Depression is a beast. For those who have experienced prolonged periods of lethargy, numbness, and sadness it can feel as if the darkness will never lift. The ability to feel contentment or joy for more than a fleeting moment, or purpose and connection, strength and faith – it all seems gone, and often they appear to be beyond recovering.
Depression has provided us with a wealth of materials on the human predicament. Literature going back millennia speaks of melancholia as a disease that was the result of too much black bile. It was believed that melancholia had a physical cause; sadness as the result of organs not working optimally.
Today, many a psychiatrist has a similar understanding of depression. Although depression is no longer associated with bile, these days depression is often explained as the result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, with a shortfall of the neurotransmitter serotonin seen as a probable cause for the prolonged periods of sadness symptomatic depression. By administering medication that can alter the levels of serotonin in the brain it is believed it is possible to fight the symptoms of depression. However, many (even in the field of psychiatry) disagree with this cause-effect explanation.
Three Pounds of Protein
I am not medically trained, I am not a psychiatrist, I am not well-educated in psychopharmacology. What I do know is that how one looks at human moods and prolonged human states of mind largely influences who we construe our perceptions of mind, body, soul and consciousness. Does depression originate in the brain, as medically trained people tend to think, or is what happens at the level of neurons and neurotransmitters a consequence of perceptions of one’s own life, and one’s reality? If phrased in the latter manner, depression becomes much more than merely the balance of chemicals in the brain, and the realm of human emotions becomes much more than merely the result of substances inside the brain and the quality and quantity of the neural networks within those three pounds of protein under our skulls. Than how we feel is connected to how we see, and to what we see – and vice versa. A medical model of human life sees the body as a machine that, when stuff no longer goes as intended or wanted by the ego, can be adjusted, tweaked and fixed. Some medicinal minds would even describe death as the ultimate failure of the machine, and of the mechanics trained to fix that machine.
On the other hand: numerous spiritual leaders and psychological experts have also explored the landscapes, smells, causes and cures of depression. I think that some of the best writing in this regard was done by Thomas Moore in his stunningly beautiful book Dark Nights of the Soul, Stanislav Grof in Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes Crisis and David Richo in his book When Love Meets Fear.
Depression, these authors assert, is a sign that something in our lives needs our deep and undivided attention. Depression tells us to look inward and reconnect to the source of sadness and pain, and tend to the needs one encounters there. And responsible medical doctors who decide to prescribe antidepressants to a patient usually advise him or her to seek counselling or therapy to address the underlying causes of depression. Because they know that the pills themselves will not cure the patient’s depression…
The General’s Depression
And this is where, in our contemporary societies, things get difficult for many men. I’ve written elsewhere on this blog extensively about this topic of men and psychology, so I will not go too deep into it. In short: most men aren’t offered the tools and education to respond to their inner workings other than to dismiss it, to “toughen it out” or to take the fight outside oneself. When this approach is taken to handle depression, many men do the opposite of what spiritual leaders and psychologists advise: instead of addressing the root cause, they fight (or ignore) the symptoms. These men hide their feelings, or express them through aggression and violence (active or passive). They self medicate on substances and sex, or lose themselves in work and careers. They will build higher walls around themselves to fend of any perceived threat of intrusion into the darkest nooks and crannies of their being, and so distance themselves from partners, children and even their best friends.
So when I read of a man who did the exact opposite of all of that, than I stand in awe and admiration. What courage to stand up and speak out! What courage to delve into the core of the problem, and search for practical and do-able interventions to tackle the dragon of depression and suicide ideation! And what honesty to describe not just the successes, but especially the grey zones of life where failures and successes meet and mingle…
The man I’m speaking of is a Major General in the US Army: Dana Pittard. Despite his impressive career in the army, Pittard suffered from depression himself, and knew of the health dangers of depression as a consequence. Furthermore, as the commander of thousands of soldiers he experienced first hand how depressions and suicides were creating havoc among his men and women. The US Army struggles with suicide rates that kill more people annually than fall on battle fields in foreign countries, driven in part by post-traumatic stress disorder.
I will not repeat the contents of the article: you can read it here yourself. Eventually, Major General Pittard failed in his attempt to open up the US Army to a more wholesome and preventative approach to mental health problems. The institution as a whole, or so it seems, is not yet able to see mental health of its soldiers as a priority, with all due consequences. But it takes many individuals like Major General Pittard to build a cultural shift that can last; one in which our mental health is seen not merely as an extension of physical health, but one that addresses the needs of the entire mind-body-soul of each and every human being.
“Asking for help is not weakness—it is a sign of strength,” Major General Pittard wrote on the blog he maintained while in charge of his army base. “It takes an amazing amount of courage and strength to take the first step; individuals should be encouraged and commended, not condemned.”
This too might be an inspiring read: How 7 Historic Figures Overcame Depression without Doctors.