How Everyone Became Depressed

The rise and fall of the nervous breakdown

Depression Out of Control!

Once considered a major psychiatric illness, it's as common as the common cold

The diagnosis of depression is totally out of control! Once considered a major psychiatric illness that skirted suicide and wrecked careers and marriages, it has become as common as the common cold.

Here’s what’s happening in Melbourne, Australia. A group of researchers screened a population of twelve-year-olds, found 86 normal, then waited for them to become depressed. Of the 86, 30 became depressed. That’s 35 percent. Another 21 developed some other psychiatric issue. So that by age 18, 59 percent had become diagnosed as ill. (Sarah Whittle et al., 2014)

Just imagine. You start out with a group of normal kids, just entering puberty. By age 18, almost two-thirds of them are nutbars.

Do we believe this?

No. What we believe is that many researchers and clinicians (almost all were PhDs) have lost their good judgment. They established a set of criteria for “depression” or “anxiety” that it is ridiculously easy to qualify for, then pronounce those covered by this vast, indiscriminate blanket as “mentally ill.”

The purpose of the study was to follow the kids with brain imaging techniques to see exactly what was going on in the skulls of those who developed “depression.” The investigators expressed exasperation that so many had developed anxiety as well because that threw sand into their plans to study “pure” depression. (In fact, depression and anxiety often go together.)

But what they ended up studying was pure nothing, or rather, adolescent heartburn, stress, romantic entanglement and disentanglement, and the bittersweet vicissitudes of life in Melbourne of a summer evening. It makes as little sense to think that these adolescents had a psychiatric disease called “depression” as to imagine that they were all victims of “bullying,” or “peanut allergies,” or whatever the media-driven bugaboo of the moment is.

How did this happen, that all these kids ended with up this carnival of psychiatric diagnoses?

One is that psychiatry as a discipline has jumped off the deep end. With the rise of psychopharmacology in the 1950s, psychiatric diagnoses started to be marketed like auto tires. First it was anxiety, for which some of the blockbuster drugs of the 1950s (Miltown) were flogged, later the Valium-style benzodiazepines.

But as the Valium-style drugs started to become associated with addiction, the spotlight shifted to depression. Effective antidepressants for real depression were already on the market. But the appearance of the Prozac-style drugs from 1988 on touched off the depression epidemic. Prozac and the other so-called Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) became objects of marketing campaigns such as psychiatry had never previously witnessed. Into the heads of both patients and physicians was drummed the idea that everybody was “depressed,” or if not right now, soon.

Heartburn, heartbreak, and heartsink all became “depression,” happily treatable with the new wonder drugs. I told this story in my book “How Everyone Became Depressed,” (Shorter, 2013) and shall not further rehearse it here. The result was that a depression epidemic engulfed western society, including Melbourne, where almost two-thirds of the adolescents developed psychiatric diseases.

At one level, this is ridiculous. At another, it is a tragedy. Because all of these youngsters will have developed some sense of psychic fragility as a result of encountering this terrifying psychiatric diagnostic machine that is simply out of control. And they may anxiously go through life ceaselessly monitoring their “mental health” for relapses and believing themselves especially exposed to the slings and arrows of fortune.

So we are paying a price for the psychiatrizing of everything. That price is a generation as fragile as Christmas tree ornaments.

Edward Shorter, Ph.D., is the Jason A. Hannah Professor in the History of Medicine at the University of Toronto.

more...

Subscribe to How Everyone Became Depressed

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?