What are the causes of depression and what, if anything, can be done to reverse this trend towards a spiralling mental-health crisis happening all around us, right under our very noses?
“If we don’t act urgently, by 2030 depression will be the leading illness globally” – World Health Organisation
There are immense costs involved with the growing epidemic of depression, not only financially – the cost to UK businesses alone comes in at a whopping £100 billion plus every year – but also a growing human cost too, with suicide rates continuing to rise in almost every area of the population. It’s not always easy to spot and there are mixed views on effective treatments available, but how does depression start and what can be done to treat, or even better, prevent it?
Depression in the workplace especially is increasing rapidly, with growing financial pressures on both staff and employers and a new generation coming into the workplace, lost in a world of social media burnout and cyber-bullying. Dealing with everyday life isn’t easy at the best of times, let alone in our sped up, 24/7 version and the pressures to keep up with the pace of it all.
The rise in suicide rates throughout the UK is a benchmark of the extremes of this condition and it’s increasing in some rather surprising places. Veterinary practices are a sad example of this, with between 4 and 10 times the national average. Bearing in mind that for every 1 suicide, there are 9 further unsuccessful attempts, Vets have the ways, means and knowledge to carry it out effectively, so if they really want to do it, they will do it. That’s an astounding rate of mental-health issues going on right under our noses in areas you would least expect it.
On average, 1 in 5 people are currently suffering mental-health issues and 1 in 15 people will have attempted suicide throughout their life. Which means someone in your office, your gym or your social circle is suffering right now and trying not to show it. It’s also almost certain that you know someone who’s seriously considered or even attempted to take his or her own life. What is happening here? How can we, a world-leading, civilised society, be in so much mental turmoil with seemingly no way to reverse the trend?
Let’s look into this in depth and try to unravel what is really going on.
Firstly, there are no definitive tests for depression – no blood tests or brain scans – merely questionnaires (PHQ-9 – created by Pfizer) asking about your moods and life interests in the past, present and future. According to one online test, I’m OK today. Which is interesting, because yesterday I took the same test and had moderate depression.
Which means testing for depression matters less about the reality of your condition and more about the reality of your ‘current’ condition. This is where we start to delve deeper because the actual cause of depression, is transient thought (depressed thought = depressed feeling) and the cause of the depressed thoughts is where we need to head to next. So let’s start by looking at chemical imbalances within the brain.
Chemical imbalances are often cited as a key factor in the cause of depression*. Neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine all play a vital role in regulating our moods and motivation. If the production of these chemicals becomes faulty, then regulation of mood and drive will be affected. This is logical. But let’s take a step back for a moment and ask ‘how’ this regulation might become faulty.
Take bipolar disorder, which is characterised by recurrent episodes of mania, depression or inter-episode mood instability. The causes of the chemical imbalance within the brain which leads to bipolar disorder might be triggered by a traumatic life event; hormone imbalances; changes to circadian rhythms; alcohol or amphetamine-induced states and many other factors besides, but their arrival comes in only one format… thought. Healthy thought becomes unhealthy thought and this affects the brain chemistry as a result.
Take alcohol from the list above as an example. It affects excitatory and inhibitory neurotransmitters at the same time, kind of like putting your foot on the accelerator and the brake pedals simultaneously. It suppresses the release of glutamate, which causes brain functioning to slow down, at the same time amplifying the production of gamma-Aminobutyric acid, which is responsible for helping you to calm down. Add to the mix an increase of the reward chemical dopamine (making you think you are feeling great) and you’re speeding up and slowing down all at the same time. Which might explain the euphoric singing whilst staggering down the road you see at kicking out time.
Traumatic life events appear to trigger a malfunction of brain chemistry, although this is down to the thoughts created and is not dependent on the outside event. Which is why two people can experience the same trauma and have different reactions to it. The body’s natural resilience will correct any imbalances that do occur unless a seismic shift has kicked the chemical imbalance out so far that it stays out of balance.
Our thinking, therefore, is what creates the imbalance, not the other way around. We’ve been looking at this backwards, trying to treat the hardware, rather than looking at the software running on it.
