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 years. 

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).