It may seem like we live in particularly trying times and have more reason than our ancestors did to be depressed. But the truth is the world has always been messy and humans have struggled with melancholy from the beginning. In ancient times people petitioned the gods for help. Today we petition the psychotherapist or doctor, without much more success than our ancestors had.
Current thinking favors the theory that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Some people, it is proposed, are deficient in one or more neurotransmitters such as serotonin or dopamine that regulate mood. Could be, but what makes me scratch my head over this is the fact that there is no diagnostic test that links anyone’s neurotransmitter levels to their moods. When we diagnose other diseases with a physical cause we must measure specific factors in the body tissue—hemoglobin for anemia, thyroid hormone for hypothyroidism, etc. There is no such diagnostic measure for depression. It is just assumed that because drugs that alter serotonin levels in the brain sometimes improve mood, depression must be caused by a serotonin deficiency. This is bad science. Cocaine also improves mood (more reliably than SSRI medication), but no one is suggesting that depression is the result of a cocaine deficiency.
Also, it’s not clear whether the mood elevation reported by some after taking SSRI medication is because of an increase in serotonin or a decrease. After a certain amount of time, the body down-regulates for serotonin when the brain’s feedback system perceives that adequate supplies are available. Since there’s no way to reliably measure and test these changes, how do we know what is really going on and how it relates to the patient’s mood? Are we attempting to slap a convenient and oversimplified explanation, (one that happens to sell a lot of drugs,) onto an extremely complex condition of the human soul?
In Chinese medicine we view depression as a type of qi stagnation. It’s not the sadness that’s a problem, it’s the lack of movement. So any way we can move the qi will help—exercise, acupuncture, laughter, music, B vitamins, herbs—take your pick. On the other hand, any remedy taken in pursuit of a constant state of happiness only results in a different version of stagnation. Look around. Nothing in nature is always joyful or always in despair. Could part of the human dilemma be our separation from all of this?