Category Archives: Depression

Is Depression A Real Disease?

By Liah Greenfeld

Last month’s issue of The British Journal of General Practice contains an editorial “Depression as a culture-bound syndrome: implications for primary care” by Dr. Christopher Dowrick, Professor of Primary Medical Care at the Institute of Psychology, Health, and Society of the University of Liverpool. Dr. Dowrick claims that depression “fulfills the criteria for a culture-bound syndrome,” i.e. , one of the “’illnesses’, limited to specific societies or culture areas, composed of localized diagnostic categories,” like, for instance ataque de nervios in Latin America. In the case of depression the culture area affected is “westernized societies.” Putting the word “illness,” when applied to culture-bound syndromes into quotation marks indicates that Dr. Dowrick does not consider such syndromes real illnesses; it follows that depression–a culture-bound syndrome of westernized societies–is also not a real illness. Dr. Dowrick further argues that depression as a diagnostic category cannot be seen as “a universal, transcultural concept,” because it has no validity and utility, and it does not have validity and utility, because “there is no sound evidence for a discrete pathophysiological basis” for depression. I find myself in absolute agreement with Dr. Dowrick’s two specific statements above (that depression is a culture-bound syndrome of westernized societies, and that there is no discrete pathophysiological basis for this diagnostic category), and yet completely disagree with the implication that depression is not a real disease.

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The Modern Mental Disease

By Liah Greenfeld

Modern humans—that is, people who live in societies such as ours, democratic, prosperous, relatively secure, and offering its members numerous life-choices, people like you and me, in other words—are different from humans who lived or live in other types of societies. We experience life differently from them: perceive reality differently and feel emotions that other humans did not have.

Human experience was revolutionized in the 16th century England. In the previous posts we have already discussed such new emotions as ambition, love, happiness, and their connection to the new form of consciousness, which came to be called “nationalism” and formed the cultural framework of modernity. Nationalism implied a special image of society as a sovereign community of equal members (a “nation”) and of reality in general. In its original, English, form it was essentially democratic. As it spread, it carried the seeds of democracy everywhere. Considering a living community sovereign (the source of all laws), it implicitly but drastically reduced the relevance of God and, even when combined with religion and presented in a religious idiom, which happened often, was to all intents and purposes secular. It was dramatically different, in other words, from the fundamentally religious, hierarchical consciousness which it replaced, and it shaped the way we live today. Among other things, the new consciousness made the human individual one’s own maker: it implied we had the choice to decide what we want to be; it dramatically increased the value of human life, encouraging us to realize it to the fullest extent—in other words, it gave us dignity and freedom. The society built on its premises of equality and popular sovereignty was an open society, in which the individual had the right to define one’s own identity, a society which made one’s identity one’s own business.  It is not coincidental that the new emotions discussed in previous posts, which emerged when the English society was redefined as a “nation,” were in some way connected to the individual’s ability to define oneself and that the two great modern passions—ambition and love—in fact answered a new need which this ability created: the need for help in identity-formation.

Unfortunately all these benefits of nationalism—the dignity, freedom, and equality, both empowering and encouraging the individual to choose what to be – did not come unaccompanied by costs, and for all the enrichment of our life experience contributed by love and happiness, these costs would be impossible to disregard.  The liberty to define oneself has made the formation of the individual identity problematic. A member of a nation cannot learn who or what s/he is from the environment, as would an individual growing up in an essentially religious and rigidly stratified, non-egalitarian order, where everyone’s position and behavior are defined by birth and divine providence. Beyond the very general category of nationality, a modern individual must decide what s/he is and should do, and thus construct one’s identity oneself.  Modern culture cannot provide individuals within it with consistent guidance, with which other cultures provide its members. By providing inconsistent guidance (for we are inevitably guided by our cultural environment), it in fact actively disorients us. Such cultural insufficiency is called anomie. Already over a century ago, it was recognized as the most dangerous problem of modernity. For many people, the necessity to construct one’s identity, to choose what to make of oneself, became an unbearable burden.

