Three disempowering myths about treating depression
MYTH: That depression is a chemical imbalance
in the brain.
The increase in the rate of depression revealed
in epidemiological studies makes it clear that depression is not a biological
disease. Genes do not change that quickly. (Despite the explosion in genetic
research and gene mapping, and high hopes of finding a gene for everything,
no ‘depression gene’ exists because genes don’t work that way.)
Over the last three decades conclusive evidence
has mounted to show that the vast majority of depressions are learned,
created by the way we interact with our environment. We now know
that depression is not an event-driven phenomenon – it is not caused by
specific events per se. The majority of people exposed to adverse
life circumstances do not develop depression. The reaction of depression
is caused by how individuals have learned to respond to adverse life experiences.
Further support for the environmental or learned
view of depression is the evidence that depression responds well to certain
kinds of psychotherapeutic intervention. Moreover, such interventions greatly
reduce the rate of relapse compared to drug treatments based on the biological
model. The brain is sufficiently conditionable by experiences, and reconditionable,
that depressed people can be helped to adapt more effectively to the pressures
and uncertainties of modern living, whatever their history. They can learn
to respond to adverse life circumstances in better ways.
That there is a biological component to depression
is undisputed since all our emotions are expressed in the language of biochemistry.
Also, depression affects our biology by, for example, impairing our immune
system. But the idea that depression is the result of a chemical imbalance
in the brain, so disempowering and yet so fervently promoted by drug manufacturers,
is wrong. It is now clear that changes in serotonin levels in the brains
of depressed people are a consequence of depression, not the cause of it.
Serotonin levels fluctuate constantly and are directly correlated with
the effectiveness with which we live our lives. Life enhancing experiences
raise serotonin levels at least as effectively as drugs and more instantaneously
and with none of the inherent risks that taking antidepressant drugs involve.
MYTH: That depression must be allowed to run
its course and you have to suffer your way through it.
This romantic view, often suggested by person
centred counsellors and ineffective psychoanalytically oriented ‘psychotherapists’
and writers, has done much harm. It is shown to be a myth firstly by the
fact that depression does not ‘run its course’ for about a quarter of the
people who suffer it, whatever treatment they have. They can remain depressed
for years. Secondly, any depressed person who can reduce the amount of
REM (dreaming) sleep they are doing can come out of depression very quickly,
however long they have been depressed.
MYTH: That depression is ‘anger turned inwards’
and depressed people need to ‘get in touch with their emotions’ and ‘understand
their past’ to get out of depression
Any form of counselling or psychotherapy that
encourages emotional introspection is contraindicated for treating depression
because depressed people are already overwhelmed by emotion. An enormous
amount of research over the last ten years supports this view. Moreover,
with the new understanding of what depression is and what causes it, properly
trained counsellors can usually lift it rapidly without recourse to this
false ideology that has bedevilled counselling and psychotherapy for 100
For a more detailed exploration of depression
and how to treat it, see Breaking the Cycle of Depression by Joe Griffin
and Ivan Tyrrell available here (Human Givens
Publishing, £4.95, plus P&P).
This and a series of other books, monographs,
audio tapes and videos on mental health issues are available from the website
For training in effective counselling for depression,
contact MindFields College (+44 1323 811440).