Depression is often seen as being a problem with the individual. A sign of faulty genetics, brain chemistry, or a weak and overly-emotional personality. However, we rarely discuss depression in the context of larger trends, and it’s with these larger trends that things get interesting.
My first foray into the wider contexts began with the statistics provided by the National Institute for Mental Health:
I was immediately struck by the fact that:
- Women have nearly twice the rate of depression as men.
- Many more young people are depressed than older people.
- Depression is most common in people of 2 or more races. (That’s right. More than in Black, Hispanic, Latino, or even Native American populations! WTF!!)
For me, these statistics had shocking personal relevance because as a bi-racial, mid-twenties female, I’m in the highest-frequency demographic for ALL of these categories.
Why was this? My mind was flooded with questions about how this all tied together.
- Are women ‘more sensitive’ or ‘biologically inclined’ to be depressed? Or is it influenced by changing roles, increasing responsibilities (as both breadwinner and caretaker), and less power, respect, and validation in social situations?
- Are young people struggling because they are working to become financially established and questioning their identities in a changing world?
- Why are rates among Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics lower than white people? High rates in Native American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander populations are unsurprising (unfortunately), but why does 2 or More Races have the highest frequency?
Asking these questions suggested to me that depression was linked with:
Power. Empowerment and disempowerment seem the most reasonable explanation for the increased rates amongst women, young people, Native Americans, Native Hawaiians, and 2 or More Races. All of these groups have much lower representation in positions of power, the media, and society at large.
Wealth. Wealth and power are obviously linked. Groups with less power also tend to have much less access to wealth and financial resources. This could be correlation or causation, but the fact remains that wealth is more common in whites than minorities, in men than women, in older than younger —whether this is caused by power disparities or a reflection of it.
Community. This seemed to me to be the only possible explanation for why Black, Hispanic, and Asian demographics all have lower depression rates than white populations. From my experience growing up in the Chinese American community, there is a sense of cultural unity and mutual support which I doubt exists amongst white communities that lack unifying culture.
Identity. This seemed to be a key factor that was impacting people of 2 or More Races. I believe this is also relevant for younger people (who are often establishing their identities), white populations (who often lack cultural identity), and women (who, in the modern age, often hold contrasting identities).
More Social Trends
But understanding depression doesn’t stop with these demographics. It is well-established that there are major links between depression and:
- The LGBT Community
- Terminal Illnesses (such as cancer)
- Trauma (History of Abuse, PTSD, neglect, etc.)
- College Students
- Graduate Students
- Unemployment, and
- Certain Careers and Industries
… As well as probably a million other things.
So what’s going on? To me, these relationships bring up some important distinctions:
First, The Chicken or Egg Conundrum. e.g. Does poverty cause depression or does depression cause poverty? …Or both?
Second, The Importance of Stressors. Such as:
- Health Stressors: Sleep, Diet, Disease, and Physical exercise.
- Financial & Material Stressors: Access to Resources.
- Safety Stressors: Safety from Harm, Security, and Stability.
- Social Stressors: Acceptance, Rejection, Discrimination, and Expectation.
- Existential Stressors: Questioning Identity or Facing Mortality.
So what’s the bottom line?
A significant factor with these trends appears to be access to power.
Some of the most at-risk groups are groups that experience high amounts of stress in the form of resource acquisition, financial stability, safety, social acceptance, and existential questioning. Coincidentally, these groups tend to be underrepresented groups, and this suggests to me that stress is tied to distributions of power and access. i.e. More power and more access means less stress. And this to me brings up warning flags when considering widening income inequalities, the shrinking of the middle class, etc.
One notable exception to this idea, however, is the question of existential and social stressors. These stressors do not seem directly related to access to societal power. (Lots to say. I’m going to save this for another article…)
Depression Over Time
Let’s bring on some more data, though. Specifically, let’s look at increasing rates of depression over time:
This 2010 paper concludes that depression rates are increasing across the board, and especially for younger generations. This also can’t really be explained by access to power. So the question here is, what is the difference between young people now versus young people 40 years ago?
To me, this indicates how stress is tied to modernity.
We’re generally aware of how the modern age has placed more stressors on the individual than ever before. Sounds, notifications, news, social media. And larger trends like dissolution of family or tribal structures. Urbanization. Social disconnection. And, oh, that thing called the Internet.
All of this, again, is stuff that our brains simply did not evolve to handle. This is relevant for everyone, but perhaps especially for young people that are just going through puberty or emerging as adults.
In short, depression trends seem largely tied to the modern age overload of our prehistorically-evolved psyches.
So What’s the Real Problem?
From all of this, we can begin to grasp the bigger picture of depression as an ‘epidemic’ in our society. Specifically that:
An individual’s system-overload and sense of powerlessness does not occur in a vacuum, but in the context of modernization and unequal power distributions.
And further, that the underlying cause is stressors of all kinds impacting the central nervous system—stressors that are linked to modernity and distributions of power.
There is a lot of talk and speculation on ‘how we can cure the depression epidemic.’ But from looking at the trends, it seems much less likely that depression demonstrates ‘a problem’ with individuals, but rather, that depression is a reflection of stress distributions across society.
And that these distributions suggest an increasingly and unequally stressed society.
For me this means two things:
First, as individuals, we must develop more refined skills for resiliency in the modern age. Considering the debilitating nature of depression, happiness cannot be seen as an afterthought but as a necessity.
Second, as a society, we need to recognize that the system we have created is effective at generating profit and productivity for select groups of people, not universal health, happiness, and fulfillment. And we need to change that.
So we need to ask better questions. And better than “How do we stop the depression epidemic?” is:
“How do we create a society that supports universal human health and happiness?”