Depression Today - Why It's Spreading So Fast, and How to Help
Depression in the twenty-first century has become an affliction of unprecedented magnitude. In recent decades, it has become the number one cause of disability, a top contributor to out-of-control medical costs, and even a top cause of death in young and old.
But it wasn't always so. In fact, in all of recorded human history, never has depression been so widespread - or so deadly. It afflicts both men and women, teenagers and children, the rich and the poor. It often appears together with other emotional challenges, including anxiety and addiction. It has become a leading public health problem in the United States and other developed nations - a literal epidemic that cripples joy, disables productivity, and spreads untold despair and destruction.
The Expanding Spread of Depression Over Recent Decades
As a counselor for over thirty years, I have been a front-row witness and observer of this ever-expanding epidemic. When I began counseling in the late 1980's, depression appeared mostly in women of childbearing age, and was usually mild and temporary in nature. Only in extreme cases did it appear in children, and rarely was it observed in men. Suicide, particularly in teens growing into their most idealistic years, was exceptionally rare. Anxiety was even less common, as was addiction. While there were certainly individuals who struggled with these issues, they were relatively rare.
Fast forward to the 21st century. Depression now broadly afflicts both men and women, and impacts all age groups, from small children to seniors. It is rampant in the United States and other developed nations - and is quickly spreading to other nations, as they adopt a similar lifestyle.
Depression is notoriusly contagious - not only in family members sharing genetic material, but also in individuals who have no genetic connection, such as spouses, roommates, friends, and co-workers. In many cases, depression has become a lifetime disability, weighing people down for decades, and devastating their productivity, resilience, and joy. And that ultimate devastation of depression - suicide - has become an ever more common means of desperate escape, even in children age 10 and younger.
Why Has Depression Become So Common, and So Deadly?
As a front-lines witness to this rapid expansion of depression over less than three decades of human history, I have often asked myself, "Why has a condition that used to be so mild and rare become so widespread and so toxic?"
After careful observation, here are a few of many factors that I believe have contributed to this rapid spread of depression:
1) Food Supply: What we daily eat and drink today is very different than it was thirty or more years ago. Throughout most of human history, people ate natural foods that grew out of the ground (or, animals that had recently eaten these foods.) Pesticides, antibiotics, preservatives, chemicals, genetic engineering, and other elements common to our current food supply were non-existent in earlier times. Our brains and our bodies are crying out for the actual nourishment they were designed for - not the artifical, factory-made substances designed mostly for profit and pleasure.
2) Physical Environment: Over the past thirty-plus years, the physical state of our planet has deteriorated significantly. Pollution of our air, water, and land has become commonplace. Artificial chemicals fill our water pipes, our atmosphere, and the products we daily put on our faces, and with which we cleanse our bodies and our homes. We are inundated with chemicals from every side that our bodies were not designed to deal with. Is it any wonder, then, that so many struggle with "chemical imbalance" of one sort or another?
3) Social-Cultural Environment: In addition to these massive physical changes, our broad culture and society has also changed over these recent decades. Time-honored values, beliefs, and behavioral standards have been largely abandoned - replaced by secularism, sex, individualism, and a focus on immediate pleasure rather than longterm commitment. We live to work, rushing from one externally-driven task to the next - all so we can purchase the next consumer product we are exposed to on ever-present media devices. We text rather than talk, hang out rather than date and marry, and engage in social media rather than spend time with actual people. Not surprisingly, then, many of us are slowly dying of loneliness and isolation, in this big, constantly-stressful world we have created for ourselves.
4) School and Work Environments: In particular, our schools and our workplaces have become daily contributors to our stressful lives. We run from task to task, and work hour after hour to keep up with the demands of an ever-intensifying global marketplace. Even our little children have fallen victim to this pattern, as recess, the arts, physical education, social events, and electives have increasingly been sacrificed to make room for never-ending academics, testing, and evaluation. Stressed children often come home to stressed parents, for a hurried artifical meal, and an exhausted collapse into mindless media. It's an unhealthy and all-too-pervasive pattern.
5) Technology: Over recent decades, technology has become our new constant companion. It is where we work, where we play, how we learn, and how we connect with others. The problem is - all that screentime is not good for our eyes, our bodies, our hearts, or our spirits. We often literally lose sleep over it - starting and ending each day in the blue glow of a shiny glass screen. We get out of balance - overexposed to a virtual world, and underexposed to the natural world of real people, real landscapes, real sunsets, and real joys. From the cradle to the grave, if we're not careful, technology can rob us of our actual lives, and distract us from what we feel, who we are, and how we interact with others.
6) Advertising and Medication: In response to all of these escalating woes, we have created "a pill for every ill" - including for the emotional and physical distresses that inevitably result from these toxic but almost universal conditions. We are told by advertising that our distress means we are "chemically imbalanced" - that something has permanently gone wrong with our brains, and that we will need yet another factory-produced chemical to correct the imbalance. We are told that if we are depressed today, that is evidence of a permanent, disabling illness that only a purchased product can help us manage, for the rest of our lives. What could be more depressing than that?
There are many other factors that could be mentioned, that contribute to the emotional distress, physical deterioration, and social disconnection of millions of people all over the world in our time. These factors are increasingly "normalized," as we learn to expect never-ending stress, sleeplessness, overweight, distraction, and illness.
Happily, however, even in our 21st century world, these debilitating conditions are not our only option.
We Can Learn to Choose a Path of Healing and Wholeness
Even in this widespread, toxic environment, we can intentionally learn to carve out a lifestyle for ourselves and our loved ones that feeds wellness, not depression; resilience, not deterioration; connection, not alienation; hope, not despair. This isn't something that happens all at once. But one small step at a time, we can choose a course for ourselves and our loved ones that can lead us into new vistas of discovery, fulfillment, and joy - even in today's complex world.
This site is packed with resources designed to help you build a happier, better life, starting today! These resources include:
1) A quick-start guide, which you can download today to help you set in immediate motion a healing path for yourself and your loved ones.
2) This blog, which will be updated weekly with new articles and practical tips to help you learn to choose a healthier, happier lifestyle. Subscribe to the blog, to have these resources delivered directly to your inbox every week!
3) A comprehensive guidebook, containing all the strategies, techniques, and concepts I use in my own counseling practice, and in my own life and family, to preserve and strengthen emotional wellness.
Depression doesn't have to be a permanent condition. Explore these resources today, to start building a better, happier life for yourself and your loved ones.
-- Carrie M. Wrigley, LCSW
Counselor, Speaker, Performer, and Author of
Your Happiness Toolkit: 16 Strategies for Overcoming Depression, and Building a Joyful, Fulfilling Life
> For more complete Information on this topic, see the book, Chapter 3:
"21st Century Depression: An Expanding, Worldwide Epidemic -- How to Survive and Thrive"