressive illness seems trite and soulless.

Overwhelmed by depressing news

Erich Fromm quote

Prior to the modern era people primarily experienced the pains and concerns of their immediate family, their extended family and the local community. But today, through TV and other media, we hear of personal pain, tragedy, threat and violence repeatedly from all corners of the globe. Most media news is depressing news: for some people this proves just too much, especially if they have experienced high levels of distress and/or personal tragedy.

Constant reminders that life is fragile

Not only the experience of losing a loved one, but the constant flow of media news of death and suffering can also disturb our sense of security and remind us how uncertain and fragile life can be.  In the words of the philosopher Martin Heidegger, our living is a “Being-towards-death” and there is little getting away from this fact.

Businesses have a vested interest in making us dissatisfied

The sense of alienation, dissatisfaction and despair that many people feel (though often misleadingly diagnosed as depression and anxiety disorders) can be symptomatic of living in an ailing society which is driven by the competitiveness and ruthlessness of a capitalist and consumerist society. Through advertising we are repeatedly told we need more and better, thus instilling a perpetual sense of dissatisfaction and leading us to place our hope and comfort in things that often fail to really satisfy. And as we mentioned here, one person’s gain in a capitalist society can be another’s loss.

A superficial "you must be positive" mindset

There is a widespread expectation that we should both think and speak positively; but this can be a false positive. Trying to live up to this expectation is not only wearisome but can mean that there is a disconnect between how we feel and the pretence we front. Consider, for example, the athlete who has just performed poorly but then pours out a torrent of positive speak to the TV interviewer - as if one cannot have regrets, or momentarily at least, experience a sense of disappointment. It can be de-pressing to have to live up to unrealistic expectations in life and to feel we need to deny our true feelings.

What is not helpful

“Snap out of it” people may say. “Stop feeling sorry for yourself” might be the rebuke. These sorts of comments betray a frustration and hurtful sense of misunderstanding. But it is fair to ask, “If there is a way out, what is it?” As depression is not a single entity with a singular experience – but rather a range of experiences and countless causative factors – any answers will be specific to each person. We consider all sort of possibilites here.

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