After being diagnosed with depression, feelings of shame, worthlessness, and self-hatred can fester in the mind. Questions like, ‘why am I so feeble?’ and, ‘why can’t I shut these thoughts out?’ are common. Depression is so often characterised as a weakness, a myth unhelpfully advanced by the links between depression, unhealthy eating tendencies, and chronic fatigue.
Much stigma and discrimination is still attached to the conversation around mental health and those living with such conditions, particularly those who remain untreated. However, whilst it is the predominant medical view that depression is a ‘mental disorder’, it is important to take note of the sizeable proportion of medical experts starting to view depression, along with other conditions such as autism and schizophrenia, as neurodiversity. Neurodiversity is a concept usefully allegorised by H.G. Wells in his 1904 story, ‘The Country of the Blind’, in which a society entirely made up of people with blindness reshape their culture around this difference. Their notion of beauty is dependent on feel rather than sight, they have no windows, and they work at night when it is cooler. The people of The Country of the Blind come to see their blindness as an asset, rather than a burden. When a climber attempts to conquer the land, he is defeated in the homes of the blind, whose pitch black environment and heightened senses of touch and hearing render them undefeatable. The climber’s eyes are seen as diseased, and he is mocked for falling in love with a woman who he finds visually attractive. The people living with blindness were physically wired differently, but were not physically inferior, to the climber. The same goes for those with neurological differences, including depression.
The NHS lists a loss of concentration as one of the symptoms of depression.
Of course, I do not intend to belittle the suffering of those living with depression, which, as is well-documented, causes extensive suffering to many people. Nor do I intend to encourage the rejection of treatment for mental health conditions. But it would be foolish to sidestep the benefits that a very different neurological human experience felt by people living with depression can bring. In their 2009 paper for the American Psychological Association, ‘The Bright Side of Being Blue’, Paul W. Andrews and J. Anderson Thomson, Jr. hypothesise that biological depression can be viewed as an evolved response to complex problems, which helps in minimising mental disruption by giving triggering problems prioritised access to processing resources, thus reducing the desire to engage in distracting activities by reducing exposure to external stimuli. This outlook, they argue, helps to explain many of the symptoms of depression such as persistent low mood, having no motivation or interest in things, and finding it difficult to sleep.
If we start approaching depression from the angle of neurodiversity, it becomes more difficult for us to overlook literature which has provided us with a picture of depression that is multifaceted and not entirely negative. There is a wealth of evidence, for example, to suggest that clinical depression ‘promotes an analytical processing style that enhances accuracy on complex tasks’, that it ‘enhances performance on analytical laboratory tasks’, and that ‘[d]epressed people’s preference for negative evaluations may be an important mechanism for gaining information that helps them understand why they are facing a problem and helps them identify what difficult behavioral changes they may need to make to solve it’. Overall, the studies’ findings can be simplified to four theories, namely that people with a ‘depressed affect’ can:
- process information more deeply
- be more accurate at complex tasks
- make better judgements on detail-oriented information
- make more accurate cost-benefit analyses
In effect, the researchers suggest that depression could be an evolutionary trait of saving energy whilst one focuses on the problem at hand. Whilst depression can be a deeply debilitating and dysfunctional disorder, for example, it can also lead to artistic temperament and high creative production. The depressed mind has even been described as, ‘an alert, sensitive system that reacts strongly and swiftly. It responds to the world with a wide range of emotional, perceptual, intellectual, behavioral, and energy changes’.
Whilst carefully avoiding the romanticisation of the advantages of depression, it is important to realise that depression is a complex condition which, for those living with it, if treated responsibly, does not have to be hopeless. Of course, depression is painful, and can damage you deeply. But the more I come to know my depression and how I can work with it by understanding the distinctive nature of the neurology with which I have been blessed, the more the feelings of guilt and shame subside, and I feel a whole lot better for it.