DEPRESSION AS A TOOL
I was fascinated by your recent article “Depression’s Evolutionary Roots,” by Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson, Jr. But it left me with a question. How does the model of depression as a problem-solving adaptation account for depression caused by an irreparable social situation (such as the death of a loved one)? Rumination cannot resolve the problem, because these sorts of situations are unresolvable. I have seen many of my high school classmates become depressed over the loss of a close family member. How does this type of depression fit your model?
THE AUTHORS REPLY: Bereavement may seem, at first glance, to be a situation where intense rumination is maladaptive because one cannot “undo” the past. An event that cannot be undone, however, often causes other important problems that rumination may be designed to deal with. The loss of a loved one means losing crucial emotional or material support, creating new difficulties that may take months or years to surmount. The analysis that takes place in depressive rumination can help bereaved people effectively manage some of these problems and rebuild support in their social network. Although a loss might be truly irreplaceable, usually new relationships can be forged with people who can fill at least some of the roles of the lost loved one.
As one who has struggled with bouts of major depression since childhood, I find the notion that there is something “adaptive” about it bewildering. Granted, the term is used to describe a wide range of negative feelings, some of which surely are caused by real-world situations—and, therefore, sadness may force people to analyze the roots of their problems and find rational solutions.
But then there exists a much darker kind of depression that acts as a kind of lens through which the entire world is perceived. The most insidious aspect of this state is the conviction that “I’m perceiving myself as worthless not because of an emotional disorder but because I’m finally facing up to reality: there truly is no hope.” In this state of mind, the knowledge that “I’ve felt this way before, and things have gotten better” is utterly beside the point—that is surely not true this time.
The mood that accompanies this worldview is one of pure agony, and it certainly does not enable the sufferer to engage in a healthy analysis of real problems: indeed, the only rational course of action—assuming one has the energy—seems to be suicide. It is hard to consider anything about this mood disorder as adaptive!
New York City
THE EDITORS REPLY: Many readers wrote to us with similar concerns, pointing out that their experience of depression (or that of their loved ones) was so traumatic and debilitating there was surely nothing beneficial about it. As the authors note, some diagnoses of depression may be true instances of the disorder, but many, many more cases are not. According to Andrews and Thomson, “We simply believe that depression is overdiagnosed as a disorder—probably dramatically so.”