A little over a year ago, I made a video about my struggles with depression as a yogi. As I had hoped, some people found it helpful, and I felt rather pleased with myself for having opened up about something that had theretofore been a point of embarrassment in my life. Subsequently, however, a part of me felt as though my work in highlighting certain mental health issues had seen its day. I had no desire for a reputation as the “depressed yogi.” I didn’t want people to feel sorry for me, or to think that I wouldn’t be able to support them through their own struggles when I had such a burden to bear myself. But I’m beginning to realise that these are some of the same reasons that so many people are unwilling to talk about their own issues with depression, anxiety, and similar challenges. And this is a huge part of the problem.
In last year’s video I mentioned that in the UK, suicide is the leading cause of death for men under the age of 50. It is also the leading cause of death of all Britons between the ages of 20 and 34. Let that sink in for a moment.
How are we, as a society, ok with this?
One tempting answer might be to place the blame on the nature of the disease. For the most part, it seems to keep itself conspicuous. Despite its prevalence, a large proportion of people who suffer from depression cloud themselves in so much shame about their condition that they feel that they must keep it a secret. Many might assume that such an attitude has no basis, but in reality the darkest corners of humanity harbour a small number of heinous individuals who enjoy making others even more miserable about their mental state. Here’s just a recent example of the kind of trolling that Matt Haig, author of Reasons to Stay Alive and outspoken advocate of mental health awareness, receives on a daily basis:
In the face of such despicable adversity, Haig remains admirably persistent in his goals to spread his message in order to provide hope, commiseration, and inspiration for those affected by depression. Myself included. Yet despite his remarkable steadfastness, this exact type of abuse has pushed a disturbingly large number of human beings off an already precarious edge.
This week and next, we will be exploring a few scientific, philosophical, and practical facets of the depressive experience—first in a social context, then on the individual level. I hope that adding my little voice and perspective to the mix will provide a small drop to the slowly growing ocean of awareness about these issues.
In the context of Darwinian natural selection, the increasing frequency of suicide has long left evolutionary biologists scratching their heads. Richard Dawkins made the idea of The Selfish Gene popular in his 1976 book of that title, the premise of which is that genes drive evolution in a self-serving manner which maximises their potential for survival and replication through reproduction. After all, every living being today descends from three billion years of life forms who have learned to thrive in rather hostile environmental conditions. Nature has selected for advantageous traits and weeded out characteristics which would have hindered survival and propagation. Why then, as descendants of such hearty stock, do so many of us carry such potentially life-threatening attributes such as a tendency toward depression and suicide? The scientific community has not yet found a point of agreement on this question, but a couple of recent ideas are worth considering.
In a 2009 paper, Paul Andrews and J. Anderson Thompson present a framework known as the analytical rumination hypothesis. According to this model, depressive tendencies emerged as a particularly effective way for the individual to contemplate and process certain challenges. Andrews and Thompson have collated a series of common characteristics which arise during depression, such as a waning of external interests and a slowing down of physical processes, which “might facilitate rumination by reducing the need to devote attention to the physical navigation of the environment and by keeping the depressed person in environments that are conducive to uninterrupted rumination.” This combines with “enhanced attentional control” (usually employed to obsess over something painful)—and an increased amount of REM sleep (a phase which helps consolidate memories) to create evidence for the idea that the depressive state causes a strikingly effective preponderance for ultimately productive pondering. As a result, the depressed person might find a solution to a challenge or embrace the need for a major life change in an accelerated fashion.
There is much to admire about this theory: its account of the physiological processes makes sense, and my own experience with depression supports the conclusion. Almost invariably, I have emerged from my bleakest moments with a positive paradigm shift. I see things more clearly and always end up feeling stronger than ever. For this reason, I am often grateful for these episodes in hindsight, however foul they may feel whilst I am within the darkness.
