Depression is often seen as a problem, as something that needs to be overcome. Undoubtedly, we want to alleviate the pain that depression is, it is deeply unpleasant and can be life-limiting. However, we increasingly understand that depression is not the problem. It’s the smoke signal pointing to the fire that is raging. It’s a communication, letting us know that something has happened, something that needs our attention, right now.
“Depression is a normal response to abnormal life experiences” Allen Barbour
Oftentimes, we may not initially know what it is that has contributed to our depression. Causation is sometimes not obvious, or linear. It can take time for depression, obesity, anxiety or other ways of coping to emerge when we have faced adversity or stress. Research is increasingly showing that adverse events in childhood, as well as difficult experiences in adulthood can trigger ways of coping that in the moment help, but in time turn into symptoms and problems because they outlive their usefulness.
“When people have these kinds of problems, it’s time to stop asking what’s wrong with them, and time to start asking what happened to them.” Dr Anda (quoted in Lost Connections by Johann Hari)
Stephen Gilligan powerfully talks about the importance of sponsoring symptoms when working with mental health difficulties. He speaks of them as spirit waking up and as a call to heal. They draw our attention in and eventually become impossible to ignore.
As Johann Hari points out, when you fight a fire, you don’t use a fan to disperse the flames, you get in there and put out the fire. It is the same with depression, anxiety, obesity, chronic fatigue and other conditions that have psychological elements. We need to understand their function, how they fit in the wider system of the psyche, what they are protecting, diverting attention from or coping with. We need to build alternative coping mechanisms to lessen the need for the symptoms and bring relief, and then we need to heal the underlying hurts that fuel the need to having coping mechanisms in the first place.
This work is not easy, but it is essential. No number of anti-depressants or other mental health medications are going to heal permanently from mental health symptoms. They can be part of the blend of helping people to heal themselves, but long term, it’s the deeper psychological work that will set people free.