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Mental health and personal growth – depression as an adaptation

Posted Sep 04 2009 9:06am

Hayden Christensen According to The National Institute of Mental Health, approximately 21 million American adults, or about 9.5 percent of people 18 and older in a given year, have a mood disorder, including major depression, dysthymia (chronic, mild depression), and bipolar disorder.

[From my article Making Good Use of Depression. Photo: actor Hayden Christensen from the book Crying Men, by photographer Sam Taylor-Wood.]

As someone with a long-term but (usually) mild form of it, I have viewed depression as an unwanted condition, something that gets in the way of creativity and personal growth, and should be treated with medication if severe enough. But a number of writers and researchers have described potential values of depression.

In their Scientific American article Depression’s Evolutionary Roots, Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson, Jr. point out that “the pressures of evolution should have left our brains resistant to such high rates of malfunction. Mental disorders should generally be rare — why isn’t depression?”

depression as adaptation

One possibility, they say, is that “in most instances, depression should not be thought of as a disorder at all… we argue that depression is in fact an adaptation, a state of mind which brings real costs, but also brings real benefits.

“This is not to say that depression is not a problem. Depressed people often have trouble performing everyday activities, they can’t concentrate on their work, they tend to socially isolate themselves, they are lethargic, and they often lose the ability to take pleasure from such activities such as eating and sex. Some can plunge into severe, lengthy, and even life-threatening bouts of depression.

“So what could be so useful about depression?

“Depressed people often think intensely about their problems. These thoughts are called ruminations; they are persistent and depressed people have difficulty thinking about anything else. Numerous studies have also shown that this thinking style is often highly analytical. They dwell on a complex problem, breaking it down into smaller components, which are considered one at a time.”

Other writers have also talked about the potential values of depression, including psychiatrist Kay Redfield Jamison and Tom Wootton, both quoted in my article above, and in the section Depression and Creativity.

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