On December 8,1992, an article appeared in the science section of the New York Times under the headline “A Rising Cost of Modernity: Depression.” The piece tells of a report published by the Journal of the American Medical Association, which delivered the results of a long-term, international, multi-generational study of depression. The main point was – those born after 1955 are three times as likely as their grandparents’ generation to suffer from depression. And while women are thought to be two or three times as likely as men to get depressed, the article concludes that “the gap between men and women in rates of depression is narrowing among younger generations, with the risk in young men beginning to rise to levels seen in women.” At the end, the article acknowledges that the increased incidence of depression could be partly explained by a greater openness about the topic, but the statistics are so alarming that many experts think that our willingness to discuss it is not much of a factor.
In a more recent study, an estimated 121 million people worldwide are currently living with some form of depression. Of these individuals, fewer than 25% have access to adequate treatment. The World Health Organization considers depression the fourth leading cause of disability worldwide, and expects it to become the second leading cause of disability worldwide by 2020. In the meantime, evidence would seem to bear out the point that a lot of people are either truly depressed, or they believe themselves to be. The question that came into my mind after perusing these statistics was, How is it possible that so many people are so miserable? As a Christian of course, this should not have been too hard to understand, as Matthew 7:13-14 states:
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. 14 But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.
And, of course, living with a fallen nature, we humans are actually inclined toward wretchedness. But personally, I know there are people who actually seem to thrive on feeling badly. They enter twelve-step fellowships so that they can find others afflicted with the same demons: alcoholism, narcotics addiction, eating disorders, and a plethora of others. After being around AA for over a decade, I have noticed that while the program helps many get and stay sober, it can also be a place where sick people can find their equally sick soul mates, if you will. And, like the blind leading the blind, disaster usually follows. I specifically remember a meeting I attended, where a young man stated: “Women should stick with women. If you cross over into the proverbial 13th step with a member of the opposite sex, you will soon have another god.” So I learned quickly after converting to Catholicism, that while I spend a fair amount of time in AA meetings, I know that what has helped me the most with my own “demons” has been the sacraments within the Mass. Even the famous psychologist Carl Jung once said that if everyone was Catholic, he would not have anyone seeking him for psychotherapy, because of the Sacrament of Confession. Yes, the Sacrament of Reconciliation is that healing.
Many think medication is the answer, while anti-depressants seem to be a panacea for the asking, I would never discredit medication for those who truly need it. Indeed after the compelling evidence I found, there is indication that maybe all this drug prescribing is not an over-aggressive response, but actually a sane reaction on the part of doctors onto a whole slew of people for whom simple existence is fraught with intense misery. Who am I to say that anti-depressives are over-prescribed? Maybe it isn’t prescribed enough. But I know that any kind medication alone, or self-help groups alone is not enough. Without the healing benefits of the sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation, people are being short-changed whether they know it or not. And while we live in a quick-fix society with little tolerance for pain of any sort, it seems fairly reasonable to want to anesthetize ourselves in the most expedient way. But medication by itself is only preventing many people who are not clinically depressed from finding any real antidote.
In the case of my own depression, I have gone from being certain that its origins were in bad biology, to a more flexible belief — after much therapy — that after an accumulation of traumatic life events made my head such a horrible thing to be stuck in, my brain’s chemicals started to agree. Of course, there’s no way to know this for certain, as the anecdotal evidence leads only to a list of chicken-and-egg types of questions. Regardless of how I got started on my path to the dark side, by the time I got treatment, the problem was certainly chemical (as well as spiritual). What many people do not understand is that the cause-and-effect relationship in mental disorders is a two-way shuttle.
It’s not just that a simple chemical imbalance can make you depressed. It’s that years and years of depression caused by external events (exogenous depression), can actually mess up your internal chemistry so much that you need a drug to get it working correctly again. Had I been treated properly at the onset of my depression, and had I known about the healing benefits of the sacraments, perhaps its mere kindling would not have turned into a nightmarish psychic bonfire, that has only in recent years subsided as I have grown stronger in my faith. When I ran on ‘survival mode’, and after years and years of bad habits, of being attracted to the wrong kind of people, and responding to every bad mood with impulsive behavior, this way of living turned me into a person who had no idea how to function within the boundaries of the normal world. It has taken me so long to learn to live a life where depression and addictive behavior are not a constant resort, and in their place, peace is becoming familiar, thanks be to our amazing God.
On April 8, 1994, Kurt Cobain shot himself in the head and was found dead in his Seattle home. His suicide was quickly reduced by much of the media into an example of a more general generational malaise gone completely amok. References were made to “the bullet that shot through a generation.” Cobain’s suicide quickly came to be seen as greatly symbolic. There is a part of me that understands why. A peak moment in the depression culture arrived with the tremendous success of Nirvana, whose hit single “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a call to apathy, with its lyrical demand, Here we are now, entertain us. In fact, the band’s whole album, Nevermind, seemed to be a long list of the many things that they didn’t care about. I remember thinking that American youth must be really angry to have turned something like that into a hit. And at long last, all of the miserable majority who could never relate to bands like Bon Jovi in the first place, went into record stores and demanded to buy music that spoke to them. So, I understand why people saw Kurt Cobain’s death as symbolic. Nirvana’s popularity either brought in or coincided with some definite and striking cultural moments.
However, by the time he was alone in his garage apartment with a shotgun in his hand with intent of doing himself in, his actions were far beyond any kind of cultural momentum we can associate with the times. Poet Sylvia Plath killed herself in 1963, before there were slackers or even hippies. She killed herself because she was depressed, the same as Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, and countless others. No one shoots himself in the head in the head because he’s had a bad hunting season, or because some national news source says bad things about him. Depression of this kind strikes down deep. The fact that depression seems to be everywhere to some extent right now can be both the cause and result of a level of societal malaise that so many feel. Once someone is a clinical case and on the verge of suicide, his story is absolutely and completely his own.
There is a level of self obsession in suicide as well. Christian Recording Artist Rebecca St. James said that once when she was in California, she was asked in the question-and-answer time of her concert, “What do you think of Kurt Cobain’s suicide?” She basically answered that Kurt Cobain was an example of someone who absolutely lived for self. On her webpage in the devotional area (1994), she said:
“His death was the ultimate end to his own selfishness. When we decide to live for ourselves rather than choosing to live God’s way, that’s exactly what we do – condemn ourselves to destruction. To some extent, selfishness always leads to death of some sort. If you allow selfishness to have its way, you are really letting yourself slowly die inside. God’s way is life – not death.”
I concur, and am so very grateful that my parents had me baptized, and that I was exposed to Christianity at a young age. My conversion to Catholicism 12 years ago saved my life. Sadly Kurt Cobain and others never found that light. Every day I thank God that I did.