However, Andrews’ and Thompson’s idea leaves me with a pair of questions:
- If evolution selected for depression in order to provide us with a self-imposed moment of introspection, why does it seem as though depressed individuals continue to place such a high value on the opinions of others?
- Considering these inward moments ostensibly function in order to provide a positive solution for the affected individual, why does depression often end in such an irreversible way?
Where the analytical rumination hypothesis fails, a more recent conjecture succeeds. In this Nautilus article Matthew Hutson provides an illuminating account of the “bargaining model” of suicidality. Hutson describes how anthropologist Edward Hagen and his team studied a wide range of ethnographic data about suicidal behaviour in 53 diverse societies around the world. While looking for similarities and differences across cultures, he discovered that both depression and attempted suicide have remarkably strong social correlations. The data specifically appear to support the notion that the depressive spectrum may have evolved as an unconscious automatically activated bargaining tactic.
In order to understand the implications of this insight, I find it helpful to consider an analogy employed by Stephen Pinker in his book How the Mind Works. He likens the role of all strong emotions to the Doomsday Machine in Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. [If you haven’t seen this Stanley Kubrick film, please do us all a favour and remedy the situation as soon as you possibly can. If you need a viewing buddy, you know where to find me.] Set in the Cold War era, it tells the story of a rogue American Air Force General who has sent unauthorised, irrevocable orders to drop a nuclear warhead in the Soviet Union. American President Muffley gets wind of the situation when the bomb is on its way, and phones the Russian Premier in order to inform him of the mistake, in hopes to avert a full-blown nuclear war. Unfortunately for everyone, the Soviets have just installed a “Doomsday Machine”—a device which automatically detonates their entire arsenal of nuclear weapons the moment another nation should use a single one against them—as the ultimate act of deterrence. As it has not yet been publicly announced, President (played by Peter Sellers) learns about the Doomsday Machine from the country’s eccentric nuclear genius, Dr Strangelove (played by Peter Sellers), along with the Soviet Ambassador, in a War Room meeting:
Pinker explains that the evolution of emotions such as rage, jealousy, and even romantic love have evolved as a kind of internal Doomsday Machine. They provide of overriding the more cognitive and calculated functions of the mind as a powerful bargaining tactic, particularly because such emotions often elicit mutually assured negative consequences. For example, if I know that a berserker rage might incapacitate your usually cool demeanour in the event that I break a promise I have made to you, (or if I harm your family member, or if I dishonour you) I am far more likely to behave more carefully toward you. According to Pinker’s theory, this encompasses the essence of emotions. Like the Doomsday Machine, your potentially explosive nature functions as an effective deterrent if and only if (a) the fallout for you is likely to be as damaging as the fallout for me; (b) the mechanism is essentially irreversible; and (c) I, as the target, can somehow know that such an apparatus is in place. This explains the expressivity of emotions via our faces, and our innate ability to interpret these expressions correctly. Furthermore, if we did not observe cases where this fervour takes the individual all the way to its dramatic conclusion—most conspicuously, murder, but perhaps also non-lethal harm or even abandonment—we would have no real reason to heed the emotion in the first place.
Depression as a social bargaining tool may have evolved along these same lines. The symptoms of depression—including lethargy, lack of motivation, and sensory dullness—constitute an evolutionary costly combination. In nomadic times (and modern nomadic cultures), the affected individual would probably find himself less likely to obtain food and more likely to become somebody else’s food. Such a potentially life-threatening trait would require an extremely worthwhile benefit in order to become evolutionarily advantageous. Hutson offers the following analogy:
Consider baby birds. They don’t need to chirp for food if their mother is right there, and chirping attracts predators, making it costly. But the more hungry or sickly a chick is, the less it has to lose by being eaten, and the more it has to gain by being fed. So chirping louder is an honest signal of greater need for food, and the mother responds.