At the same time as the English society was redefined as a nation, and ambition, happiness, and love made their first appearances among our emotions, a special variety of mental illness, different from a multitude of mental illnesses known since antiquity, was first observed. It expressed itself in degrees of mental impairment, derangement, and dysfunction, the common symptoms of which were social maladjustment (chronic discomfort in one’s environment) and chronic discomfort (dis-ease) with one’s self, the sense of self oscillating between self-loathing and megalomania and in rare cases deteriorating into the terrifying experience of a complete loss of self. Some of the signs of the new disorder were similar to the symptoms of familiar mental abnormalities. In particular, the new illness, like some previously known conditions, would express itself in abnormal affect—extreme excitement and paralyzing sadness. But, in distinction to the known conditions in which these symptoms were temporary, in the new ailment they were chronic and recurrent. The essence of the new disorder, however, was its delusionary quality, that is the inability to distinguish between the inner world and the outside, which specifically disturbed the experience of self, confusing one regarding one’s identity, making one dissatisfied with, and/or insecure it, it, splitting one’s self in an inner conflict, even dissolving it altogether into the environment. Sixteenth-century English phrases such as “losing one’s mind,” “going out of one’s mind,” and “not being oneself” captured this disturbed experience, which expressed itself in out-of-control behaviors (that is, behaviors out of one’s control, out of the control of the self), and, as a result, in maladjustment and functional incapacitation.

None of the terms in the extensive medical vocabulary of the time (which included numerous categories of mental diseases) applied to the new mental illness; neither could it be treated with the means with which the previously known mental illnesses were treated. It required a new term—and was called “madness.” It also called into being the first hospital in the sense in which we understand the word (the famous Bedlam), the first medical specialization, eventually named “psychiatry,” and special legislation regarding the “mad.”  It is this clearly bipolar and delusional disease which would be three centuries later classified as distinct syndromes of schizophrenia and affective (depressive and manic-depressive) disorders.

We shall follow the history of this modern disease and analyze it in the following posts.

[Originally published on Psychology Today]

What’s Really Wrong with DSM-5

By Liah Greenfeld

The essence of the DSM-5 consists in the modifications it introduces in the extensive psychiatric nosology, specifically adding diagnostic categories to diseases of unknown biological origin and uncertain etiology. But the real problem lies much deeper – in the understanding of such diseases itself. It is the problem with the old, fundamental, and universally accepted diagnostic categories of thought disorder- vs. affective disorders, or schizophrenia vs. manic and unipolar depression, on which all the other diagnostic categories of mental illness of unknown etiology, new and not so new, are based. DSM-5’s approach is similar to attempting to salvage a house, falling apart because it is built on an unsound foundation, by adding to it a fresh coat of paint and new shutters.

What Mind, Modernity, Madness does, in contrast, is to dismantle the structure, establish a sound foundation, and then rebuild the house on top of it. I begin by questioning and analyzing the fundamental diagnostic categories themselves, consider them against the existing clinical, neurobiological, genetic, and epidemiological evidence, bring into the mix the never-before-considered cultural data, and on this basis propose that the two (schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness) or even three (schizophrenia, manic depression, and unipolar depression) discreet diseases are better conceptualized–and therefore treated–as the same disease, with one cause, which expresses itself differently depending on the circumstances in which this cause becomes operative. Psychiatric epidemiologists, at least, have long suspected that “the black box of culture” is an important contributing factor in these diseases. However, as the phrase indicates, they lack the means to understand or even examine its contribution. By unpacking the “black box” (and showing, specifically, how it is reflected in the logically necessary structures of the mind, such as identity, will, and thinking self), I add a missing yet essential dimension to the diagnostic tool-kit, which the DSM-5, like the previous editions, disregards.

Love, Madness, Terrorism: Connected?

By Liah Greenfeld

In the 16th century, in England, several remarkable things happened:

Social mobility, inconceivable before, became legitimate and common;

The ideal of Romantic love between a man and a woman emerged and “true love,” as we understand it today, was added to the human emotional range;

The word “people,” which earlier referred to the lower classes, became synonymous with “nation,” which at the time had the meaning of “an elite”;

Numerous new words appeared, among them “aspiration,” “happiness,” and “madness”;

The English society, previously a society of hierarchically arranged orders of nobility, clergy, and laborers under the sovereignty of God and his Vicar in Rome, was redefined as a sovereign community of equals;

The nature of violent crime, personal and political, changed, with crime that was not rational in the sense of self-interested becoming much more common;

The attitude to pets, especially dogs and cats, changed, transforming these animals in many cases from living multi-purpose tools to our friends and soul-mates;

The pursuit of growth — rather than survival, as was the case before – became the goal of the economy;

Mental diseases which were later to be named “schizophrenia,” “manic-depressive illness,” and “depression” were first observed, shifting the interest of the medical profession, in particular, from other, numerous, mental diseases that were known since the times of antiquity.

