The depressing lie

The depressing lie

Having the courage to question current assumptions

Mental illness is reaching epidemic proportions in my country and whatever approaches we have been taking simply are not working.

As I mentioned in the post “Remember the days of the old school yard, our young people are coping with the worst of it:

  • Just over a quarter (26%) of people aged 16–24 had a mental disorder compared to 6% of people aged 75–85.
  • 1 in 3 young people experience moderate to high levels of psychological distress
  • Around 160,000 young people aged 16-24 years live with depression

One definition of insanity is “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results”. When it comes to mental health a case could be put that the way we continue to manage things means we are all insane.

This is one of the longer posts I have written on my blog, but please read it. I hope it will change the way you see some of the basic assumptions behind our whole society.

I have come across a very courageous paper called “Being true to oneself: The role of authenticity in promoting youth mental health” written a few years ago by William Hallam, Craig Olsson, Glenn Bowes & John Toumbourou.

The paper starts by pointing out:

Rates of depression are rising internationally suggesting a pressing need for the development of effective preventive strategies. However, a recent meta-study suggests that our best psychological interventions are failing to prove effective in preventing an increasing burden of depressive disorder in young people. Clearly psychological theory relevant to the development and treatment of depression is in need of an overhaul.

They go on to say:

One critical limitation to progress is confused and contradictory notions about what wellbeing is and what it means to be happy.

The reason I call the paper courageous is that they go on to challenge the very assumptions on which many of us live our lives:

Young people are told to pursue their dreams,to be themselves, and above all to be happy– all of which can be as overwhelming as it is inspiring. The need to be happy – and be seen to be so – is an insatiable drive of daily behaviours for most people. In Western culture the goals of security and social praise have become central priorities, so much so that it is difficult to imagine living for any other purpose. Good feelings are what we live for and form the basis of wellbeing and hedonic psychology. But can good feelings ever be a reliable compass to guide young people through life’s journey?
Right the way through the document they quote numerous references to back up what they are saying, and I found very useful their unpacking of how we ended up with these assumptions as a culture:
In hedonic philosophy, pleasure defines what is good and pain defines what is bad. The roots of hedonic philosophy (hedonic: pleasure) are found in the writings of the classical Greek philosopher Epicurus. He advocated that personal pleasure should be the goal of rational behaviour. Jeremy Bentham (1789) and John Stuart Mill built on these ideas proposing a notion of philosophic utilitarianism in which self-interest or happiness-seeking is the rational mechanism that produces the maximum good for the maximum number.
There is no doubt that happiness or feeling good is desirable. Typically we all want to feel good and (hopefully) want others to feel good too. The goals of rational emotive psychology are twofold: to feel secure and to enjoy ourselves. The approach is explicitly hedonic. So much so that rational decision making is premised on an hedonic calculus in which pleasure must maximally exceed pain in the long term (utilitarian philosophy).
The problem with hedonic psychology is that there is no intrinsic category of moral wrong, only a utilitarian wrong when one acts against one’s own best interest by incurring negative consequences from one’s own irrational thoughts and behaviour.

What I love about the paper is that it is basically questioning the very assumptions that lie behind our Western Culture. They point out:

It can be confronting to realise that philosophical hedonism forms much of the foundation of our Western cultural values, even to the extent of informing the therapeutic goals of our major cognitive psychotherapies.

Without an evolved framework of values, the search to feel good can lead to unhelpful ideas, for example, how the female body should look, what constitutes educational success, what it means to experience intimacy, the role of substance use in having fun, the importance of popularity for personal worth.

Furthermore, when hedonic values determine what clothes to buy, what sex to provide, what aspirations to aspire to and what behaviour is appropriate, it can be extremely difficult for young people to know what it means to be true to oneself.

The Authors then make the link between this approach to life and mental illness:

We suggest that rising rates of depression may be linked to increasingly limited opportunities for young people to discover and enact their own value systems.

The default motivation is the relentless pursuit of good feelings. The challenge becomes providing opportunities for young people to find their inner compasses for negotiating life’s inherent complexities with integrity and self-respect. It becomes incumbent upon our best psychotherapies and interventions to question whether the best values to model and offer to our youth are the competitive social values of hedonic self-interest.

Can you see how radical this line of thinking is? The reason we have such an epidemic of depression and mental illness is the fault of a society that sets up a corrupt, self-centred value base!

The Authors go on to point out that there have been a number of scholars who have pointed this out over many, many years:

Aristotle’s notion of a happy or meaningful life was an authentic life in which personally owned ethical values (such as generosity, courage, kindness and justice) under-girded and inspired daily behaviours. Aristotelian or eudaimonic ethical values express who one is, and wants to be, and how one wants to act rather than how one wants to feel. When one consistently expresses oneself congruently with one’s own ethical values and innate talents and desires (authentic behaviour), the result is growth in those values and talents, and a consequent sense of autonomy, integrity and eudaimonic wellbeing.