So what exactly does the depressed individual stand to gain? The attentiveness and support of those around him. When this person finds himself in a position where he may feel neglected or incapable of coping, depression or even attempted suicide may provide a means of acquiring the necessary attention from one’s clan. Having spent the vast majority of our existence as a species travelling with kinfolk, such states would very easily have attracted the required remedy. Dawkins’ concept of the “selfish gene” does not insinuate the selfishness of the individual organism; on the contrary, it indicates that the gene itself wants to ensure that its copies are preserved and passed along to the next generation. This means that we have a vested interest in anyone with whom we share genetic material—children, siblings, parents, cousins—as well as partners with whom we have created or might create our own offspring. Therefore, depression may essentially serve as a call to arms for the surrounding clan, who would not want to allow their family member to starve to death, suffer abandonment, or—crucially—take his own life.
Knowing that such a possibility exists may have made our ancestors caring and encouraging when confronted with a group member in such a state. This makes it feel all the more cruel to consider how often people are bullied past the point of no return: the depressive state may have evolved as a means to evoke support from those around us, but so many find precisely the opposite instead.
It is worth saying that the cruel behaviour actually comes from a tiny minority of individuals, often hiding behind the cold and dehumanising screen of the internet, who are simply ignorant about both the realities of depression and the potential consequences of their actions. Nevertheless, fear of such judgement causes many people to hide their suffering. Several others may well wish to open up to somebody who would certainly care, but the combination of an increased degree of social isolation in Western society and the maddeningly busy schedules of those in our social circles (including ourselves) creates few opportunities for the kind of emotional support people require to reduce the chances of becoming depressed or recovering from depression. All too often, modern ways of living do not provide this evolutionary tool with suitable circumstances to fulfil its purpose. And as this Finnish study finds, suicide rates have risen in a way that correlates convincingly to rates of urbanisation and modernisation. Modern living has allowed our inbuilt emotional brinkmanship to go further than it really needs to. Yet even in present times, the vast majority of suicide attempts do not, in fact, result in the loss of life; on the contrary, it can serve as an opportunity for everyone involved to reassess their priorities.
As Hutson takes care to point out, “[e]ven if depression evolved as a useful tool over the eons, that doesn’t make it useful today.” Consider how the modern world has adapted to other inbuilt emotional extremes. Our genetic predisposition to respond angrily to a slight of our honour eventually made nearly perpetual warfare unavoidable for the vast majority of our species’ existence, but we are now living in a time where international structures are in place to minimise such conflicts across the vast majority of the globe. In fact, as Yuval Noah Harari mentions in Homo Deus, any given human being is now almost eight times more likely to die by his own hand than in a war. And as Stephen Pinker argues in his most recent book, The Better Angels of our Nature, the world as a whole has never been a more peaceful place. There are obviously areas in which horrendous atrocities continue every day, and the peace that we seek will not be realised before these travesties end completely. But nor will it be anywhere near finalised before we begin taking giant steps toward eradicating our complacency toward the appalling and climbing rates of suicide which receive far too little of our attention.
I feel the need to say that I do not intend for anything I am presenting here to create a sense of guilt in anyone who has lost a loved one in this manner. However unnecessary it is, it is also completely normal to feel guilty when someone you care about takes their own life. I myself have been doing a sad dance with these feelings with regard to my mother's suicide for nearly nine years. But more than guilt, the knowledge and wisdom I strive to acquire has led me to become more and more committed to being there for those I might be able to support. And as a person who has been prone to depression, I realise that it is critical that I make it my own responsibility both to surround myself with caring individuals—and, crucially, to accept their support when they offer it. The more I learn, the more I feel that depression is at least as much a social issue as an individual one, and that we all need to help empower both society and the individual with the awareness necessary to help mitigate its consequences.
The name of the game is to show up for each other; however, we need to be equally willing to show up for ourselves. Next week, we’ll discuss the significance of philosophy, yoga, and the body-mind with regards to depression on an individual level: what might be possible, and how we might achieve it.
If you need help right away, please contact:
http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org / (US phone number) 1-800-273-8255
http://samaritans.org / (UK phone number) 116 123