Depression can be a devastating experience. When it is at its height, a dark cloud seems to pervade one's being. Depression feels like a poison that seeps through a person's whole body, its steady onset irresistible. Where does it come from? The person afflicted may try valiantly to check its progress and yet it seems to advance with relentless strength. It may start in the head as a dark presence; it then moves to fill the whole body. When it has taken over completely, life hardly seems worth living. Who could go on in this condition?
What can a person do? Is it possible to adopt a way of thinking that will counter depression? How wonderful, if so. But if thinking will solve depression, was it incorrect or wrong thinking that caused the depression in the first place? If this is the case, then people must accept responsibility for their condition. How do you tell a person who is severely depressed that the dark, poisonous cloud within has come from habitual thought-patterns?
The modern view of depression is that it results from a chemical imbalance in the brain. Antidepressants, if taken in the right dosage over a period of time, allow the brain to be healed of this imbalance. But the question still remains: what causes the chemical imbalance? Thus far, no clear answer to this question has been given. Something has brought about a physical change in the brain that needs correcting. The fact that the cause of this change remains obscure may distress the person with depression. The explanation that the cause is a physical one may remove one terrible attendant feeling that the person may feel: guilt. If wrong thinking causes depression, then people must feel guilt over their contribution to their condition. Even if positive thinking holds out marvels of hope for the depressed individual, there always remains the fear that old patterns will recur again and bring on the depression. If depression is a physiological condition which has arisen from obscure causes, then the depressed person can put trust in a physical remedy, even though its action may prove somewhat slow.
In some cases a depression will suddenly lift. People carry on with their lives and return to their former selves. With no change in thought patterns, these individuals remain without depression. This feature of depression may support the view of it as a physiological condition. For some reason it is self-limiting. Mercifully it departs.
What do we find about attitudes to mental illness or depression from the past? The early Greeks believed that all mental activity took place in the chest region. This region was an "open" one. The gods could easily influence the ways in which someone thought or felt. If someone was courageous, then the gods put in courage. If one behaved wisely, the gods gave wisdom. If one was foolish, the gods stole away the mind. It would seem that mental illness also resulted from the interference of the gods. The person was not responsible. The later Greeks and Romans also saw divine intervention as the cause of unusual behaviour. Again the individual was seen as a victim.
In the Bible the picture of mental illness is that it comes from possession by an evil spirit. Healing comes when this spirit is expelled. The individual is a victim of this spirit or spirits, sadly in need of help. Divine intervention was usually thought necessary for any cure. If the evil spirit was cast out, the person appeared quite normal.
In the middle ages one view of the soul was that it had three parts. The bodily portion (anima) was concerned with all bodily functions. The mind (animus) was the seat of conscious thought. The spirit (spiritus) was the deepest part of the soul. It was immortal and survived a person on death. Ideally, a person, prayer and meditation would keep the spirit in the best condition. Meditation, or thought upon holy subjects, would feed it positive thoughts. Prayer would allow it gradually to be filled with God. The spirit by nature was empty. A person could control the way in which it was filled.
Here we find an early example where people are held responsible for their inner nature. If the spirit is filled only with negative thoughts and evil ideas, then the individual will be in negative state. If, on the other hand, the person fills the spirit with good and holy thoughts, behaviour of a like nature will follow. The filling of the spirit with negative thoughts could also lead to mental illness.
As we move into modern times, we find a similar view of inner consciousness in Freud. He speaks of the superego, ego, and the id. The ego is the conscious mind; the id, that which is concerned with bodily functions. The superego is the conscience, or part of the mind concerned with morals and guilt. Freud places great emphasis on the subconscious. All the experiences that one has had, from childhood and beyond, have had an effect upon the subconscious. It has a powerful capacity for affecting behaviour. In this view the person's past greatly influences current actions. Something deep within people is the cause of their illness. Even if they are not responsible for negative experiences, they must somehow recognize them and, learning of them, overcome their effects. Rather like the Greeks the person is seen as a victim. Unlike the Greeks, Freud believed that people must bring about the removal of the negative themselves.
Further research will be done on depression. Its insidious cause may be recognized. Perhaps someday it will be able to be prevented. Until this break-through occurs, the physiological explanation of depression seems most attractive and most merciful to the patient. Instead of burdening people with guilt over their "negative thinking", the route of medication brings hope. Medication takes time to work and the depression can be a lingering condition. But gradually light dawns and life once again has brightness.
Internet Mental Health (www.mentalhealth.com) copyright © 1995-2011 by Phillip W. Long, M.D.