Latimer: Depression: What is it good for?
Many times I have talked about the prevalence of depression.
Of all the psychiatric conditions, depression and anxiety are by far the most common and major depression is thought to affect roughly eight per cent of the population at some point in life.
Compare that with the less than one per cent of people who experience schizophrenia or bipolar disorder and it seems a very large number.
So what is it about depression that allows it to continue existing in our species at such a high prevalence?
We often think of depression as similar to an illness in any other major organ—simply a malfunction that needs to be treated.
Of course, treatment is important and helps many people in their ability to function on a daily basis, but we still don’t know why the illness continues to occur in such abundance.
Researchers have been studying this question for some time.
One theory involves the purpose or value of rumination—the process of pondering and thinking things over and over and over—that is one of the hallmarks of depression.
Individuals who self profess to be ruminators do seem to be more prone to depression as well as to being unnerved by stressful events.
Therapy often encourages people to get out of the habit of excessive rumination as it can lead to fixating on flaws or problems and thus extend negative thoughts.
According to proponents of this theory of depression, this kind of thinking is not necessarily bad but may be a useful skill for us to learn from our mistakes or sort through complex problems.
Some go so far as to say depression is a way of forcing the mind to focus on its problems.
A couple of studies have found some benefits to this kind of analytical thinking.
One found that individuals with depression seem better able to make complex decisions because they are more willing to spend the time to thoroughly analyze the options and information put before them.
Certainly, there have been and are today many great thinkers, artists and poets whose melancholy has undoubtedly informed and inspired their craft. I have talked about this in past columns.
At the same time, research has also shown individuals with major depression experience cognitive impairments in other areas and imaging studies have shown cumulative damage to some areas of the brain with each episode of depression experienced.
Perhaps an argument can be made that depression has some helpful element to it when it is mild —however, anyone who has experienced a severe depression can tell you the benefits are far outweighed in these circumstances.
A severely depressed person who cannot be motivated to get out of bed or who is experiencing a psychotic episode is not going to be a more effective problem solver.
I don’t believe treating depression will eliminate a person’s ability for complex or analytical thought —but it will help in getting back to enjoying life.
At Okanagan Clinical Trials, we currently have an ongoing study of an investigational medication to possibly treat depression. If you are an adult experiencing depression, you may be eligible. Contact 250-862-8141 for more information.
Paul Latimer is a psychiatrist and president of Okanagan Clinical Trials.