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What is the real cause of depression?

Around 1 in 5 adults in the U.S. are taking at least one drug to treat a psychiatric problem. In Britain, antidepressant prescriptions have doubled in the past decade, to the point where now 1 in 11 people drug themselves to deal with depression and anxiety.


Depression is caused by a shortage of serotonin and noradrenaline in the brain, and existing antidepressants are designed to increase the levels of these chemicals. Most front-line treatments for depression now prescribe a mixture of different types of antidepressants to help cure patients.


The question is, what has been causing depression and anxiety to spiral in this way?


We all know that every human being has basic physical needs such as food, water, shelter and clean air. However, it turns out that, in the same way, humans have basic psychological needs too. We need to feel that we belong, are valued, are good at something and that we need have a secure future. There is now growing evidence that our culture isn’t meeting those psychological needs for many – perhaps even most – people.  We have become disconnected from the things we really need, and this disconnection is driving the epidemic of depression and anxiety which we see around us.


Dr.Joanne Cacciatore of Arizona State University says:

“We act like human distress can be assessed solely on a checklist that can be separated out from our lives, and labelled as brain diseases. If we started to take people’s actual lives into account when we treat depression and anxiety,” Joanne explained, it would require “an entire system overhaul… When a person experiences extreme human distress, we need to stop treating the symptoms. The symptoms are a messenger of a deeper problem. Let’s get to the deeper problem.”


Joanne went on to say that when people are behaving in apparently self-destructive ways, “it’s time to stop asking what’s wrong with them and time to start asking what happened to them.”


Recent studies show that far from being caused by a spontaneously malfunctioning brain, depression and anxiety are mostly being caused by events in our lives. For example, if you find your work meaningless and you feel you have no control over it, you are far more likely to become depressed. Similarly, if you are lonely and feel that you can’t rely on the people around you to support you or if you think life is all about buying things and climbing up the ladder, you are far more likely to become depressed. The same will also happen if you don’t believe that you have a secure future.


There are real biological factors, like your genes, that can make you significantly more sensitive to these causes, but they are often not the primary drivers. We need to stop seeing depression and anxiety as an irrational pathology, or a weird misfiring of the brain’s chemicals and look at the root causes. Your pain is not an irrational spasm. It is a response to what is happening to you.


If you are depressed and anxious, you are not merely a malfunctioning machine. You are a human being with unmet needs. The only real way to get out of our epidemic of despair is for us all to begin to meet our human needs in order to gain a deeper connection to the things that really matter in life.

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