Treating ‘despair’ like ‘depression’ only makes things worse

“(I)n an age when all psychic life is being understood in terms of neurotransmitters,” wrote Gordon Marino on the New York Times website, “the art of introspection has become passé.”

That’s a sentiment that the sentimentalists among us can get behind, but the hard-headed will surely ask “So what?”  What does it matter if introspection is one more form of “technology” that goes by the wayside, like the horse and buggy, like letter writing, and like card catalogs?  Don’t we have better “mental technology” now in the form of anti-depressants and fMRI scans?

Well, not exactly.  For one thing, the “medicalization” of the mind is leading to a confusion of categories:  “depression,” as a medical condition, Marino suggests, has become too broad, now encompassing other, unrelated, feelings – like despair.

“Depression” is what comes over us when we’re feeling blue, possibly (sometimes) as a result of chemical imbalances – but “despair” is what comes over us when we have a spiritual imbalance, when we have failed to understand who we really are, and live in denial.  Marino writes:

“(D)espair is not correlated with any particular set of emotions but is instead marked by a desire to get rid of the self, or put another way, by an unwillingness to become who you fundamentally are. This unwillingness often takes the form of flat out wanting to be someone else.”

That’s something we’ve all felt, that can’t possibly be “cured” by drugs in any meaningful sense of the term.

Saybrook psychology member Art Bohart says he’s firmly behind the distinction Marino draws – although he doesn’t care what the terminology is.  “Despair,” “Depression,” whatever you want to call it, Bohart says that in his professional experience, it most frequently “reflects problems people have with in meaning in life,” rather than medical issues.

“It deeply bothers me that we have medicalized that experience,” Bohart says.  “By drugging it we take away people’s chances to work through important issues.  This does a deep disservice to people at the present time, particularly since the evidence shows that anti-depressants are not much better than placebos anyway.”

In the end, the idea that introspection could be done away with by a labor saving technology is absurd – but very in keeping with the modern ethos.  Kierkegaard and the existentialists might have suggested that the beginning of wisdom is to know where short-cuts end and you begin.