The incidence of depression has been increasing at an alarming rate. According to the Cross National Collaborative Group, the number of people struggling with depression has increased by about 10 percent every decade since 1910-and despite the pharmaceutical explosion of the past two decades, the increase shows no sign of slowing. If anything, the rate is going up faster than ever, making depression the leading cause of disability in the United States.
When I report this alarming statistic to the physicians, social workers, and other health professionals who attend my classes and workshops, I’ll usually hear someone say, “Oh, it’s not that depression itself is increasing, but only that people are reporting it more often.” But in fact, the statistics are not based on either patients’ self descriptions or doctors’ diagnoses. Rather, researchers over the years have investigated the U.S. population from an epidemiological viewpoint-seeking evidence for the existence of depression out in the community rather than in statistics from clinics, doctors, or hospitals. The data corne from a representative sampling of the population with whom researchers have done structured interviews designed to ferret out the symptoms of depression: low mood; impaired sleep and appetite; loss of energy, interest, motivation, and pleasure. In other words, no matter how individuals described their own psychological condition or whether they had ever been formally diagnosed, researchers have been able to infer that the incidence of depression was on the rise.
Not only is the rate of depression higher but it is occurring at an ever earlier age. The problem is spreading worldwide, too, so that the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that depression will be the single greatest cause of disability worldwide by the year 2025. WHO attributes the epidemic to the fact that more and more nations are “Westernizing.” Clearly, something about our modem way of life is making us sick. What, then, are the enemies of joy, the factors in our lives and our society that literally depress us? In my opinion, they are three:
1. Physical Imbalance and Toxicity:
Even though I come from a psychological and spiritual perspective, as a physician, I can never ignore the role of the body. I know that we’re all born with a certain genetic makeup that may cause more problems for some of us than others. Our inborn levels of resilience are simply different, and peopIe with low levels of resilience can more easily fall into depression.
But beyond what we’re born with come the choices we make and the world we’re surrounded by. The poor quality of food available to most of us-vegetables and fruits grown in mineral,depleted soil; animal products laced with hormones; processed foods laden with refined sugars and saturated in unhealthy fats; industrial, agricultural, and environmental toxins-threatens our mental as well as our physical health. Our brain is literally affected by the poisons that surround us, which promote inflammation, impede adrenal gland function, and burden our brain chemistry in a thousand different ways.
As if that weren’t enough, our sped up economic life subjects most of us to enormous levels of work, related stress, while the lack of social safety nets means that most of us are constantly worried about money. Lack of sleep, tension at home and at work, the insistence on a constant round of activity unrelieved by rest-all of these are major contributors to depression.
2. The Mind Runs Rampant:
Depression is not only a disease of the body, however. It’s also a disease of the mind. If our minds are aIlowed free rein, if they are allowed to run away with us, fretting endlessly over worries about the future, seething constantly with resentment against real or imagined grievances, or shutting down entirely in response to stress, we will sooner or later pay the price in depression.
Moreover, most of us don’t understand our mind’s role in creating our emotions, our experience of life, our mood, and even our physical health. Our lack of awareness means that we can’t find good strategies for dealing with our fearful, angry, or confused minds. Instead, we confuse our mind’s perceptions with reality, and we allow our unwise mental strategies-worry, anxiety, blame, retaliation, denial, confusion-to determine the course of our lives. It’s a depressing way to live-and we are, accordingly, depressed.
3. The Illusion of Separation:
At the most profound level, we’re only human in community. Think of a poor, isolated soul on a desert is land, with no one to talk to for years at a time. Do you imagine that person-even if he or she never had to worry about food, shelter, or basic survival-would survive such an experience mentally, emotionally, and spiritually intact? It doesn’t seem likely. We’re meant to be part of one another’s lives, and we need to share in each other’s humanity. But in our modem culture, with its focus on individualism and separate achievement, we lose the sense of connectedness that keeps us sane-and depression is often the result.
It’s not only connectedness to other humans that we need. We’re part of the natural world, and losing that lifeline can also depress us more than we realize. We need, too, a link to the divine-to the universe itself-a sense of the higher purpose of which we are a part. Without the sense that the universe is a friendly place to which we belong as to a family, we have great difficulty not to become depressed.
I don’t want to romanticize the past. Certainly the world has always been a violent and frightening place, and the extended families and tight-knit communities that once characterized most of humankind were often claustrophobic, repressive, and cruel. Perhaps there is no healthy alternative in the past-but that doesn’t mean the present is healthy, either. Our isolated, alienated world is a breeding ground for depression-and the rapid rise of this painful disorder is the sad result.
Surrounded as we are by these enemies of joy, outside as well as within us, we need healing more than we ever have. In my observation, the kind of therapy usually offered in our modem system of HMOs and short.-term treatments is simply not enough for many people. Given the crisis in our health…care system-a crisis that extends to both patients and the system itself-shouldn’t we be looking for creative solutions to these thorny problems? Integrating Western science with Eastern wisdom is my own attempt to find a new paradigm within which we might seek healing.
Reference: (extracted from) The Chemistry of Joy: A Three Step Program for Overcoming Depression Through Western Science and Eastern Wisdom, authored by Henry Emmons and Rachel Kranz, A Fireside Book, published by Simon & Schuster, 2006, New York