Nietzsche said: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how”

Frankl  asserted that personal meaning, rather than affect-seeking, is the prime source of wellbeing.

Erikson (1968) was more specific in proposing that human psychological growth was characterised by the development of identity and meaning. The development, through stages, of generative values (dispositions) – including love, care, willpower, purposefulness, fidelity – provided a basis for identify formation and offered an alternative motivational system to hedonic desires. In this way, generative behaviour was seen to foster meaning, maturity and wellbeing.

The paper quotes more recent authors who have also written about this theme, however they point out that Erikson’s model of the process of growth being the transition from what they call “hedonic” (feelings) to “generative” living seems to have been ignored for quite a while.

I would like to suggest that the reason Erikson (and the others) have been largely ignored is that what they are proposing calls into question the very basis of how we organise our economy and society. The systems of this world want to keep you focussed on your personal feelings, rather than your God-given purpose.

The authors challenge the brand of psychotherapy that sees its job to help people feel better:

Generative values can act as an antidote to self-absorption and instill meaning into the experience of otherwise mundane daily activities, by making daily tasks inherently meaningful. Negative feelings (pain) are not to be necessarily seen as bad, or to be avoided, but can be understood as boundaries and limitations to our human experience and a fundamental dimension of the human condition.

We suggest that a person’s discovery of personal generative values provides a basis for autonomous action and an alternative reference point to extrinsic social standards for choosing and judging one’s own behaviour. A positive self-appraisal of one’s behaviour fosters a positive view of one’s self and worth.

Wellbeing emerges when self-worth flows from value-congruent behaviour rather than from dependence upon external standards of approval .

I want to shout what they say next from the rooftops:

The existential challenge for young people is to find something more important than feelings to live for (emphasis mine). Providing opportunities for young people to find a personal value system provides the framework for the building of an original and authentic self. We suggest that mental health and wellbeing flow from being true to oneself or acting in accord with one’s personal generative values and goals. Such values or personal ethics, however rudimentary, can provide a basis for personal decision-making and become a compass for being true to one’s self by reference to personal values rather than to how one feels.

So perhaps an effective treatment for depression might be the rediscovery of personal meaning and autonomy through values rather than prozac!

This paradigm is a challenging one because it sees mental illness as more than a chemical imbalance. It sees the job of the psychotherapist as helping the patient find their voice rather than find the chemist.

I have seen so many people disappear into a dark cave of depression after engaging with mental health professionals who told them their feelings were the issue. I have never seen an example where simply running away from painful feelings has produced life or health.

The authors finish the paper by saying:

We suggest that discovery of values only emerges through reflection and self-directing processes. Aristotle and Erikson both proposed that childhood and adolescence is the time for educating healthy ways of relating to the physical and social environment. Aristotle specifically maintained that all learning is through doing.

Through the modelling and teaching of generative values, a basis of values development and the fostering of a healthy and individual sense of self can be encouraged. The learning of such ethical values in childhood and adolescence lays the foundation for emerging identity formation and self-individuation.

Rather than teach (model) hedonic values of self-interest to our young people, it may be time to teach (model) the rewards of responsibility and commitment to generative social values and social wellbeing. Through subsequent reflection upon experience in later teenage and young adult years these values can be revisited and generative personal values developed.

At the end of his life Jesus was able to say “I have finished the work you have given me to do”. As it turns out, one of the keys to mental health may be being able saying something similar at the end of our lives: having the sense that we have fulfilled our life’s purpose.

I love that the organisation I have been working with for the past 18 years has as one of its’ central goals, to help young people discover their God-given purpose in the context of community.

Turns out that really is the most important issue for us all.

3 thoughts on “The depressing lie

  1. Thanks for your work here. I also love Hugh Mackay’s books on moral compass… how he says moral sense is a social sense.

    I also believe various foods can wreak havoc on mental health for some and many young people are misdiagnosed.

  2. I think it would be helpful to distinguish between the umbrella term ‘depression’ and clinical depression. Would not want to further stigmatise & shame those young people who do need to take medication so that they can then deal with the issues of purpose and meaning that you put forward.

    There are current books that deal with the ‘myth of happiness’ & one I found interesting was ‘The Happiness Trap’ by Dr Russ Harris. He says “New Scientific research suggests that we are all caught in a hidden psychological trap: a vicious cycle, whereby the more we strive for happiness, the more we suffer in the long term.” Another balanced view on mental health issues is Dr Grant Mullen, a Canadian Psychiatrist who looks at how body, soul and spirit are affected by depression and anxiety and there fore need a multi-level approach.

I'd love to hear what you think...

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