Review: In 'The Depths,' USF professor probes roots, future of depression

Published March 20, 2014

A current Internet meme, often seen on Facebook and other social media sites, has it that depression, panic attacks and anxiety do not betray mental weakness but are instead "signs of having tried to remain strong for too long," adding that 1 in 3 people suffer from them. • Perhaps surprisingly, given that the things of the Internet are so often wrong, the sentiment is correct, though the number might be debatable. Depression and its kin result from our trying to cope with the world as it is, an effort that grinds too many of us into fine dust. • By University of South Florida psychology professor Jonathan Rottenberg's count, about 30 million Americans suffer from depression. What is more, he notes in his new book The Depths, that number promises only to grow, and not just in this country, so much so that the World Health Organization reckons that by 2030 depression will outrank war, heart disease and even cancer as a threat to public health. • But what is depression? A vast industry has arisen to assure us that it's just a chemical imbalance in the brain, something that hides behind lampposts to leap upon the unwary innocent and that can be fended off only with an expensive diet of pills. In 2010, the American Psychological Association estimates, Americans spent $11 billion on antidepressant drugs. Add to that another $50 billion spent on alcohol and untold billions spent for other world-shielding technologies and commodities, and American depression alone outpaces the economies of dozens of countries around the world.

We all, of course, have bad days. Join one bad day to the next, and that weather becomes a climate of bad mood. At the heart of Rottenberg's book is a searching look into the "persistent low mood" that defines depression. The Portuguese poet Fernando Pessoa called that low mood "the expected fatigue of finding nothing," which turns out to be just right. Rottenberg, who is married to Tampa Bay Times food critic Laura Reiley, examines the evolutionary reasons why that "expected fatigue" might have been a once-healthy adaptation gone awry with a change in the fortunes of our kind.

Think of it this way: Although most of us don't have to worry overmuch about starving to death, our brains still inhabit a prelapsarian world in which that gazelle we've just brought down might be the last square meal we're going to see for a long time. Our resultant urge to eat everything in sight is a useful impulse in a world of scarcity, but it fuels obesity and diabetes in a world of plenty.

Just so, putting ourselves into a mental frame of both low hopes and low expectations is right when we're tracking a herd of gazelles that moves faster and jumps farther than we do. Amplify that into persistent defeatism, and, as Rottenberg says, "the mood system puts the brake on efforts." If the gazelle we seek is happiness in our lives — that sounds a little mystical, but there it is — and happiness is always a league ahead of us, then small wonder so many people carry dejection as their constant companion.

And why don't we recognize long-term suppressed mood for what it is? The great biologist Ernst Mayr observed that the organism that's most aware of itself is the one least likely to survive. The gazelle that stands stock still on the veldt lost in thought, pondering its gazellehood, is the one our spears are going to bring down first.

We learn to cope and not cope along the same lines: Some of us are more successful than others at burying our preoccupations and worries, but sometimes our worries overwhelm us. And why wouldn't they, with all the things there are to worry about, including the fear of fear itself? As Rottenberg, who has himself suffered from the malady, writes, our very lives are a recipe for depression: "Wake up to rejection by a hostile spouse, drive to a dead-end job, and go home to a stack of unpaid bills."

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And those are the lucky ones who have spouses and jobs.

"I'm not crazy," says Ouiser Boudreaux in Robert Harling's play Steel Magnolias. "I've just been in a very bad mood for 40 years." So have altogether too many of us, trying just to cope. Rottenberg finds hope in behavioral therapies that grow from the recognition that depression is a natural consequence of living with our very ancient brains, evolutionarily speaking, in modern times.

Some readers may find it unfortunate — one might even say depressing — that his insights into the human mood system and its mutations over time don't come with an instant cure, but that new understanding may prove to be the beginning of a new era in the humane treatment of a devastating illness.

Gregory McNamee is the author of "Moveable Feasts: The Science, History, and Lore of Food" (University of Nebraska Press), among many other books.