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Identity Construction and Cultural Madness

From the Harvard University Press Blog:

It sometimes seems as if each day brings a new raft of articles proclaiming yet another biological or genetic explanation for human behavior and activity. To Liah Greenfeld, that barrage is just a new bubble, and in Mind, Modernity, Madness: The Impact of Culture on Human Experience, she does her best to burst it. While not entirely dismissing biological factors in mental illness, Greenfeld argues that the phenomenon that was for a long time called simply “madness”—today’s schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, and major depression—is actually a symptom of modernity, an effect of our cultural environment.   Continue reading

“What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?”

Shane Koyczan, in his March 2013 TED Talk (HT Farnam Street Blog):

I hid my heart under the bed because my mother said if your not careful someday someone’s gonna break it. Take it from me, under the bed is not a good hiding spot. I know because I’ve been shot down so many times I get altitude sickness just from standing up for myself. But that’s what we were told, stand up for yourself. That’s hard to do if you don’t know who you are. We are expected to define ourselves at such an early age, and if we didn’t do it, others did it for us. Geek. Fatty. Slut. Fag.

And at the same time we were being told what we were, we were being asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” I always thought that was an unfair question. It presupposes that we can’t be what we already are. We were kids. … They asked me what I wanted to be then told me what not to be. … I was being told to accept the identity that others will give me.

Liah Greenfeld in Mind, Modernity, Madness:

Why do the secular focus of nationalism and the two principles embodied in the society constructed on its basis lead to madness–or schizophrenia and manic-depressive illness? All three of these features place the individual in control of his or her destiny, eliminating the expectation of putting things right in the afterlife, making one the ultimate authority in deciding on one’s priorities, encouraging one to strive for a higher social status (since one is presumed to be equal to everyone, but one wants to be equal only to those who are superior) and giving one the right to choose one’s social position (since the presumption of fundamental equality makes everyone interchangeable) and therefore identity. But this very liberty, implied in nationalism, both empowering and encouraging the individual to choose what to be–in contrast to all the religious pre-national societies, in which no one was asked “what do you want to be when you grow up?” since one was whatever one was born–makes the formation of the individual identity problematic, and the more so the more choices for the definition of one’s identity a society offers and the more insistent it is on equality. A clear sense of identity being a condition sine qua non for adequate mental functioning, malformation of identity leads to mental disease, but modern culture cannot help the individual to acquire such clear sense, it is inherently confusing. This cultural insufficiency–the inability of a culture to provide individuals within it with consistent guidance–was named anomie by Durkheim.

Though realized in vastly different ways (depending on the manner in which this form of consciousness developed in a particular society), the three principles of nationalism–secularism, egalitarianism, and popular sovereignty–affect the formation of the individual identity in nations necessarily. A member of a nation can no longer learn who or what s/he is from the environment, as would an individual growing up in an essentially religious and rigidly stratified, non-egalitarian order, where everyone’s position and behavior are defined by birth and divine providence. Beyond the very general category of nationality, a modern individual must decide what s/he is and should do, and thus construct one’s identity oneself. Schizophrenia and depressive (bipolar and unipolar) illnesses, I argue, are caused specifically by the values of equality and self-realization, which make every individual one’s own maker–and the rates of such mental disease increase in accordance with the extent to which a particular society is devoted to these values, inherent in the nationalist image of reality, i.e., in the national consciousness, and the scope allowed to the freedom of choice in it. This turns the prevailing view of the mental diseases in question upside down.

On DSM-V and the Diagnosis of Mental Illness

Allen Frances in “Diagnosing the D.S.M.,” The New York Times

…the D.S.M. is the victim of its own success and is accorded the authority of a bible in areas well beyond its competence. It has become the arbiter of who is ill and who is not — and often the primary determinant of treatment decisions, insurance eligibility, disability payments and who gets special school services. D.S.M. drives the direction of research and the approval of new drugs. It is widely used (and misused) in the courts… Psychiatric diagnosis is simply too important to be left exclusively in the hands of psychiatrists. They will always be an essential part of the mix but should no longer be permitted to call all the shots.

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