As this collection of essays shows, depression can be addressed from widely varied perspectives: as a biochemical imbalance, a cognitive disorder, a social malaise and so on. Fr. Tim Clancy, S.J., associate professor of philosophy and director of Honors Program, opens this collection by approaching depression in religious terms, as a curse.
Father Tim Clancy, S.J.
Marilyn McCord Adams is a philosopher, theologian and a practicing, ordained Episcopalian priest. Amongst her philosophical writings she has addressed the problem of evil. In this work, she focuses on what she calls “horrendous evils,” evils that do not just harm, but destroy any sense of meaning or purpose or value to one’s life. Afflicted by a horrendous evil we feel cursed and defiled. We can feel contagious as well, that our lives can only taint the lives of any who come into contact with us, that we who are dirty can only make others dirty as well. Adams includes deep, clinical depression among such horrendous evils. For in despair we fall into what feels like a bottomless abyss of anxiety and shame. We lose all hope of our lives ever being any different again. We can even become suicidal, contemplating whether our life is still worth living at all; whether the world would not be better off without us.
Why would a good God permit such horrendous evils to occur? Adams argues that this is the problem of evil at its sharpest. But she approaches the problem by changing the question. Christianity may not be able to provide a good reason for God to have created a world only to full of such horrors. But, Adams argues, that is not the most important question. More important for us, and for all those afflicted by horrendous evil, is how we can find God in the midst of such soul-killing suffering; how we can find the sacred in the midst of such sacrilege. Here Christianity does have something to offer: ritual. We can participate in a ritual without thinking about it. We can participate in a ritual while remaining numb to its effects. But even to just go through the motions, we must be present in the sacred space the ritual creates. And in that space, through that ritual, God can enter, despite our despair, or better, precisely through our despair. Adams uses as an example the Christian ritual of beholding Christ on the cross. Christians believe Christ to be God. Yet in his Passion Christ is tortured, shamed and ridiculed by his enemies. His life ends to all appearances without meaning, purpose or value. In Mark, as Christ hangs dying on the cross, Jesus cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The second century Roman creed, recited at the beginning of another ritual, that of the rosary, goes yet further: Jesus not only suffered and died, but descended into hell itself. Now by beholding the crucifix in our agony and despair we can identify with Christ in his agony and despair. We may even feel, if only for a moment, that the recognition is mutual; that he too identifies with us in ours. And so the sacred enters into the sacrilege we feel our lives have become.
Nor is the Passion the end of the story. For Christians the story finds its ultimate meaning in the broader context of the Gospel proclamation: that God has raised Jesus up to new life with himself; indeed that the once defiled Jesus is now humanity’s way to the sacred. Thus the sacred passion, death and resurrection of Jesus proclaims that our time of despair is not the end of our story either. Our destiny too, lies with God.
So too, while we would not wish such a horror on our worst enemy, we may yet, in retrospect, after our depression has lifted, not wish that it had never happened either. For our struggle with such an evil, however horrendous, has helped shaped us into the person we have become. And it is that person, not whom we might have been, but the person we now are, who is the person God loves and raises up to himself. It is that person, once defiled, maybe even still cursed, whom God redeems and sanctifies.
In the midst of depression, we may well be unable to believe any such thing. But we don’t have to, not at the moment. For Christianity offers rituals in which such beliefs are enacted over and over again. We do not need to believe them in order to participate in them. But by doing so over and over and over we reinforce a practice based on faith in such things. Their meaning can bore into us. They provide us with something we can do, a place we can stand, however hopeless, or anxious or lost or worthless we may feel at the moment. At such dark moments it is the rest of the Christian community, gathered in prayer and joined together in ritual, who can provide meaning and worth to those who feel their lives meaningless and worthless. Christians at prayer can touch the untouchables in their midst, in the faith that while defilement may well be contagious, the sacred, in the person of Christ, can reverse the contagion, blessing the cursed and redeeming those whose lives at the moment may appear to have lost all prospect of meaning and value. Depression remains evil, a horrendous evil, and evil remains a problem, but Christian ritual can sustain us in the midst of our affliction, until our depression lifts, or our lives end.
Jeff Dodd, English lecturer
Horoscope for My Separation Anxiety
You’re the kind of person who wants to be on hold.
We’ve seen as much in time. It seems luck is with you
this afternoon: Lucky isn’t always healthy,
as research points out, being on hold is no way
to be, eighth or ninth best on the recently
updated “ways to be” schematic. Don’t try to
leap all the way up to fourth. No one will be served
if exhaustion forces you to give up. Work in
stages. First, maximize your time: Show your kids the
root canals displayed at the dental college. Buy
them cotton candy. Reorient your cookbooks
by cover art; you might begin with braised lamb shanks.
Walk, again, with your god in the cool of the day.
To the Raccoon in my Attic
This night, the ice caps may or may not melt. Depends
whom you ask, what week. But there is no doubt
you are up there, claws click-it-ing above the tiles
of my dropped ceiling, carving my silent reading.
You Kim Philby of my mental Cold War; You
Sirhan Sirhan of my night’s work. You might have
survived to the next ice age. But like everyone else
the will to motion gave you up. And I’ve caught your trail.
Skitter along through your dark overworld,
my little Mata Hari. Just try to doze off over my bed.
I’ll follow you to the kitchen for a midnight snack.
