The Scotsman - Top Stories - Why depression may be a vital part of our survival: EVOLUTIONARY psychology is a relatively new field which has raised a very provocative question - are psychiatric illnesses, such as depression, so common because they serve some kind of useful purpose in the development of mankind? This new discipline hinges on the idea that much of our motivational and emotional machinery evolved to help us survive our environment.
For example, seasonal affective disorder (SAD) is triggered by low light conditions found in winter. It is a condition that enforces withdrawal and perhaps reduced energy consumption at times when our ancestors would have suffered seasonal scarcity.
Another puzzle about depression which might be amenable to evolutionary explanation is the fact women suffer two to three times the rate of depression of men. Females have traditionally been involved in child-rearing, whereas men have historically been the providers of food, material resources and protection. Depression, with its symptoms that produce withdrawal and a reduction in risk-taking, would have kept women sheltered from danger, to bear and care for children, whereas a depressed man would have been impaired in the role of provider and protector.
These are two key concepts in the evolutionary theory about the function of depression - like any kind of pain, it draws our attention to something that needs fixing and it motivates us to fix it. One function of depression could be social, drawing our attention to the depressed person to try to provide assistance.
You know ... somehow, this doesn't quite seem likely. To be sure, not an evolutionary psychologist. Nonetheless. One of the things that happens in depression, as noted, is that you withdraw. That very withdrawal makes it more difficult for others to realize that something is wrong, depending on how it's done. Moreover, depressed mothers are frequently poor caretakers, for both themselves and their children; if seasonal affective disorder-related depression is meant to keep women closer to home and hearth so that they'll care for their children, it would not seem to be a terribly effective way of going about things.
This social perspective needs to be considered broadly in the treatment of depression. For example, married people not getting along with their spouses are an astonishing 25 times more likely to attract a diagnosis of major depression than people without marital unhappiness. Another study found approximately 30 per cent of new episodes of major depression are associated with marital dissatisfaction. We also know recovery from depression is hastened by improvements in social relationships and strong social support.
You know ... I know perfectly well that they don't mean it this way, but it does sound vaguely like they're saying marriage causes depression. It does actually sound like they are saying that married people are more likely to be diagnosed as depressed than unmarried people -- again, that may be a matter of poor phrasing.Posted by iain at January 12, 2004 04:41 PM