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Depression and suicide: that nature-nurture debate

Posted Mar 27 2009 4:31pm

I was saddened to hear the news yesterday that Nicholas Hughes, son of poets Sylivia Plath and Ted Hughes,  took his own life at his home in Alaska at the age of 47.

His sister, Frieda Hughes, released the following statement:

“It is with profound sorrow that I must announce the death of my brother, Nicholas Hughes, who died by his own hand on Monday 16th March 2009 at his home in Alaska. He had been battling depression for some time.”

The news stories, of course, make the link with Plath’s suicide in March 1969, which has been the subject of numerous books, a film and literary scandal-mongering over the years. Hughes himself addressed the events and emotions around Plath’s death in his best-selling collection ‘Birthday Letters,’ published in 1998, shortly before his own death from cancer.

Viewed in this context, some reporters seem to have lent a tragic air of inevitability to reports of Nicholas’s death.

This article in The Times Online states:

Neither he [Nicholas], nor his sister nor their Poet Laureate father could ever fully escape the shadow cast by Plath’s suicide in 1963 and the personality cult that then sprang up around her memory.

Ted Hughes was hounded for the rest of his life by feminists and Plath devotees who accused him of driving her to her death by his infidelity.

In 1969 he suffered another terrible loss when his mistress gassed herself and their daughter in an apparent copycat suicide.’

It quotes lines from ‘Birthday Letters’ written by Hughes, describing Nicholas after his mother’s death, when his eyes: “Became wet jewels,/ The hardest substance of the purest pain/ As I fed him in his high white chair”.

In fact, Nicholas Hughes went on to become an eminent evolutionary ecologist, specialising in the study of stream fish, highly regarded by his colleagues and with a distinguished academic record. A family friend quoted in The Times article said:

“Nick wasn’t just the baby son of Plath and Hughes and it would be wrong to think of him as some kind of inevitably tragic figure. He was a man who reached his mid-forties, an adventurous marine biologist with a distinguished academic career behind him and a host of friends and achievements in his own right. That is the man who is mourned by those who knew him.”

As a therapist, I am particularly interested in the reporting of this story because the news of Nicholas Hughes’ death brings to public attention once again the important ongoing debate about whether depression can be inherited in families.

Despite prevailing popular belief, there is no known depression or suicide gene. We also know that certain thinking styles or ‘explanatory styles’ can be learned very easily and passed down from generation to generation. Rather than being inheritied genalogically, depression can be learned.

Also, we know that depression is not caused by external events - many people experience difficult and painful events every day without becoming depressed - but by the way that we represent the events of our lives to ourselves inside our minds.

There is so much that we now know about depression and so much that can be done to help people to feel better. Self-hypnosis, hypnotherapy to facilitate the release of suppressed emotions and to let go of unhelpful patterns of thinking, diet and exercise changes, together with the development of creative pursuits, the building of healthy and supportive relationships and a sense of purpose can all help people to recover permanently from depression.

It is my personal view that depression is often a powerful message from our subconscious minds that we need to take extra care of ourselves, or that something within us is trying deseprately to awaken, that a new phase of our life is ready to begin, that a part of us that we have split off from ourselves is telling us: ‘Listen to me! Pay attention!’

The Times article offers the highy controversial view that ‘Although there is acceptance that depression can be inherited, there is no known suicide gene that could connect Dr Hughes’s death to his mother’s.’

Is there ‘acceptance that depression can be inherited’? Well, yes, maybe… in the way that behaviors and patterns of thinking can be learned and passed down. But there is certainly no acceptance in research that I have read that depression has any genetic component.

The article quotes the opinion of Paul Farmer, the chief executive of Mind, the mental health charity, who says:

Suicide is a much more complicated event than simply being a question of genetics, but there is some evidence that if a member of your family has taken their life there can be a higher risk of people doing the same. However, it is often absolutely to do with what’s happening in the here and now rather than any urge that is more deeply rooted.

You know, when you think about it, this idea that X happens and therefore causes Y is so unhelpful to our sense of our life’s narrative. If your mother likes licorice and craves it during pregnancy, does that mean you will love licorice too; or, in fact, will you grow up hating even the smell of licorice? Can we really predict these things?

I suspect that Nicholas Hughes’s depression was a result of many factors. Perhaps he never addressed his feelings of grief and confusion over his mother’s death? Perhaps, as has been suggested in other reports, his depression had more to do with the conditions in Alaska, where freezing temperatures and long, dark winters are thought to lead to a very high incidence of depression and seasonal affective disorder.

Let us hope that it had nothing at all to do with a damaging belief that depression can be inherited genetically from one’s parents.

The only thing we can know with any certainty is that we cannot draw any easy or firm conclusions. I do hope that anyone with depression or anyone who has experienced suicide in their family will resist the  temptation to conclude that there is any inevitability about Nicholas Hughes’ story.

My condolences go to his family and friends. Let us hope that this high-profile story will contribute to debate and further understanding and to the more widespread knowledge that there is so much that we can do to help people to let go of depression and move forward with their lives.

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