Depression is one of the most powerful forces in the human mind. It makes us less productive, less social, and even less human. It practically represents anti-life because it traps you in a box in which you can no longer express yourself adequately. It can be a confusing, frightening, soul-sucking ordeal.
And despite our best efforts, our pills and our cognitive therapies, we’re failing in the fight against depression. If it seems to you that incidence of depression is increasing, that’s because it is. As Professor T. M. Luhrmann of Stanford points out, “suicide rates have increased 60 percent over the past 50 years, most strikingly in the developing world … by 2020 depression will be the second most prevalent medical condition in the world … [Additionally,] in 2011, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that the rate of antidepressant use in the United States rose by 400 percent between 1988 and 2008.”
You might wonder, “what if our society is just better at spotting and reporting depression symptoms? What if the reported rates have gone up but the actual underlying instances of the disease have remained the same over time?” Perhaps we are just better at catching symptoms; now we report things that might have gone unnoticed in previous generations.
That doesn’t seem to be the case, however. A recent study asked at-risk populations whether they experienced trouble sleeping, loss of appetite, and/or lack of concentration. Prof. Jean Twenge of San Diego State University comments that “this study shows an increase in symptoms most people don’t even know are connected to depression, which suggests adolescents and adults really are suffering more … people are not any more likely to say they are depressed when asked directly, again suggesting that the rise is not based on people being more willing to admit depression.”
Despite our better treatment options and increased awareness of mental illness, incidence has increased. How can that be? The first culprit is city life. The phenomenon of urban psychosis has been the subject of intense debate since psychologists first noticed it in the early 1900s. It is unknown whether cities cause psychosis or whether the afflicted simply tend towards cities.
In any case, “urban environments amplify anxieties, increase the intensity of hallucinations, and weaken self-confidence.” While cities affect schizophrenic behavior more acutely than other mental illnesses, they contribute to social isolation and the fracturing of families regardless. Anxiety, weak self-esteem, isolation, and lack of close family ties all help enable the onset or continuation of depression. These issues might be exacerbated by the fact that more companies are moving their offices away from the suburbs and back into cities.
But cities can’t be the only reason that people are more depressed. Data from the CDC (pdf file) shows that suicide is the 3rd biggest killer among those aged 10-24 and 2nd biggest killer among those aged 25-34. (The leading killer for these groups is unintentional injury.) Young people are the most at-risk. Tim Urban of Wait But Why gives us a possible explanation: social networking technology.
He says, using a hypothetical Millennial named Lucy, that “social media creates a world for Lucy where A) what everyone else is doing is very out in the open, B) most people present an inflated version of their own existence, and C) the people who chime in the most about their careers are usually those whose careers (or relationships) are going the best, while struggling people tend not to broadcast their situation. This leaves Lucy feeling, incorrectly, like everyone else is doing really well, only adding to her misery.”
If cities and technology drive depression among young people, society seems poised for an explosion of this particular mental illness. It seems to be a disease of modernity: society will only add to cities’ sprawl and build more social networks. Researcher Brandon Hidaka argues that evolution didn’t adequately prepare humans for today’s world due to a mismatch between prior circumstances and modern life. “Declining social capital and greater inequality and loneliness are candidate mediators of a depressiogenic social milieu. Modern populations are increasingly overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, and socially-isolated.” All of these factors point to a likely increase in depression in the future.
How, then, does one avoid or correct social / societal factors that contribute to depression? Three key steps might aid Millennial sufferers:
- Find friends that are truly supportive of you. You want people who aren’t transactive (i.e. they don’t want things from you, they don’t think friendship is a quid pro quo affair). Your friends should be there for you just because they want to, without expecting something (other than your support when they need it) in return.
- If you live in a city, find ways to stay connected to close friends and family who live elsewhere. Try to visit if you can, or try to talk frequently. Additionally, attempt to find places or groups that give you a sense of belonging (Meetup.com can be great for this because the one-upmanship present in other forms of social media doesn’t exist).
- Finally, ignore people who don’t add value to your life. Your thousands of Twitter followers don’t really help you when you’re stuck in a dark cloud. Also, if people you follow use social media to shamelessly self-promote, stop following them if their “public reality” makes you feel inadequate.
Here’s the Suicide Prevention Hotline if you need it: http://www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or call 1-800-273-8255.
Also published on Medium.