Home Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy There’s a Surprising Gift to Be Found in Depression – Here’s What It Is

There’s a Surprising Gift to Be Found in Depression – Here’s What It Is

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In a 1964 US Supreme Court opinion, Justice Stewart Potter opined that it was impossible to clearly define hardcore pornography, yet “I know it when I see it.” Such is the case with “depression”, or so we think, as most of us have experienced dark periods in our lives. Many famous people from disparate fields have also suffered from depression: Abraham Lincoln, Georgia O’Keefe, Michael Phelps, Kurt Cobain, Charles Darwin, J.K. Rowling, Vincent Van Gogh, Isaac Newton, and Ernest Hemingway, to name a few.

It’s understandable that depression is commonly thought of as something to be feared, avoided, or ashamed of. No one finds depression to be a fun experience. But in the cases of these well-known people, I wonder what role depression may have played in their life’s accomplishments. This raises the possibility that there might be something more to depression than being known only as a state of extreme unhappiness and hopelessness.

The DSM-5 is commonly used by psychotherapists and psychiatrists to diagnose and treat a myriad of mental disorders. It lists nine symptoms of depression. To qualify, at least five symptoms from this list must be present within a two-week period to confirm an official diagnosis of a major depressive disorder. This is a far cry from “I know it when I see it.” But it is nevertheless a requirement for insurance companies to pay for treatment. Many of us in the mental health field find these labyrinthine diagnostic criteria to be – downright depressing!

This is no laughing matter, however, as 38 million people over the age of 12 take an anti-depressant medication of one type or another. Some take anti-depressants for a few months to help ride out a short-term crisis. Others rely on them far beyond the initial reason for taking them. Although not addictive, people can become dependent on anti-depressants, which may necessitate higher dosages to achieve the same effects.

There is no question that anti-depressant medications can be lifesavers. They can be effective in helping avert major psycho-emotional crises and suicide. Their benefits include reducing stress, smoothing out wild mood swings, improving sleep, and allowing a more positive outlook on life to emerge. All of those are positives.

There are worrisome side effects from antidepressants, including fatigue, weight gain, and sleep disturbances. They can also distance us from our pain and distract us from getting to the root cause of our depression. It is imperative that, while taking anti-depressants, the physician and patient closely monitor these side effects, as well as the benefits.

It is natural that those who come to psychotherapy want relief from their mental and emotional suffering. But I suspect that in many clinical settings, the conceptual frame for psychotherapy is roughly reduced to a problem-solution equation. The client reports feeling depressed and the psychotherapist sets about to help ease that suffering through various talk therapy approaches.

Such approaches may include so-called “evidence-based practices” such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR). There are many other successful therapies employed by therapists with certification in art therapy, EMDR, somatic work, hypnotherapy, and so forth. For more serious forms of depression, anti-depressants can be prescribed by family doctors and psychiatrists, although family doctors do not have the expert certification of psychiatrists.

I am oversimplifying the benefits and limitations of various types of therapies to make a point. If our goal in psychotherapy is strictly to lessen the symptoms of depression, we may be missing a significant opportunity for personal insight and growth. I believe that the symptoms of depression are quietly, or even desperately, pointing us to a pathway of personal discovery.

In Re-Visioning Psychology (1975), archetypal psychologist James Hillman urged us to be true to our depression and discover what it has to teach us. He referred to deep internal probing as a “revolution on behalf of soul.” That revolution is different for everyone. More importantly, Hillman’s perspective turns the conventional notion of depression on its head. Depression is not something to be avoided or prevented from feeling. Rather, depression can be a harbinger of personal growth, provided we attend to what it can reveal to us. Authentic psychotherapy must do more than alleviate symptoms. It must help the client unearth new insights and higher levels of consciousness. An apt analogy may be like a miner digging ever deeper in a dark mine to discover an untapped vein of gold.

In my practice, I’ve appropriated another clever device from Hillman, discussed in The Soul’s Code (1996). In some instances, I ask clients to suspend rationality and imagine for a few minutes that before they were born, they chose the circumstances of their lives: their parents, spouses, hometown, careers, tragedies, and even the dire circumstances they currently feel trapped in. I then ask, “If you actually chose the people and conditions that are now making you feel depressed, to what end? In this mess you feel mired in, what do you suppose you were meant to learn? What life lesson is waiting for you in the dark?” 

I suggest it is okay not to come up with an answer in that moment, although it sometimes does. I suggest that an answer may come one day when they least expect it. Maybe tomorrow, maybe next month, or maybe a year from now. But until it does, I ask them to use the question “What am I supposed to learn from my depression?” as a kind of mantra and allow it to resonate over time somewhere deep in the soul.

In this way, the imagination can twist a client’s perspective in a new direction. Even though deciding one’s life circumstances before birth sounds gimmicky, the idea actually came from Plato’s Republic. I’ve found the use of imagination to discover hidden insights to be refreshing, as it allows the client and me to divest ourselves from over-serious talk. I believe that searching for hidden lessons is a form of play – a bit like a child’s game of hide and seek. We’re never quite sure what we might find. As Zen philosopher Forrest Gump once said, “Life is like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.” When we explore the depths of our unconscious, we may be surprised by the lessons that are waiting for us. Perhaps the most important lesson to be learned is that our depression is actually a gift – a gift we must work hard to find within ourselves.

Stephen Rowley, PhD is a psychotherapist and former educator who has extensive experience in educational administration and organisational theory. He recently authored “The Lost Coin: A Memoir of Adoption and Destiny“.

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