This is a question that has been on my mind for some time, and I’m choosing courage over silence to share my perspective on this word, my relationship with it, and why I think those in the West might just take some comfort from what I have to say.
If you’ve followed my journey, you’ll know that in 2016 I was clinically diagnosed with depression. The diagnosis took all of ten minutes and the prescribed drugs were in my hand within thirty. I was fortunate to have a great therapist at the time who helped me make sense of my depression. Let me share some thoughts that came from this therapy and the personal insights that have followed my awakening in Peru.
What causes depression? We don’t really know. Brain scans reveal different parts of the brain lighting up (and not lighting up) but in many cases, we simply don’t know. Anecdotally, if you speak to people who have experienced depression, they’ll often tell you it was triggered by a major life event – a bereavement, the end of a relationship, losing a job. In such cases, we might clumsily say these are "pillars of identity”. So many of us are defined by what we do for a living, who we love and where we live. When any one of those things comes under threat or is destroyed, it can be devastating - I can vouch for this.
What are the symptoms of depression? Whilst everyone’s experience is unique, those suffering will often list some of the following symptoms:
- Continuous low mood or sadness
- Feeling tearful
- Not getting enjoyment from life
- Feeling anxious or worried
- Feeling hopeless or helpless
- Feeling guilt-ridden
(Source: NHS Website)
It’s not a nice place to be, trust me. Everything I used to enjoy paled into insignificance. Dark clouds followed me everywhere. I had negative thoughts about myself and others. My motivation fell close to zero. I was frequently suicidal.
How do we treat depression in the UK? Mainly via medication. In 2016, the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) prescribed a record number of antidepressants. Our solution to most mental health problems in the western world is to focus on the individual at the exclusion of the wider environment. If we do look at environment, it's almost always localised. Whilst taking antidepressants, people report feeling “steady” and in many cases “numb” – neither happy nor sad. I’m certainly not anti-medication. I know these drugs have saved lives, kept roofs over people’s heads and saved others from almost certain ill fate. But I'm keen to offer a different perspective. I’ll caveat this one by saying this is my own opinion, based almost exclusively on personal experiences.
I’m very outspoken about the damage I think western cultural ‘norms’ are doing to our collective wellbeing - we fundamentally aren’t cut out for what they demand from us. Capitalism relies upon you spending money on things that you know deep down won’t make you happy. You have an emotional void to fill, a yearning for something more and you've been conditioned to think that this void can be filled by working harder, furnishing your life with possessions and elevating your social status. Western economies can only survive when this conditioning is successful – they rely on your blind faith that this approach to life and living is serving your best interests.
And why wouldn’t you? We have excellent infrastructures in the West. Most of us are fortunate to live in homes with clean running water, heat and light. If we get ill, we can access good healthcare and the best medicines. Many more of us enjoy clothes, smartphones, holidays abroad, and so on. And yet the hole remains unfilled. With moments of relief being infrequent, you still find yourself yearning.
Irrespective of your religious beliefs, you are an emotional, spiritual being. I use the word spiritual not to describe religion, but as a term to cover all things emotional – love, belonging, kindness, compassion. We are made for these things. In Brene Brown’s latest book – Braving the Wilderness – she puts forward the idea that we are only built to love and be kind to others. For us to ignore homeless people in the street, we must first dehumanise them. For us to condone killing others in war, we must first believe them to be less human than we are. For us to treat the animals that we breed for meat and dairy produce with such barbarity, we must suppress our very natural instincts, which see them as emotional beings capable of love the same as us. Whether it be world leaders promoting extreme forms of nationalism or governments using sub-human language to describe people who commit crimes, in the West we are experts at creating “us" and "them” and we are incredibly experienced at suppressing our instincts.
I struggle to see how suppressing all these things, which we must be experiencing on some level, can't be having a significant detrimental impact at our spiritual core. If we are built for love, kindness, compassion, and to support each other, then it doesn’t take much to see that the cultural norms of the West are diametrically opposed to these things. The sub-text of Western culture is “accumulation of wealth is the route to happiness, other people's prospering is a threat to your own wellbeing and community spirit is for the weak and vulnerable.”
So back to depression. What if depression is simply a process that happens when someone ‘wakes up’ to this new truth – that the world in which they find themselves is no longer fit for purpose? What if depression is when you consciously begin to realise that you are built exclusively for love, belonging, kindness and compassion - and that you are no longer able to suppress or un-see the suffering you have been conditioned to accept as normal? Let’s look at those symptoms again:
- Continuous low mood or sadness – why wouldn’t you feel sad when you can see how lost we are in the West?
- Feeling tearful – why wouldn’t you want to cry for your fellow humans, and yourself?
- Not getting enjoyment from life – when you can no longer ignore what you knew dep down already - that your possessions and social status aren’t making you happy
- Feeling anxious or worried – these can be very destabilising realisations
- Feeling hopeless or helpless – yes, changing the course of humanity in the West can feel like a big task!
- Feeling guilt-ridden – understandable – you’ve spent your life up until this point feeding the things that are fundamentally harming you and others.
What could this mean? The World Health Organisation spoke out last year to say we are effectively in the midst of a global pandemic of depression. Applying these insights, this could mean great hope. Because by definition, it means we have millions, if not billions of people in the process of waking up. Of course, in order to keep economies running, we need to keep these people asleep. Yet it seems in many cases, this is proving impossible. What would happen if everyone living with depression fully woke up to what I’m suggesting here? Would they still feel the need to spend money on things they don’t need? Would they still want to break their back for a job they don’t enjoy, just so they could fund a lifestyle they now realise will never make them happy? They’re rhetorical questions of course, but they start to challenge how we treat this so-called disease - and whose agenda we are subject to when doing so.
I’ve always believed that the earth is much smarter than we think. Some say that natural disasters will balance our fragile ecosystem, but what if something much subtler is happening to wake us up? I’m fortunate to know a number of awakened souls. They are people who have a deep love – for themselves, for others, and for the planet.
What could this mean for how we treat depression? Well, first it’s only a theory and a very personal one at that. But for now, I’d just like to invite your thoughts. I’ll be speaking more on this, and doing research as part of my studies, but let’s start a conversation. Feel free to comment, or message me directly.
I'm Adam, a U.K. based Life Coach working with people across the globe.
I struggle the same as every other human on the planet, but I think that’s what makes me credible. I’m just a regular guy, with people skills that I enjoy using. My sole focus is to help others improve their lives, which is ultimately how I improve mine.
I am a curious humanitarian and I speak as I find. I love to travel and I buzz off meeting new people. I live in Manchester, U.K.