The commercialized flurry of the American lifestyle is one that creates vast amounts of stress, helping contribute to the fact that today one in 10 Americans are currently taking antidepressant medications. Antidepressants have rapidly become the premier method for treating depression, and in many cases have been successful. But is it necessary? A 2010 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association shows that antidepressants have a significant effect on those with severe depression, but there’s little evidence they do the same for patients with milder cases.
Antidepressants were first discovered by chance in the 1950s by Swiss scientists looking to treat schizophrenics, according to Time. This discovered drug affected the brain’s neurotransmitters in a way that resulted in “bouts of euphoria” that proved terrible for schizophrenics but beneficial to their patients with depression. This first round was successful only 60-80 percent of the time and side effects included lethargy and death from overdose. It was in the late 1980s that the products we’re familiar with today were developed, boasting safer results. A 2005 Harvard Medical article tells a different story, citing insomnia, muscle spasms, and sexual performance issues as common side effects of today’s antidepressants.
I don’t mean to say that depression should go untreated, or that it’s some sort of “phantom syndrome” in which sufferers are simply sad. Depression can cause lasting damage to areas of the brain responsible for memory, conflict resolution and executing activities, according to brain imaging studies and an article in Psychology Today. But while depression in many cases is a result of chemical imbalances in the brain, our environment plays a large role as well and can actually trigger this chemical change.
A study of the Kaluli tribe of New Guinea demonstrates this same idea. The Kaluli, lacking many of the technologies we depend on today, also differ from us in the sense that members of the tribe are socially encouraged to express each of their emotions, positive and negative. In our society we aren’t often encouraged to express emotions and a powerful stigma surrounds mental disorders, rendering many Americans fearful to speak out. The study found only one case of depression within the 2,000 member-strong Kaluli,a figure lower than in the United States by a factor of 100.
This isn’t just a symptom among indigenous groups who haven’t recognized depression. It’s also been found that those living in Amish communities, well aware of both technology and of depression, have significantly lower rates. And worldwide there are only three nations with rates close to that of America’s.
Steven Ilardi in a recent TED talk describes depression as a “disease of civilization”, one that’s prominent in Western society but nearly non-existent in aboriginal, non-capitalism-driven communities. Diabetes and obesity are usually grouped under this term and it’s clear depression deserves to join them. In Ilardi’s words, “we were never designed for the sedentary … fast food laden, sleep deprived, frenzied pace of modern life”. The American Dream values the destination much more than journey, spurring citizens to pursue success and happiness in a world where we’re never given a moment to stop and enjoy what’s around us.
Possible causes aside, there exist alternative treatments to depression that would empower those who suffer milder cases. A study published in Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics found that almost two-thirds of patients didn’t meet the criteria for major depression according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and were still prescribed medication.
Depression has affected each of our lives in some way or another, myself included. It, along with other disorders, has the power to affect our lives but by understanding its causes it doesn’t have to control us.