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  • Writer's pictureJude

Mental Health: Depression is not an emotion

Updated: Dec 28, 2023

it is certain that Socrates asleep and Socrates awake is not the same person; but his soul when he sleeps, and Socrates the man, consisting of body and soul, when he is waking, are two persons – John Locke

This extract is taken from John Locke’s An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, where he investigates the idea of personal identity. Analogously he argues that whilst Socrates is unconscious he is not responsible for the actions his body makes. For instance: If Socrates sleep walks and damages something or harms someone this is the action of Socrates asleep not Socrates awake. This warrants grounds for claiming insanity as most mental disorders impair consciousness and therefore someone’s judgement – they are not entirely in control of their actions.

The misconception a majority of people in Society have toward mental illnesses is due to stigma surrounding the subject. It is often dismissed and not understood, understandably due to the misrepresentations and stories relating to them.

An unnerving article published by the Daily Mail caught my attention. It was entitled “Pervert with 250,000 child porn images goes free because he was depressed” As intended the title was captivating and immediately I thought of Locke’s views on personal identity. I wondered if this was reason enough for a mitigating circumstance. However the idea did not reason with me, that a man indulging himself with child pornography could walk free simply because he was suffering from depression.

What was interesting to me was to see how the journalist explained this mental disorder and the reactions of the readers towards its role in this man’s actions. To my surprise the author did not even briefly explain the condition. In fact she only mentioned depression once, in the title. Apart from that she quotes the offender was said to be ‘in a very dark place’ which, conspicuously to me, creates a bridge for the condition of depression to be associated with that state, and people like this man. Leaving such statements open to interpretation, yet advocating the “truth” of the situation in a biased or very brief way, will always encourage the most gullible readers to perceive almost everything associated with the claimed deviant as perverse. A more relative example would be the various Islamophobic articles that highlight the accusations, wrongdoings or incompatible practices of a Muslim person or group. Demonizing them and repeatedly stating the fact they’re Muslim in an eye catching large bold font.

The Daily Mail isn’t exactly the most respected newspaper. Nevertheless I feel it is very representative of a majority of Societies views on such matters. Consequentially I questioned the general outlook on such a mental state by reading the comment section. A large majority abased the state of depression considering it to be wallowing in self-pity, no thanks to the article above, although more seemed afraid to sympathise due to the justifiably sensitive case. Still what I was certain of was a general lack of understanding of what depression actually is. Therefore I decided to investigate depression to further my knowing – and what started as sympathetic interest spawned into thorough research. This is the first of a two part article, in this part I would like to share what I found in order to show that depression is more than an emotion. In the next I want to investigate if it is considered to be a condition entertained by only white people, more specifically the middle class, and underrepresented in ethnic minorities.

What is the cause of depression?

Unfortunately I cannot find my own words to illustrate such a state even though I can relate. I found it appropriate to use another’s description with permission: Depression isn’t an emotion. Depression has no cause. Too often is depression conflated with sadness or anxiety. I came out to my boss over my depression a while ago, and though he is one of the most kind and understanding people I know, he won’t mention it. He sometimes asks me how my anxiety is doing. Depression, when it is present, is more like the force of gravity. It is there, pulling down on you under all circumstances. Though I’m depressed I am often very happy but still there is the unfeeling wet blanket of muddled confusion and writhing frustration seething under it all. Waiting. A creeping numbness that insidiously degrades and diminishes every aspect of conscious life. A storm of screaming and hatred in dreams. A dull apathy in waking. A sinking stomach in the face of joy and a faithless lassitude in the face of hope. Depression isn’t an emotion. Depression is a contradiction to every worthy aspect of life. – Grottohopper (Reddit User)

Depression as an emotion

The word depression in use sounds like an emotion, though most people understand it is also considered a condition. We have an idea of anger being problematic as some people attempt to deal with their unmanageable rage through anger management. With similar understanding I think many people see depression as a prolonged state of misery – maybe in response to a devastating event. This makes them not take it as seriously as other mental conditions which are associated with something more daunting such as insanity or bipolarity because with misery time is normally the remedy. As succumbing to emotion for many is outwardly humiliating, especially for men in this scenario, it is also associated with weakness.

Considering this perspective evidently there is a theme with some emotions, hence I believe there is a point at which these feelings cannot simply be considered just within the constraints of emotion any longer. Rightfully one may ask; what evidence is there to support this notion? Why must expressing your emotion affluently be thought as out of the norm? Is there a normal range of responses with specific emotions?

