Modern psychopharmacology has provided us a myriad of newer drugs for the treatment of mood disorders. Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors have largely replaced older tricyclic antidepressants in the treatment of mild to moderate depression. The pharmaceutical industry encourages those on the front lines of primary care medicine to treat patients who meet the criteria for clinical depression for a minimum of four to six months in an effort to prevent relapse of the condition. Yet a fundamental question remains: do we need to prescribe medication routinely for every patient who meets the criteria for a diagnosis of depression?
Dr. Paul Keedwell, a clinician who specializes in mood disorders at the Institute of Psychiatry, King’s College London, suggests that in its milder forms, depression might actually serve to enhance an individual’s well-being. Depression may generate resilience, insight and creativity. Aristotle argued that depression allowed the sufferer to empathize more deeply with others. Henri Nouwen echoed such sentiments in his concept of the wounded healer: that person who, because he has walked a similar road, could more effectively support the sufferer in time of need.
In his essay In Praise of Melancholy, English professor Eric Wilson argues that sometimes feeling bad can do you some good. According to Wilson: “A person can only become a fully formed human being, as opposed to a mere mind, through suffering and sorrow.” Suffering prods us to consider more imaginative and creative ways of dealing with the world.
Many great artists have found inspiration through the depths of despair: witness the works of writers Sylvia Plath, Evelyn Waugh, Ernest Hemingway; artists Paul Gauguin, Vincent Van Gogh, Edgar Degas, Georgia O’Keeffe; musicians Elton John, Joni Mitchell, George Frideric Handel.
Perhaps the poet John Keats said it best when he wrote: “Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”