By David Joel Miller.
Is there more depression now than they used to be?
More anxiety? More ADHD or PTSD? In fact, could we say there are more diseases like cancer now than in the past? Is the increase in disorders the result of chemicals or toxins or something else?
Let me be radical and suggest something here. Now remember I am coming at this from a therapist’s, this therapist’s to be more precise, view-point. I am not a medical researcher and I do not have data to back up this viewpoint, though I can cite some authorities in those fields who seem to explain this issue.
There are probably less of most diseases than ever before! Does that surprise you? What has changed is the salience of diseases. Salience is a new word, relatively. It first started being used in 1836. FYI the word allergy did not make the dictionaries till much later. Before 1900 presumably, no one had allergies because there was no word in the dictionary for this. Lots of people had hay fever though. So does changing the word for something change the number of people diagnosed with a condition, yes. Does changing a name alter the amount of human suffering, I think not. What about mental illnesses and depression in particular?
The ancient Greek writers talked about bile and humors. One color made you sad and depressed another make you overactive and impulsive. The descriptions remind me of depression and mania. I suspect there was a lot of depression during the great ice age but they didn’t blog about it.
Sapolsky tells us that one reason for the increase of certain disorders is that we are living longer. When the average lifespan of Americans was 40, most people did not live long enough for us to worry about cancer or Alzheimer’s. Many of our current physical health issues are the result of people living long enough to be diagnosed with diseases of old age. For the record, they may not have had Alzheimer’s way back when but my great-grandmother died of senile dementia. Not sure what the difference is but I want to live long enough to find out.
When half the people in town die one summer from black plague no one worries about the person who killed themselves as a result of depression.
Depression is a new name. In older books, they wrote about Melancholy (literally black bile.) But that disorder was usually reserved for the upper or aristocratic class. Poor people were too busy dying of dysentery and milk sickness to live long enough to be depressed.
If you read journals of the early American settlers you would find plenty of stories about suffering, just back then we all accepted suffering as inevitable, just part of Gods will. People began to distrust that bad things might be part of some higher powers plan and started thinking that we just might be able to reduce human suffering without challenging the power of the almighty. Then we started looking for cures to conditions that might have been considered normal in the past.
Until this last century, we thought mental illness was incurable. There were only two choices, pray over them and hope or chain them to the wall. Then we discovered that there were medications that could turn previously “crazy” people into functioning members of society. This discovery took mental illness out of the demon possession category and moved it over into the treatable illness category.
There are still some people, politicians mostly, that think that people with mental illnesses are faking it to get out of work and just need to snap out of their disorder. Other times they will tell you that these people are really just criminals and need to be locked up. There are lazy people and there are criminals for sure, but that is a different group than the mental ill, though sometimes a person can have two or three conditions.
For sure there are toxins and environmental hazards. Some of these things have increased the rates of specific illnesses. But I can’t blame them for depression or anxiety.
The last century was a turning point in the fight to control diseases. We began to use antibiotics, vaccines and now we have advanced diagnoses and treatment. The next century holds promise for the integration of the mental and emotional disorders into the mainstream of care. Let’s hope that the increased awareness and detection of mental health and substance abuse disorders increases society’s willingness to tackle these sources of human suffering.
So for the record, I don’t think there is significantly more depression or more of most other diseases. The numbers of people diagnosed with a particular illness do go up and down. But as we are able to see them, the diseases become more important. But isn’t ending suffering, both physical and mental a part of having a happy life?
For more about David Joel Miller and my work in the areas of mental health, substance abuse and Co-occurring disorders see the about the author page. For information about my other writing work beyond this blog, there is also a Facebook authors page, in its infancy, up under David Joel Miller. Posts to the “books, trainings and classes” category will tell you about those activities. If you are in the Fresno California area, information about my private practice is at counselorfresno.com. Thanks to all who read this blog.
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