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Understanding unhappiness

20 May 2011 | Lewis Wolpert

Happiness is vital, and in order to understand how to maintain it we need to understand unhappiness. Of particular importance is severe unhappiness - depression. Some 3 million people in the UK suffer from depression which can vary from mild to severe. About two thirds of adults will at some time experience depressed mood of sufficient severity to influence their activities, and depression occurs in children. Severe depression is so serious a condition that it can result in total inability to function and even lead to suicide. Depression is usually triggered by a loss or failure to achieve something very important.

Depression is thus closely related to sadness which usually results from a loss. Sadness is a universal human emotion programmed by our genes and its evolutionary function is to restore loss of some kind. This loss can be in a child left alone, breakup of a relationship, loss of a job, loss of money. It has been argued that mild depression is useful as it makes the individual re-consider their problems and perhaps give up certain goals that they are having great difficulty with. Depression can be thought of as sadness becoming malignant for a variety of reasons, not least genetic factors. Heritability of depression is more than fifty percent.

A major negative result of mental illnesses like depression is stigma. There are numerous accounts of just how much those with depression see it as something to be ashamed of, and thus kept secret. One young woman could not even tell her father, who is a psychiatrist, and another woman could not confide in her brother or sister, so they did not even know of her suicide attempts.

What can be done to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness like depression? Perhaps the most important aim would be to publicise just how widespread depression is, and that it is a serious illness. Most important is to stress that it can be cured by cognitive therapy and anti-depressants. It could help a great deal if those individuals with depression who are well known public figures were to support such a campaign - people like Members of Parliament who have suffered from depression. A fine example was the Prime Minister of Norway being open about his depression.

A neglected area is health education in schools. This is odd, as one of the most likely illnesses that children will meet and even suffer from when adults is depression, and yet they are given no information about its nature. One positive venture is the play for schools by Y Touring, Cracked, which not only deals with depression but also has a debate at the end of the play in which the actors remain in character and have a discussion with the young audience. We need more initiatives of this kind to help nip stigma in the bud, and educate the young.


Lewis Wolpert is Emeritus Professor in Cell and Developmental Biology at University College London. He is also an author and broadcaster.


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