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How Depression Connects Us

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By Charles L. Raison, MDDecember 02, 2015
From the WebMD Archives

I’ve had it. I’ve treated thousands of people who’ve had it. And I’ve spent the better part of twenty years studying it. In all these ways depression is almost a part of me – a fearful adversary, but also a powerful window into understanding who we are as humans.

If you’ve experienced depression, I don’t need to say anything more about it being a fearful adversary. But you might wonder – how is it a window into understanding who we are? Because it is built so deeply into who we are as a species.

Depression is old, in rudimentary form it is far older than we are. Consider that we use rodents to discover and test new antidepressants. We last shared an ancestor with the rodents about 60 million years ago. And yet rodents’ responses to stress are so similar behaviorally and biologically to ours that they can guide us toward the discovery of new antidepressants.

Good evidence suggests that depression likely helped humans survive across evolutionary time, as we’ll discuss in future posts. Whether this is true or not, it is clear that depression goes way back. It is described in 5,000 year old Egyptian papyri and was widespread in the ancient world. Recently researchers have shown that depression exists among hunter-gatherers in the Amazon rain forest, and that it is associated with the same immune system changes that we observe when people are depressed in the modern world.

Considering how often depression shows up in our history as human beings, it’s almost ironic that one of the hallmarks of the condition is that it makes a person feel so alone.

If you have been depressed, or are depressed currently, you are in fact not alone. You stand in the company of most of the best and brightest of humanity. Indeed the list of luminaries who’ve wrestled with severe depression is a complete “Who’s Who” list of history’s movers and shakers. Even Mother Teresa was tormented by depression.

Of course, being in good company is not a reason to put up with being depressed. It robs people of happiness – and all too often it robs them of life itself, which is all the more tragic because we now have the ability to do so much to combat it.

If you are depressed and not in treatment, the essential first step is to find a doctor or a therapist who can provide you with a clear sense of which treatment options might be best for you. If you are in treatment but still depressed, talk to your clinician about next steps and other options to better tackle the disorder. Recent years have brought a wealth of new options to the table, at least one of which is likely to be right for you.

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