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Why all the despair?


The numbers are unprecedented. Our ancestors had good days and bad days, I’m sure. But no way did they suffer from clinical depression as often as we moderns do.

I ask myself what’s going on. What could account for the spike, the sheer proportion of people suffering from episodic or ongoing symptoms of depression?

I remember Swiss psychiatrist C.G. Jung saying the crisis of the modern age was a crisis of meaning. That is, as our great symbol systems atrophied and died away, the collective psyche of our culture would experience a great emptiness. An inability to regularly wrest meaning out of existence. Without meaning, despair reigns.

And you can see despair all around us.

Not just as a reported “feeling symptom,” but also (and perhaps even more frequently) as a behavior. Or, as Jesus says to the devil in Calvin Miller’s book “The Singer”: “How do you make them cherish all this nothingness?”

That question gives me chills.

But I also find myself thinking that we moderns, compared to our ancestors, are quite emotionally “behind the eight ball.” I mean underdeveloped. Like, at once emotionally self-absorbed and seemingly unable to tolerate emotional discomfort. I don’t believe that, say, 500 years ago in some European village, the average person spent much time asking himself, “How do I feel?” Perpetual examination of feelings is the habit and “value system” of a post-Freudian world, indeed.

Sometimes I think the reason our ancestors didn’t always examine and inventory their feelings is because our ancestors found it easier to simply have and feel their feelings. That the human experience included regular rushes of intense emotion — positive and negative — was no big surprise nor Mensa mystery.

And maybe modern culture with its frenetic rush, constant sensory bombardment and relentless seductions is simply “crazy making.” That is to say, maybe it’s not a very healthy culture.

Whatever the case, depression is an increasingly familiar companion to modern people. Symptoms include:

Depressed mood nearly every day.

Loss of interest or pleasure in most activities.

Significant weight loss or gain.

Sleeping too much or not being able to sleep nearly every day.

Slowed thinking or movement that others can see.

Fatigue or low energy nearly every day.

Feelings of worthlessness or guilt.

Recurring thoughts of death or suicide.

Depression is not the same as sadness, though acute bereavement can provoke depressive episodes.

Not all depression feels depressed. There is such a thing as “agitated depression,” exhibiting itself not in malaise, emptiness and sadness; rather, manifesting as irritability, reactive antagonism and hostile outbursts.

Psychology once thought of depression and anxiety as two separate things. Today, many of us clinical types see anxiety as yet another symptom of depression.

Most addicts are suffering from depression. This includes smokers. Compulsive behavior of any type has this in common: The addict is trying to soothe the brain.

And then there are the “luck of the draw” folks who we believe are simply born with brains that don’t do a very good job of balancing chemistry. These people need pharmaceutical intervention and perhaps will require medication for life.

The stigma attached to psychopharmaceuticals always distresses me. Come on! It’s no different from being diagnosed with diabetes and having to take insulin for the rest of your life. The medicines are there. The medicines can help.

Twice in my own life I have taken anti-depressants. Once for a year. Once for eight months. Life came crashing down, and I just couldn’t pull myself out of the hole. I was so glad the medicine was there. It helped. In the hands of a competent doctor (someone with the extended training to know what medicine and what dose), you hardly know you’re taking it.

What you do know is that now there is a blessed “space” between thinking and feeling. You still have all your feelings, but now you have regained the ability to think about what you are feeling.

Don’t do nothing. Get help. Depression is an illness. Not a referendum of character.

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Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). Contact him at skalas@ reviewjournal.com.