For instance, there have been studies conducted to show that just three minutes of catastrophic thinking can lead to ongoing depressive states of up to 24 hours. We carve out the neural pathways with thought and negative thinking carves out negativity on cue. But here’s where it’s easy to miss something vitally important in this whole process. It’s normal to think negative thoughts. In fact, it’s part of our evolutionary survival heritage. Unless we were able to scan our environment and pick out potential problems (usually large furry creatures sniffing us out for lunch), then our genes would not have survived and thrived. Walking along whistling sweet nothings and thinking positive thoughts was the quickest, most surefire way to end up as a Lion bar.
So it’s less about the type of thinking which we do and more about how we react to this thinking. It’s OK to feel a negative thought, as long as we don’t get down on ourselves for doing so. In the same way that we can’t control the weather from day to day, we can just be OK when it’s raining rather than complaining about it. The weather is going to change eventually, regardless of how much we moan about it.
It’s our thinking ‘about’ our thinking, which appears to be the key. How we react to our thoughts is more important than the thoughts themselves, as Kelly McGonical highlights in her 2013 TED talk called: How to make stress your friend.
By looking at the imbalance that occurs when our thinking ‘about life’ goes awry, we can then start to understand what to do about it next. And the answer to that one is very simple. Nothing. We are human beings, being human. We have natural ups and downs. These natural states of being are defined and regulated by our moods (which in turn are regulated by our brain chemistry), and tell us about the state of our thinking in the moment, which is in-turn delivered as a feedback loop designed to give us useful information about what to do next. Feeling cr*p? Hunker down and ride it out. Feeling great? Time for action.
This might also explain the deterioration in the mental states of those who feel bad and turn to exterior means to try and ‘fix their mental state’. They are looking to something on the outside as a fix when there is nothing to fix if they leave it be. They’re compounding the misunderstanding and wondering why it doesn’t work.
As the Theosopher, Syd Banks once stated: “If the only thing people learned was not to be afraid of their experience, that alone would change the world”.
We live in a world of thought, but we are not our thoughts. We are having thoughts and feelings, but we are not those thoughts or feelings, we are the experiencer of them. In the same way that the glass is not the liquid, we contain the power to think and experience the products of that power (thoughts) through our feelings. We are not the power itself, nor are we the providers of it, or the results of its outputs… we are the perceiver – that is all. We are the awareness of the experience. The essence of being human is beyond these ‘personal thoughts’, and when we leave the system alone to rebalance itself, it works better than when we get involved. Understanding this process is, therefore, the key to rebalancing the equilibrium and getting back to our innate mental health.
Yes, we can use anti-depressants, but they need to be the right ones for the right chemical rebalancing, and they are only doing what will happen naturally anyway – kind of like body-hacking the inevitable. I personally don’t have a problem with this, but I also think it’s unnecessary – however, I’m lazy and always looking for shortcuts.
The least effective treatment of all though is identifying thoughts as something real, which needs to be dealt with. Thoughts are the by-product of the system, not the creating force behind it. Thoughts are the reflection of our state of mind at any given moment. Working with the outputs (thoughts), is like trying to deal with subsidence in a building by papering over the cracks. We’re only ever addressing the symptoms, which is where this epidemic of depression stems from. If we can get back further upstream, we can stem the flood rather than mopping up the puddles.
So, where does that leave us now? Well, there is hope on the horizon and actually, just by reading this article; you have already been pointed in the direction of a potential solution.
Like anything in life, understanding and knowledge give us the ability to do more with what we’ve been given. By understanding the nature of the human experience and how we all create our version of life using the power of Thought – and although this is the same for everyone, the results of the process differ – we are levelling the playing field for the first time. No two people can ever have the same thoughts about anything, ever.
This explains every argument you’ve ever had and every war currently taking place on the planet. Our thoughts are less a reflection of what’s ‘out there’ and more a projection inside our heads. In fact, everything we experience is taking place in our heads and nowhere else. We experience our perception, not life directly. This is the same process, whether you are the Dalai Lama or Kim Jong-un.
This is the starting point to leverage the human condition and to go deeper into preventing the outputs of misunderstanding how we are all creating our experience. Depression is a symptom of this misunderstanding. Chemical imbalances still need to be addressed, but by pointing to the innate health of the individual rather than labelling them as broken, we can begin the process with the most powerful tool known to humanity: love.
With an understanding that there is nothing to fix, we can speed up recovery rates and reverse the trends outlined above. By exploring this new way to look at mental-health, not the illness, we can start to give back hope to those who are nearly all but out of it. And maybe, just maybe, we can save a life or two as well.
*I am aware that there are many different types of depression, but for the sake of this article, I am going to use the collective term.