How depression can be a journey to self-discovery and spiritual healing

Elbert Lee says recognising that depression is not just an illness waiting to be “cured” opens up a new window of human understanding

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 June, 2017, 2:26pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 June, 2017, 6:46pm

We used to romanticise everything – love, work, war, even death. It was the 1970s, a time of regional conflicts, protests, the Vietnam war and, in China, the Cultural Revolution. The headlines were as gloomy as those today. But for a developing teenage mind, it was heaven for exploration, offering endless possibilities to experiment with the world without and engage with our changing selves deep within.

Part of growing up involves experiencing the blues – various kinds of depressive moods. It was a sign of maturity, a rite of passage into the adult world. But soon, we learnt that the blues, in their severe form, can take a toll. A close friend decided to end his life when he was about to graduate from university. In a restaurant, he had talked to me about his troubled family and his love life. It was “deep stuff”.

Psychological distress may be a necessary junction in the path of personal growth

That meeting was our last. A day later, I saw his name in the papers. The blues took on a new meaning. My friend suffered from depression, later thought to be the result of a prolonged family feud.

But the blues are a part of life. Later that year, my relationship issues were followed by bouts of depression and sleepless nights. I also started to suffer panic attacks: the fear so intense, uncontrollable, and ­unpredictable that you can doubt your own sanity.

That made me see a clinical psychologist for the first time. Just being told these attacks are quite common for people my age was almost half the cure.

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The panic attacks returned later. But this time, I got to “know” them. I could name them and knew their shapes and sizes, and learned to live with them. Those sessions were important. I came to see that psychological troubles can be managed, at times with the help of someone. I also came to see that psychological distress may be a necessary junction in the path of personal growth, depression included.

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Twenty years ago, scientists still hoped to find a simple “biological marker” underlying depression. Some researchers pointed to serotonin levels, believing the poor regulation of this neurotransmitter was responsible for the mood disorder. Antidepressants were developed as an attempt to regulate serotonin uptake by neurons. But the picture that has emerged is not that simple.

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These days, we know that the use of antidepressants without psychotherapy is ineffective. Not only that, there is talk of side effects that could be particularly damaging to the well-being of young patients. The dream of a cheap and effective treatment for depression is gone.

Many who have gone through depression often say their life orientations have changed with recovery

To recognise that depression is not purely a biological phenomenon is a good sign. It opens up a new window of understanding. A more recent conception of depression describes it as a continuum with a variety of symptoms with different intensity. In this sense, depression is not a “diseased psychological state” that can be separated from a normal state. ­Depending on events that trigger it, its intensity, and other personality factors, it may be experienced as grief, sadness, melancholy or severe depression.

Depression is one of the many psychological issues that accompany adolescence. In the past, ­research focused on emotional problems at this stage of life and on ways of coping with these challenges. Less discussed, though, is whether these “negative moods” have any role to play in an individual’s growth and development.

Many who have gone through depression often say their life orientations have changed with recovery, for some with the help of psychotherapy. If this is true, then depression can possibly play a certain role in the development of a fuller, deeper, more resilient human being. Perhaps consistent with this is a recent study conducted at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which found that participants with a history of depression exhibited greater character strengths than a comparison group with no depression history.

Depression is a genuine and deep response to a complicated world

The relationship between depression and personal growth may not be accidental. Religious literature is littered with authors whose faith was deepened by their episodes of depression. I am thinking of C.S. Lewis and John Bunyan, who wrote about their journey in their Christian faith.

It would not be hard to find similar depression-mediated ­“enlightenment patterns” in Eastern religions. If so, then depression is a genuine and deep response to a complicated world and may serve as a catalyst, in this particular case, for spiritual growth.

Recently, an interesting line of research suggests that there may be purposes to depression. Studies have shown that for some, ruminations associated with depression can be self-reflection that may serve to solve problems, or enhance creativity. For ­others, however, it could just be brooding which may lead back to depression.

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Our relationship with depression is more than that. The blues cannot be separated from the world of art. In literature, we have Frost, Dickinson and Hemingway, and in Chinese literature, Qu Yuan and Li Bai. And in painting and music, the works of Van Gogh, Tchaikovsky and Schumann, to name a few.

A recent study by Simon Kyaga and colleagues in Sweden also shows a link between depression and specific creative professions, although the functional relationship is unclear. It is as if, without these different shades of sadness, humanity is not complete.

However, these cultural norms are no longer in vogue. In a practical, no-nonsense society such as ours, we are obsessed with the pursuit of quick wealth and happiness, thus depriving young people of the chance to reflect on the darker side of life.

But for young people, the blues of life continue to scream to be heard, tasted, explored and understood. Warmly received by a young audience was the film Mad World, which juxtaposes the manic pursuit of financial power and depressing living conditions – perfectly mirrored in the main character of the film – an individual suffering from bipolar disorder.

About the same time that the movie was released, ­another dark tale – Shakespeare’s King Lear, played by a youth group, came to theatres. One young actor who played one persona of Lear explained Lear’s “shadows” and that we all have our own shadows – things we don’t want to face or think about, and are not conscious of. If we do not want to be ruled by our shadows, we have to be conscious of them.

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Studies have shown that “self complexity”, or the degree to which we know ourselves, is negatively ­related to depression – it is as if self knowledge can ameliorate the severity of depression.

Young people are romantic. This is a phase when people still possess the power to experience in a fresh way, to be conscious of the shadows of humanity, of ourselves – and learn from it. This can be healing.

Depression is a complex phenomenon. Here in Hong Kong, we desperately need multiple narratives to address the issue, that go beyond the over-institutionalised and medicalised lines.

Depression is not simply a disease in a strong or weak form, waiting to be “cured”. It is a part of us. We need to understand it more.

Elbert Lee is an adjunct member of the faculty at Upper Iowa University, Hong Kong campus, where he teaches cognition and human development