In a society in which individualism is becoming rampant, people more and more believe that they are the center of the world. Such a belief system makes individual failure almost inconsolable.
– Martin Seligman
Why is there a depression epidemic?
If the purpose of modern economic systems is to make and keep people well, it is doing a very bad job.
Rates of depression and anxiety have increased significantly in the past 70 years. According to the psychologist Martin Seligman there is ten times more depression now than in 1945. The World Health Organisation reports (2021) that about 3.8% of the world’s population, or nearly 300 million people, are clinically depressed. Statistics show that rates of depression are higher in richer countries, including about one in ten in the USA.
Alarmingly, depression is increasing at a rate of 20% annually.
The ultimate cause of depression is complex and hotly debated. Mood is affected by many different chemicals, genes, nerves and processes. Depression is related to certain chemical imbalances in the brain, although these imbalances are very complex and different for each person depending a wide variety of factors. These imbalances can be caused by, or at least emerge from, genetic factors. They can also be catalysed by disease or physical trauma. However, chemical imbalances can also emerge from lifestyle, social and environmental factors.
Since significant genetic changes do not happen over short periods of time, and assuming that the rate of disease and physical trauma has been relatively stable, or even reducing, over the past 70 years then the rapid increase in the rate of depression must be caused by lifestyle, social and environmental factors.
Lifestyle, social and environmental factors include things like prolonged stress at home or work, distressing experiences in childhood, lack of physical health, physical stress from poor nutrition and pollution, coping with the loss of a loved one, isolation and loneliness, or traumatic events such as natural disasters or war. Sometimes researchers refer to these as sociological or psychosocial factors since they bring together events that happen out in society with the inner workings of a person’s mind.
Whilst many lifestyle, social and environmental factors have always occurred, the question remains, what are the specific factors that have increased the rate of depression so much in the past 70 years? There are a number of suspects, some of which are outlined below. The increase in the overall rate of depression will be a combination of these, and other, factors.
Isolation and loss of community spirit
Self-interest and self-involvement have increased in the past 70 years. Community spirit has been increasingly undermined by the competition and rivalry fostered by the modern economic machine. The combination of alienation at work and status competition creates ongoing stresses which can lead to depression.
Traditional communities naturally provide emotional support. In the Amish society in the US major depression is almost unknown, as it is in the equally traditional Kaluli tribe of New Guinea. In these societies individual concerns are group concerns and vice-versa. You know that if you have a problem other people will help you and you are expected to help out when others need support. Deep down we know we are meant to do these things but it’s not a feature of society as it once was.
Processed food is scientifically connected to depression. A University College London team researched the relationship between depression and diet. They discovered that people who regularly eat foods such as sweetened desserts, fried food, processed meat, refined grains and high-fat dairy products are 58% more likely to be clinically depressed. On the other hand, those who eat a diet rich in whole foods, like fruit, vegetables and lean protein, are 26% less likely to be depressed.
A diet high in processed food is sorely lacking in key nutrition that allows your mind and body to function. You don’t find Vitamin D, omega 3 fatty acids, magnesium and trace minerals in junk food. Sugar and other food additives such as colourings are proven to affect mood.
Also toxins like heavy metals and herbicide residues can get it our systems and they are proven to affect mood.
Lack of exercise
Sadly people in our modern western societies (reported to be as much as 80% of Americans) do not exercise regularly.
According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise reduces and prevents anxiety and depression. Moving your body releases feel good endorphins, helps with detoxification, and increases body temperature, which has calming effects.
Harvard University has done a study that reviews scientific literature back to 1981. They have concluded that regular exercise is beneficial for mild to moderate depression.
Lack of nature
People have increasingly become disconnected from nature. People live indoors more than ever, attached to electronic devices, and it is affecting our mind and moods.
The UK based mental health charity Mind has discovered that 90% of people report significant emotional benefits from simple outdoor activities such as walking in nature and gardening.
Another report released from UK charity Ramblers and Macmillan Cancer Support found that as little as two and half hours of walking or gardening per week can save lives by lowering stress levels and keep you healthier and happier.
A study done by the University of Colorado at Boulder suggests that camping in nature for a week resets your biological clock, brings out positive hormonal change and makes you more mentally alert.
Scientific research has proven that consumerism i.e. seeking happiness by consuming goods, can lead to chronic depression.
Research conducted at Northwestern University shows that people who place a high value on wealth, status, and material goods are more depressed, anxious and less sociable than those who do not.
For too many people consumerism is the consolation for working long hours to earn money – so that they can consume.
There are many factors that can cause depression, directly or indirectly. People are generally very adaptable and most people make the most of their situations, often thriving in spite of the challenges of life.
Unfortunately more and more people are suffering from the challenges of life, without even being fully aware of them. We need to help ourselves and others turn this tide of depression and anxiety back by shunning the unhealthy lifestyles promoted by the economic machine.
We need to reconnect with our right to wellness through healthy practices including exercise, diet, positive relationships, community spirit, work-life balance, getting outdoors, decluttering our lives of unnecessary stuff and living more simply.