Sorrow develops into grief, in response to sorrow we are encouraged to ignore it and move on. Yet to overcome grief we endeavour to give a helping hand to someone enveloped by it – at times through a much greater effort. For instance; I may feel sorrow at missing an opportunity, like the early train to work. But I feel grief when a loved one passes away. During that period a friend or family member will help me through such distressing times. I believe if an emotion feels uncontrollable and is having a prolonged detrimental effect on your life it does not cost anything to investigate what’s causing this. I am not implying there is a range of emotional expression which is to be considered the norm. However, as I stated, if a feeling becomes insidious our body, or rather mind, is indicating something is wrong. I believe this is evident in the examples I have provided, of anger and grief, hence I want to argue the same with depression by explaining the causation that leads to this extreme.

The Science

Although I never denied the condition of depression, I felt uninformed when discussing it. My research started by studying the scientific proof, I opted to do so briefly by watching a documentary, the BBC’s “The Truth About Depression” – presented by Stephen Nolan.

Nolan sought the truth by interviewing sufferers of depression, studying the effects the condition has on their daily lives and learning about the science behind the condition with Ian Anderson, a Professor of Psychiatry from the University Of Manchester and Catherine Harmer, a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience from the University Of Oxford.

In his discussion with Ian Anderson, the Professor stated that research has found the hippocampus in the brain, which deals with emotion and memory, is significantly smaller in people who suffer from depression. Furthermore he states people who suffer from depression have 25% less grey matter surrounding the hippocampus. After treatment the matter is shown to gradually recover. The Oxford Centre for brain research welcomed Nolan by explaining how they examine the activity in the brain of people suffering from depression. The amygdala, which Harmer likened to a computer hub of the brain, evidently behaves different in sufferers of the condition. In order to show its reactions they scan its activity whilst showing negative and positive imagery. Harmer highlighted the fact that those who suffer from depression overreact when shown the negative images and underreact when shown the positive in comparison to those who do not suffering from the condition.

This occurs because the amygdala supports our emotional experience and expression. The amygdala, like the hippocampus, shows improvement in its responses after treatment.

Although this information is coming from qualified professors who work for respected institutions, I don’t think it is wise to accept information based on one credible source. A few more sources supporting such evidence and noticeable representation of that information through example makes such trustworthy to me. For these reasons I searched further, this time to gain an understanding of how the hippocampus and amygdala works in relation to depression. Both the amygdala and the hippocampus reside in the limbic system which is somewhat the system within the brain that formulates and entertains emotional life. The combined functions of the amygdala and the hippocampus form long term memories and process emotions. Nevertheless they have different functions. Explaining their workings thoroughly may help understanding how both parts of the brain whilst damaged or altered can lead to overwhelming reactions.

I am no neuroscientist, so my explanations concerning these areas are only what I have studied in order to understand these parts workings in relation to the condition of depression. The amygdala is in control of the brains coordination of responses to emotional stimuli. Some of the emotions and feelings it responds to are pleasure, fear, anger, sorrow and sexual arousal. The hippocampus regulates the creation of memories. With the help of emotional responses short term memories become long term memories. The amygdala is called into action when emotionally charged memories are recalled. For example: If I am a passenger in a Car and it crashes at a high speed causing a near death experience, in the future I will most likely be wary of speeding.

The hippocampus registers the fear I experienced and it is recorded within my memory, recalling and inviting that emotion again stimulates the amygdala. This shows the interplay of the amygdala and the hippocampus. Hence if either of these parts of the brain is damaged I assume, rightfully so given the research above, the person would not entirely be in control of their emotional and responsive actions. For instance: if the amygdala is damaged its function, operating the responses to stimuli, can be effected. As there is no response to the stimuli, there is a void of feeling or inclination to act in response to the stimuli. Damage to the hippocampus also causes problems with memory.

The stigmatisation surrounding depression and practically all other mental illnesses encourages us to avoid understanding the causes of these conditions. Surprisingly I found my research to be thorough, yet in all areas of my study explanations were concise and relatively easy to understand. I feel Society is gradually creating stigma for ourselves to be deterred from being open on such topics, hence there may be countless suffering in silence in order to stay within the acceptance of the norm. In the next part of this article I will be addressing these forms of stigma and looking at the representation of mental illnesses in whole.

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