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
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.
Find ways to bounce back, Be comfortable with who you are