I’ll come in to release the spring when you’ve sacked out
above the Barcalounger. Don’t misunderstand me:
the gauntlet has been thrown. Roam my ceiling
over and back, but I have the benefit of history,
and Nixon’s lesson in hubris. You’re proud.
So know that I’ll be galumphing around your cellar,
executing my unsavory business, sniffing you out,
decoding your cryptic foot taps, while you spend
those gloomy days wondering what else is down here.
Sen. Lecturer Andrea L. Fallenstein
The sociological perspective on mental illness can take many forms, given the variety of theories we champion. For instance, women are diagnosed with depression and anxiety more often than men. Is it possible that our society uses these concepts as a way of managing acceptable moods in women, even though our traditional idea of gender encourages emotional expression in women, but not in men? There is a limit of acceptability with regard to emotions: Women who do not conform to these expectations are deemed “depressed” and in need of medication.
One hallmark symptom of depression is having our mood interfere with our ability to live our everyday lives. If depressed workers withdraw from the work force – and they do – then capitalism and the need for active workers might influence how much depression our society can tolerate. As well, anxiety can be interpreted as worry about what the future might bring, a key indicator of helplessness in our lives. Could women as a group feel less in control of their futures? What about people of color, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered persons? Sociologists interested in the study of mental illness ask similar questions given the difference in rates of depression and anxiety in these populations.
Some theories view mental health diagnoses as systems of social control. These theories have produced compelling arguments against the mental health system in general and specifically against diagnosis as a system of labeling.
Asst. Prof. Jeff Ramirez
People describe depression as a dark, lonely place. “Depression is flat, hollow and unendurable. It is also tiresome,” writes research Kay Redfield Jamison.” People cannot abide being around you when you are depressed. They know that you are tedious beyond belief, you’re irritable, and paranoid and humorless and lifeless and critical and demanding and no reassurance is ever enough. You’re frightened, and you are frightening.”
These are the responses Jamison, herself a manic depressive, experiences to her depression. Such human responses to disease or injury are the focus of nursing practice. Human beings are three dimensional: physical, mental and spiritual. All need to be in synchronization, or the person will express symptoms from the response to illness in one or all three areas, symptoms such as depression. Nurses want to assist the person in making meaning of their illness and situation. We attempt to understand the deep, emotional pain a person experiences; this leads the nurse to develop psychosocial interventions to alleviate suffering. Caring can be sitting with a lonely person in silence. Caring is asking deep, thought-provoking questions to help the person develop coping skills. Nurses view every ill person as a human being, whom we treat with utmost respect and dignity, so that they can feel their worth, especially during times of feeling worthless.
Asst. Prof. Matt Cremeens
From a 21st century chemist’s perspective, depression and anxiety are caused by and treated by chemicals. However, complexity quickly comes about when we try to deeply understand the source or importance of the chemicals that cause or treat depression and anxiety. For example, to quickly reduce anxiety, one can take a pill or drink alcohol; alternatively, one can exercise or meditate. Whether one takes a chemical or one uses their body to make a chemical, both types of treatment use chemicals to affect the chemistry inside one’s brain.
The real curiosity is how to prevent depression and anxiety in the first place. Two fields, working together, hold promise: epigenetics and cognitive psychology. Epigenetics is the study of inherited genetic change that takes place through pathways other than mutation. It is a relatively new field. Cognitive psychology is the science of how we think. Ultimately, I believe that the fields of epigenetics and cognitive psychology likely will provide the information necessary for the prevention of anxiety and possibly depression. A deep understanding of the associated chemistry will lead to objective ways to identify and test for anxiety and depression.
I take a serious interest in this area not only as a chemist, but as a teacher. One review article on depression reported that 80 percent of those ages 18-25 experienced a significant depressive episode. Because I teach a course – Organic Chemistry – that can exacerbate student anxiety, I am ever mindful of my students.
Prof. RaGena DeAragon
The symptoms of depressive disorder have been recognized for millennia. Many early societies looked to the supernatural to explain depression, but Hippocrates (died c. 375 B.C.E.) ascribed emotional and physical health to a balance of four bodily humors, and thought melancholia was due to an excess of the humor black bile. Galen (died c. 216 C.E.) concurred, adding that insufficient “animal spirits” produced by the brain might contribute. Since black bile was considered cold and dry, treatment included a hot and moist diet and herbs. Galen’s theories on melancholia and health dominated western medical literature for over two millennia.
Renaissance humanists revived an alternative biomedical theory derived from Aristotle’s belief that excess black bile was responsible for all male genius. The heat of a male body “burns” the bile; if the other humors were in the right proportions, the result might fuel ambition and achievement. In the colder female body, bile remains in its normal state, making women more prone to melancholia. Englishman Robert Burton’s popular Anatomy of Melancholy (1621) prescribed bleeding or vomiting, exercise, beautiful surroundings, and pleasant company as remedies for excess bile.
Alternatives to the theory of humors first appeared in the late seventeenth century, when Thomas Hobbes blamed melancholia on disturbed passions. A century later, the philosopher Emmanuel Kant spoke of an “illness of the soul.” In the 20th century, the rise of psychiatry set the course of thought about depression. Sigmund Freud declared its cause a significant loss or rejection in childhood. In his essay “Mourning and Melancholia,” written in 1917, he explained that anger, a normal part of grieving, might turn inward so that the ego “rages against itself.”