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What is it like to be depressed?

How are we to understand experiences of depression? First of all, it is important to be clear about what the problem consists of. If we don’t know what depression is like, why can’t we just ask someone who’s depressed? And, if we want others to know what our own experience of depression is like, why can’t we just tell them? In fact, most autobiographical accounts of depression state that the experience or some central aspect of it is difficult or even impossible to describe. Depression is not simply a matter of the intensification of certain familiar aspects of experience and the diminution of others, such as feeling more sad and less happy, or more tired and less energetic. First-person accounts of depression indicate that it involves something quite alien to what — for most people — is mundane, everyday experience. The depressed person finds herself in a ‘different world’, an isolated, alien realm, adrift from social reality. There is a radical departure from ‘everyday experience’, and this is not a localized experience that the person has within a pre-given world; it encompasses every aspect of her experience and thought – it is the shape of her world. It is the ‘world’ of depression that people so often struggle to convey.

My approach involves extracting insights from the phenomenological tradition of philosophy and applying them to the task of understanding depression experiences. That tradition includes philosophers such as Edmund Husserl, Edith Stein, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre, all of whom engage in ‘phenomenological’ reflection – that is, reflection upon the structure of human experience. Why turn to phenomenology? Well, these philosophers all claim that human experience incorporates something that is overlooked by most of those who have tried to describe it — what we might call a sense of ‘belonging to’ or ‘finding oneself in’ a world. This is something so deeply engrained, so fundamental to our lives, that it is generally overlooked. Whenever I reflect upon my experience of a chair, a table, a sound, an itch or a taste, and whenever I contrast my experience with yours, I continue to presuppose a world in which we are both situated, a shared realm in which it is possible to encounter things like chairs and to experience things like itches. This sense of being rooted in an interpersonal world does not involve perceiving a (very big) object or believing that some object exists. It’s something that is already in place when we do that, and therefore something that we seldom reflect upon.

The Concern by Alex Proimos. CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Depression, I suggest, involves a shift in one’s sense of belonging to the world. We can further understand the nature of this once we acknowledge the role that possibilities play in our experience. When I get up in the morning, feel very tired, stop at a café on the way to work, and then look at a cup of coffee sitting in front of me, what do I ‘experience’? On one account, what I ‘see’ is just what is ‘present’, an object of a certain type. But it’s important to recognize that my experience of the cup is also permeated by possibilities of various kinds. I see it as something that I could drink from, as something that is practically accessible and practically significant. Indeed, it appears more than just significant – it is immediately enticing. Rather than, ‘you could drink me’, it says ‘drink me now’. Many aspects of our situation appear significant to us in some way or other, meaning that they harbor the potentiality for change of a kind that matters. We can better appreciate what experiences of depression consist of once we construe them in terms of shifts in the kinds of possibility that the person has access to. Whereas the non-depressed person might find one thing practically significant and another thing not significant, the depressed person might be unable to find anything practically significant. It is not that she doesn’t find anything significant, but that she cannot. And the absence is very much there, part of the experience – something is missing, painfully lacking, and nothing appears quite as it should do. In fact, many first-person accounts of depression explicitly refer to a loss of possibility. Here are some representative responses to a questionnaire study that I conducted with colleagues two years ago, with help from the mental health charity SANE:

“I remember a time when I was very young – 6 or less years old. The world seemed so large and full of possibilities. It seemed brighter and prettier. Now I feel that the world is small. That I could go anywhere and do anything and nothing for me would change.”

“It is impossible to feel that things will ever be different (even though I know I have been depressed before and come out of it). This feeling means I don’t care about anything. I feel like nothing is worth anything.”

“The world holds no possibilities for me when I’m depressed. Every avenue I consider exploring seems shut off.”

“When I’m not depressed, other possibilities exist. Maybe I won’t fail, maybe life isn’t completely pointless, maybe they do care about me, maybe I do have some good qualities. When depressed, these possibilities simply do not exist.”

By emphasizing the experience of possibility, we can understand a great deal. Suppose the depressed person inhabits an experiential world from which the possibility of anything ever changing for the better is absent; nothing offers the potential for positive change and nothing draws the person in, solicits action. This lack permeates every aspect of her experience. Her situation seems strangely timeless, as no future could differ from the present in any consequential way. Action seems difficult, impossible or futile, because there is no sense of any possibility for significant change. Her body feels somehow heavy and inert, as it is not drawn in by situations, solicited to act. She is cut off from other people, who no longer offer the possibility of significant kinds of interpersonal connection. Others might seem somehow elsewhere, far away, given that they are immersed in shared goal-directed activities that no longer appear as intelligible possibilities for the depressed person. We can thus see how the kind of ‘hopelessness’ or ‘despair’ that is central to so many experiences of depression differs in important respects from more mundane feelings that might be described in similar ways. I might lose hope in a certain project, but I retain the capacity for hope — I can still hope for other things. Some depression experiences, in contrast, involve erosion of the capacity for hope. There is no sense that anything of worth could be achieved or that anything good could ever happen — the attitude of hope has ceased to be intelligible; the person cannot hope.

Of course, it should also be conceded that depression is a heterogeneous, complicated, multi-faceted phenomenon; no single approach or perspective will yield a comprehensive understanding. Even so, I think phenomenological research has an important role to play in solving a major part of the puzzle, thus feeding into a broader understanding of depression and informing our response to it.

Heading image: Depression. Public Domain via Pixabay.

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