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Taking disease out of depression

Looking at depression as an emotional state rather than as a disease is a far more fruitful approach, both in empowering the sufferer and pointing to solutions. Michael Corry explains why

In any psychiatric practice, depression — along with its travelling companion, anxiety — predominates as the commonest complaint. Along the spectrum of depression, symptoms vary from mild disillusionment and lack of drive, to the black hole of despair, self-loathing and hopelessness. No one is immune.

Few states touch so many aspects of the self as depression, undermining body, mind, heart and spirit. In its most severe forms depression can devitalise a person's soul, to the point where they are unable to work, love, or find meaning in life. It can lead to serious alterations in personality, sapping an individual's self-confidence, undermining independence and severing their ties to the world and the people who care for them. Depression can turn fatal.

Depression is best seen as an emotion, just like any other strong feeling such as fear, anger or love. Seen as such, it represents a legitimate response to life's difficulties, rather than a disease reflected by a change in one's brain chemistry, and unrelated to personality, belief systems, relationships, socio-economic factors or coping skills. I have yet to sit in front of one single depressed patient who did not have a symptom logic, sometimes even tracing back as far as intra-uterine rejection. The roots of depression can be found in any of life's losses, hurts and disappointments: sexual and physical abuse, the death of a loved one, the pain of a broken heart, the experience of being bullied, and the terrible feelings of loneliness and desolation associated with exclusion from the peer group, young or old.

The treadmill, be it at school, college, or on the career ladder, can dampen the spirit and take its toll. In schedules deprived of downtime, energy bankruptcy is common, with substance misuse often the most easily available relief. For many, 'getting out of my head' is the main objective. The ensuing collateral damage is the price paid: exams failed, jobs lost, relationship breakdown, all of which are themselves further triggers for depression.

Depression could be considered a valid and normal response to the poverty trap, given its own inherent set of problems: living from hand to mouth, overcrowded housing, insufficient heat, food and clothing, and a wilderness of inadequate resources. Depression can't be isolated from the frantic juggling required to keep family life afloat: the night feeds, school drop-offs, homework, packed lunches, and child minders, side by side with long working hours, inexorable deadlines, demanding bosses - all to fund mortgage repayments, school fees, and so on.

The ideas and beliefs that we hold ultimately dictate our state of mind. In the words of the great poet Milton, 'The mind is a place which of itself, can make a heaven of hell or a hell of heaven'. The standards by which we judge our success or failure in the world are learned through years of conditioning, in our families, schools, church, and the wider culture. Our sense of dis-illusionment or hopelessness emanates directly from our failure to meet these very standards.

The dominant approach in psychiatry, which sees chemical imbalance as the primary cause of depression and medication as its cure, pathologises sufferers, turning them into damaged goods or victims of flawed chemistry and defective genes. Such a view places the problem within the person's brain matter, rather than in their thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and the ways in which they respond to the problems of living. This stringently mechanistic approach marginalises personal consciousness, viewing the unfathomable depths of human passion, individuality, creativity, curiosity, reason, intuition, will, compassion, and spiritual insight as mere secretions of the brain, akin to the way the kidneys secrete urine.

The moment depression is classified as a disease, like all diseases it then calls for a cure. In this way it becomes a defining straitjacket in which individual depressed people have to function. Diseases do not have meanings, therefore none are sought. Diseases 'should not' be happening. Diseases separate the ill from the well. This classification defines the experience, limiting it to a form which society relates to in prescribed ways. By being placed solely within the realm of pharmacology, it is distanced from problems of living and lack of resources.

The aim of Depression Dialogues is to create a safe forum in which depression can be discussed and understood as part of the human condition. Participants may ask questions, share their experience, or merely listen, as they wish. The meetings we hold, which at present take place in Dublin each month, adopt a liberation perspective, allowing the individual sufferer to stand at the centre of their story, and make sense of why they are depressed.

More on depression

Anti-depressant response

To take on the responsibility for getting well is to empower yourself. Here, Aine Tubridy and Michael Corry explain how you can create your own anti-depressant response
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Living in hopelessness

Wrecked, mentally and physically beaten up, easy prey to the scare-mongering tactics of multinational vested interests: that's how you feel when you live in fear. Michael Corry has some ideas on dealing with it

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Disease? A red herring

In the first chapter of their latest book, Michael Corry and Aine Tubridy examine the roots of false thinking about depression, and its dangers
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Post-natal depression

Why is post-natal depression not seen as a normal consequence of the earthquake of birth? ask Aine Tubridy and Michael Corry
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The dangers of SSRIs
Nuria O'Mahony knows about the dangers of SSRIs: her husband died of SSRI-induced suicide. She wants tighter regulation and a new regime of responsible information to protect the public
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Loss of desire and energy
The evaporation of our early optimism can have catastrophic effects on our desire for life and our personal energy. How can we rekindle our motivation and reignite our energy? Michael Corry has some answers
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Eating yourself well
What we eat influences how we feel, and adopting a healthy and nutritious diet can make us feel better. Brenda Duffin explains how food affects mood
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Down from the pedestal
Terry Lynch says it's about time doctors stopped prescribing the pills and instead listened to the real distress of their patients
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Needles boost mood
Acupuncture and Chinese medicine can be an effective treatment in cases of depression, says Declan Phelan
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How homeopathy helps
A powerful, effective holistic tool: Declan Hammond explains some of the benefits of homeopathy
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