Mental Depression Afflicts Millions—Why?
THE symptoms may not seem overly serious at first. Perhaps a person suffers from fatigue, stomach cramps or chest pains. He may find himself waking up at wee hours of the morning for no apparent reason; or the trouble may be difficulty in getting to sleep. Possibly a change in appetite has led to weight loss; or maybe the problem is overweight due to a sudden splurge of eating.
Who of us has not experienced some of these symptoms? They may indicate a number of simple physical ailments. But what if they persist and an examination by a physician reveals that there is nothing wrong physically? In such a case is the ailment merely imaginary? Not necessarily.
Fatigue, physical pains and change in eating or sleeping habits can constitute what doctors call “the somatic mask of depression.” What is depression? Why does it afflict people?
The Earmarks of Depression
Everyone feels ‘down in the dumps’ on occasion. This should not cause alarm, for off days of this type are not what doctors mean when they speak of depression. During an interview recorded in U.S. News & World Report, a leading psychiatrist, Dr. Bertram S. Brown, explained the significance of the term: “Clinically, we mean something more serious when we speak of depression. In the intermediate stage, victims feel a lack of energy and interest in life that hangs on for a few days or a few weeks and affects their life functions.”
A depressed person finds it difficult to perform even the most routine tasks, such as getting dressed, brushing teeth, preparing breakfast and making routine decisions. “The third level, where no one can doubt that you’re dealing with depression,” continues Dr. Brown, “is when somebody literally sits in a corner—almost paralyzed—looking into space.”
And usually depression has another characteristic symptom. Commenting on findings by Dr. Aaron Beck, an article in the New York Times Magazine stated:
“Beck did find, as he reports in his book: ‘Depression: Causes and Treatment,’ that the dreams [of depressed persons] repeated, night after night, constant themes of inferiority, of unattractiveness, deprivation, incompetence. . . . Beck noticed these gloomy sleeping fantasies were matched by an equally negative way of thinking during the day. For example, a depressed woman whose friend was late for an appointment became convinced that the friend no longer cared for her, that no one liked her, and that in fact she was unlikable.
“Beck postulated that almost all the thoughts of depressed patients are ruled by what he calls ‘the cognitive triad of depression’—negative views of the world, themselves and the future. He found that depression-prone people exaggerated minor obstacles into impossible barriers, considered themselves stupid or hopelessly incompetent and saw the future as only full of more painful failures.”
Doctors often speak of depression as either “acute” or “chronic.” Acute depression sets in from some external cause, such as the death of a loved one, divorce or some other severe loss. Depending on the seriousness of the cause, acute depression may last weeks or even months; but then it disappears. On the other hand, in chronic cases the crippling effects of depression persist month after month.
Another type of sufferer is the “manic-depressive.” This person seesaws between a “manic” (from manikos, Greek for “mad”) state and one of depression. During a manic state, the individual becomes overactive, impulsive, often disorderly in speech and thinking. Then follows a “normal” period, after which he plunges into depression. Some remain in the manic state most of the time, with only brief low periods. Others are just the opposite, remaining depressed most of the time. And there are those who, for the most part, remain on an even keel except for brief ups and downs.
“Common Cold of Mental Disturbances”
How widespread is serious depression? According to Dr. Nathan S. Kline of the New York State Department of Mental Hygiene, “it has been estimated that 15 per cent of the adult population of the United States has some degree of depression which is serious enough to be in need of treatment. This amounts to about 20 million people, which makes it not only the most frequent psychological disorder but also one of the most common of all serious medical conditions.” Depression is so widespread that it has been called “the common cold of mental disturbances.”
Studies report that women outstrip men in suffering from depression by a ratio of about 2 to 1, though some claim that this is because women are more willing to admit that they are depressed. Depression afflicts all races and every social and economic level. While the malady is most common between the ages of sixty and seventy, it strikes all age groups and has been rising among persons in their twenties.
Why do so many millions of persons suffer from depression?
Human Society a Factor
Much study has gone into uncovering the root causes of mental depression. Flaws in human society constitute one main source of the problem.
Illustrating an aspect of this are comments by Dr. John Schwab, of the University of Florida College of Medicine: “We’re in an era of change right now. Old values such as the old work ethic are being rejected and people are caught in an ideological vacuum. Kids see that the fruits of four hundred years of scientific progress may be more bitter than sweet—but they don’t know what to put in its place, and consequently there is a sense of futility.” Because of this, many disillusioned youngsters seek “escape” through drugs and other means. “The search for highs among the young,” observes Dr. Schwab, “is often only a flight from the lows.”
Also contributing to the rise in depression is “supermobility.” Families that keep changing their places of residence, hopping about from house to house and city to city, do not stay in one place long enough to build solid relationships with other people. A psychiatrist at the Massachusetts Mental Health Center wrote: “Psychiatrists around Boston have been aware for some time of what is called ‘the Route 128 syndrome’ or in Florida ‘the Cape Kennedy syndrome.’ It is found in young families who have moved too much, and its components are a husband too centered in his career, a depressed wife and troubled children.”
Sometimes depression results when a person reaches a “plateau” in his life after many years of painstaking labor. A hard-driving business executive may finally achieve the top position in his company, only to realize that he no longer has a goal in life. Housewives in their forties and fifties often suffer from what psychiatrists call “empty nest syndrome.” By this time their children usually have grown up, their husbands are at work for most of each day and they must face lonely hours in houses devoid of people.
What about the feelings of inferiority that often accompany depression? Here too the responsibility may rest with human society. How so? Because it is often at a tender age that children are made to feel unattractive. Their peers may ridicule them if they are unable to do what the majority consider the “in” thing. If a youngster tends to be clumsy and uncoordinated, schoolmates and playmates can influence the child to believe that he “can’t do anything right.” Children of this type often combine the generalization: “I am weak,” with the value judgment: “It’s disgusting to be weak.” Such youths are likely candidates for depression.
During recent years considerable research has gone on to show that in many cases depression may be due to faulty chemical activity in the brain. Throughout the brain are scattered “biogenic amines.” These chemical compounds are especially concentrated in the “limbic system,” a part of the cerebrum that has much to do with emotions. Scientists have connected three of these amines—dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin—with the transmission of impulses from one brain cell to another.
Interestingly, experiments with both animals and humans have shown that depression results from taking drugs that reduce the level of amines. On the other hand, experimental animals showed notable liveliness when their amine level was increased. Notes the New York Times Magazine:
“An international research team of British and American scientists in 1968 added new circumstantial evidence to support the amine theory when they found that the brains of patients who had committed suicide seemed to show some evidence of reduced amine levels. And a recent study of manic-depressives added further support: The urine of manic-depressive patients during their manic period showed increased excretion of norepinephrine, and the exact opposite after they had shifted to the normal phase or the depressed phase.”
Do you have symptoms of depression? What can you do to cope with melancholy feelings? These questions are discussed in the following article.
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Mental depression is “one of the most common of all serious medical conditions.” It afflicts all races and every social and economic level.
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“Depression may be due to faulty chemical activity in the brain.”