The Other I

August 17, 2011

The legacy of depression

Depression is perhaps the most unexpected source of suffering in an affluent society.   People who are no longer living on the edge, who have reliable sources of food and shelter, sometimes with almost boundless spending capacity and social status, are often screaming with the psychic pain of depression.


The causes of depression are many.  Unlike great scourges like the plague or polio or small pox or malaria, depression is not caused by a single identifiable organism that is potentially halted by vaccines.  Depression is partly genetic, partly learned;  it is partly bio-chemical, partly psychological.

Depression tends to run in families.  Many characteristics which are not genetically influenced are generational — the language we speak, for instance – but in the case of depression, there is a genetic loading.  Not an absolute determination.  But some bio-chemistries are more prone to depression than others, and bio-chemistry is partly inherited.

But it is only partly inherited through our genes.  We know now that our bio-chemistry is influenced by environmental factors beginning in the womb.  The chances of my being depressed in adulthood are increased from day one if my mother is stressed during her pregnancy.  The stress may not be of her choosing or her responsibility – it may be due to famine, war, marital discord, financial difficulties – but a study of epigenetics has shown that  the anxiety felt by the mother actually influences the gene regulation of the embryo.

Unfortunately the causes of depression are not limited to the first nine months of our lives.  Studies of tens of thousands of children in the States and in Britain show that children who are abused, neglected or rejected are more than twice as likely to experience recurring depression as adults.   People prone to depression are far more likely to be thrown into long periods – months or even years – of anguish by life’s inevitable challenges – bullying at work, death of a loved one, the break-up of a significant relationship, worries about money, or the life changes that might come with retirement and subsequent feelings of uselessness and abandonment.

Depressive people are often exceptionally intelligent, but depression is not rational.  The black cloud that engulfs a person is not something that is dispelled by reason or logical arguments.  It can’t be fixed by replacing the worn out part, by throwing money at it, by buying things, even by giving the depressed person what they think at the moment they desperately want.

It is not, though, completely hopeless.  In fact, depression is amazingly treatable.  The biggest obstacle is often convincing the depressed person of that.  The very nature of depression often leads the person to argue that there’s no use trying.  They believe the causes of their depression are due to factors outside themselves – the economy, their spouse, the world’s suffering, their own failures.

Drugs can and do help bring some people back even from the edge, even of suicide.

Exercise is an immensely useful tool in keeping depression under control.

Interestingly, cognitive therapy, learning to think differently,  has as good a record for many people who are depressed as medication.  Learning new thought patterns can often , with effort and patience, lead to significant permanent change.

One can learn not to take ones depression at face value – to recognize that depression distorts.  One can learn not always to assume that the negative interpretation is inevitably right — the depressed can learn that they are loved for themselves, not merely for their usefulness or money or as a result of some neurotic need by the person who seems to care for them.  One can learn that bad news can often be turned into an opportunity rather than failure.

In my experience, this kind of change doesn’t always require therapy.

But it does always require courage.  And time.  And love.



  1. Very interesting and I agree. I am a big fan of CBT. There’s a lot to be said for truthful post-its reminding people of what doesn’t seem true. I was raised by a psychiatrist. Maybe that explains a lot! (Or not…)


    Comment by sanstorm — August 17, 2011 @ 9:03 pm | Reply

    • Thank you for sharing. I’m not surprised to learn that you were raised by someone who taught you to think. Education always helps, but thinking so often begins in the family. My father was an attorney and for me thinking began around the dinner table. Whether the attorney influence still shows in my preference for seeing both sides of the argument, I’m not sure. I can’t say I’d wondered if you’d been raised by a psychiatrist as such. You might see a certain effect though, not so much in content but in style.


      Comment by Terry Sissons — August 18, 2011 @ 11:27 am | Reply

  2. I have been interested in this field for years. The latest study of Epigenetic’s. My twin and I were born to a mother who was mentally ill from the age of 16 years at 900 grams in 1945 and had malnutrition twice before 5 years of age. There was no maternal bonding as was no father bonding. Mother was mostly catatonic most of our lives and had shock treatment even during her pregnancy. Their of course was abuse of all kinds (not from my mother) but from other family members. We looked after our mother from the age of 8 years and took her to the lunatic asylum as it was called in those days for her shock treatment. Due to our father never being there for us.
    We both failed at school and did not please our father as his son to his first wife matriculated at 14 years. However we always held down jobs and were successful in them gaining senior positions.
    I then got married little did I know at the time I was marrying a image of my father a gambler absent father to my two sons and into Domestic abuse. I had married into the same marriage I had lived as a child. It was every day chaos. That was living for me. After many years I finally came like machinery to a grinding halt and broke down and landed up in the mental health system and that was it for years on end the revolving door. Landing up with Bi-polar and PTSD it has been hell and I lost the only thing I had dreamed of having all my childhood and teenage years and that was a family.
    My sister went on as a mature age student to gain an Honours Degree, and we both stated an organisation called COMIC WA (Children of mentally ill consumers) and of course their Parents . We have just started a Parent Peer Support Workers Program where we have trained Peer’s who are parents who have experienced mental illness and have recovered. They are trained through a course that is specially devised and are supporting parents who need help and support to live a successful life of their choosing.


    Comment by Margaret — January 29, 2012 @ 6:56 am | Reply

    • I could not be stronger in my support for what you are doing. Gruelling as your own story is, you undoubtedly know even better than I that there are children and adults with even less support than you had. And even when someone wants to give support, they are often at a loss to know how to help those driven to despair by their depression, often made worse by “self-medication” in the form of alcohol, drugs, and partners bent on their own paths of self-destruction.

      You know from the inside what it is like, how sometimes the smallest gesture from someone else can make all the difference – for better or worse. You and your sister are providing the kind of help and education in Western Australia that can change lives. We need thousands of more – here in Britain, in America, and no doubt everywhere else in the world. It’s a big problem, and one that is getting bigger rather than diminishing. And anti-psychotic pill-popping isn’t going to solve the problem.

      With best wishes for what you are trying to achieve.


      Comment by theotheri — January 29, 2012 @ 2:51 pm | Reply

  3. Thanks for your kind words. If I won a million I would spread it around the world and help others to get what we are doing here done in their own countries. It does not take much to do its is all about kindness and understanding and love. It goes a long way to supporting someone who’s life may never have been shown love or compassion.
    I am very lucky to have been given the good fortune despite the challenges put in front of me to have got some of my dreams come true and this was one of them to get Parent Peer Support.
    I will if you like send a few ideas to you on how we went about establishing our program and the business plan etcetera.
    in Kindness Margaret


    Comment by Margaret — January 29, 2012 @ 4:39 pm | Reply

    • Thank you, Margaret, for offering to send me additional material on your work. I would be very interested to read it. However, my personal circumstances would not permit me to implement them on any organization level, and so I would feel guilty should you spend any extra time and effort in doing this. I do have your website address, and have already identified someone whom I believe will find it supportive. I will continue to keep it in mind. Terry


      Comment by Terry Sissons — January 30, 2012 @ 11:40 am | Reply

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