Thanks to Jess Young for directing me to an article published on TheRumpus.net called "In Praise of Depression." I might be able to get behind the idea of praising depression, but I didn't quite follow all of Katherine Sharpe's argument, although I liked her research. Sharpe gives a historical overview of how depression has been perceived and treated over hundreds of years, from the ancient Greeks to Freud to contemporary psychiatrists. According to her, every culture has had their story of what causes depression and what characterizes it. In the middle ages, to feel depressed was sinful, but by the Renaissance depression was thought to cause philosophical insight and sensitivity. She throws today's theories of chemical imbalance onto the list of ways that the mystery of depression has been explained.
I found her summary of how depression has been seen through the ages very interesting. I didn't realize depression had had positive as well as negative associations in past centuries and Sharpe might be right about our current brain chemistry explanation for depression being another untrue story. What I disagreed with was Sharpe's apparent opinion that depression is not a disorder or illness at all, but a natural part of life. I agree that everyone feels depressed at some point in their life and a certain depth of depression is a normal reaction to certain circumstances. But Sharpe doesn't focus on the kind of depression that incapacitates people, or that recurs with such frequency that it affects our functioning and relationships. That mind set is different from the occasional gloomy day or the process of grieving. I wouldn't want to remove depression from the medical category just because we don't know how anti-depressants work. Sharpe is absolutely right that the medical industry has been pill-happy for a long time and it's entirely possible that drugs are not the best way to treat severe or recurring depression. But that just means that medicine/psychiatry needs to widen its treatments beyond chemicals and drugs. For instance, energy work and certain nutritional practices can lighten or lift depression, but most psychiatrists pay little attention to such alternative approaches.
There is a very wide range of mood states that are referred to as depression, from discouragement to grief to suicide attempts. Sharpe needs to clarify what she's writing about. I doubt she would dismiss all of those emotional states as natural phases, but the overall tone of her piece suggests that we are incorrect to view depression as a chronic condition. Yes, throughout history many have described depression in romantic or metaphorical terms, but that doesn't mean severe/recurring depression doesn't belong in the category of illness. The failure of modern medicine to explain the mechanism of depression just means it hasn't figured out this most baffling of systems: the mind/brain/thought/emotional connections. Psychiatry badly needs to widen its array of approaches and treatments so that it can truly begin to work out what causes and lifts depression. Just as many diseases were first seen as the result of sin or spirit before they were understood to be the result of micro-organisms, so depression will continue to be explained with stories and theories until we truly figure it out.