We’ll eliminate depression when we stop referring to those experiencing it as victims
“Things do not change; we change.” Henry David Thoreau
In the immediate aftermath of actor/comedian Robin William’s suicide, myriad voices have been joining in chorus to say it’s not his fault and there’s nothing he could have done about it because he’s a victim of an illness. Though this may be well-intentioned, it’s ultimately damaging to talk about depression in this way.
Simply put, depression is the result of cognitive behaviours we have. It’s not the fault of the person suffering but the fault lies in our society, in that we know differently and yet we are not teaching people how to think in ways that are more productive, though there is plenty of scientific evidence that supports it.
“It’s not necessarily the reality that shapes us, but the lens through which your brain views the world that shapes your reality. And if we can change the lens, not only can we change your happiness, we can change every single educational and business outcome at the same time,” says Positive Psychologist Shawn Achor, well known for his research on happiness.
With 34,000 people committing suicide each year (roughly one death every 15 minutes) this is an issue that affects everyone. Indeed the World Health Organization predicts that by 2030, depression will outpace cancer, stroke, war and accidents as the world’s leading cause of disability and death. But this does not have to be the case.
The current talk about depression is both wrong and unhelpful. Whilst we humans do have a negativity bias we inherited from our ancestors, we don’t have to be the victims of our biology. There are countless examples of those who have recognised the pattern of how they have been depressing themselves in their thinking.
“We’re working from a poor assumption that the person had nothing to do with their depressive state and that it’s totally biochemistry – all we can do is take tablets. But that’s just not true. There are simple and effective tools that can help us to overcome depression. There are people out there that are suffering and they are being told entirely un-useful things like you can never recover and you have to struggle your whole life,” says Deb Maes, one of Australia’s leading transformational coach who is intimately familiar with depression, having experienced it herself too.
Though it contradicts the popularly held belief of depression’s permanence, I’ve lost count of the times I’ve experienced people overcoming it. Indeed, as they share their hero’s journey, the tale of triumphing depression is a box that nearly every motivational speaker ticks; I’m no exception. In fact, even today speaking to Salesforce.com’s BizAcademy students on the topic of “When No Has Opened Doors” I confessed my attempted suicide as a senior Neuroscience and Psychology student at Oberlin College when I didn’t win a Fulbright Scholarship to do research at the Brain and Mind Research Institute (BMRI) in Sydney. At that point in my life, because I had already been experiencing suicide ideation for a decade as a 21 year-old, that single setback was all it took to push me over the edge. Fortunately a friend found me and purged all my pills.
Two years ago I transitioned my default thought pattern from “life is meaningless; just kill yourself” to “life is a joyful adventure” over the course of a year through cognitive training with a coach. Because of the radical way in which my entire experience of life changed, I felt compelled to dedicate my life to helping others understand neuroplasticity—our brain’s natural ability to change when our cognitive inputs change—and realise how accessible it is to train their brains to better serve them. Then I met Deb, who made me realise it was even easier than I ever imagined if you preoccupy the conscious mind whilst reprogramming the subconscious.
To illustrate the speed at which this can occur Deb shared with me Wendy Pritchard’s story. The 68 year old mother of four saw Deb in 2007 for three sessions over the span of two weeks and during that time rewired her brain so that the PTSD and depression she had been dealing with for 25 years disappeared.
“She come to see me and I could see in her eyes that she was going to commit suicide. I put all professional appropriateness aside and just insisted she come and see me for coaching. Then using what we know from neuroscience about brain plasticity, and specifically memory reconsolidation, we dealt with the trauma. By the third session she had complete amnesia for depression. Intellectually she knew she had had depression for 25 years but she could no longer access that old program anymore. She’s since gone on to be a very productive member of our community.”
I write this knowing that when one person loses hope, others often follow behind. Rather than just including a link to a local suicide hotline, it’s essential that everyone understands that the core principles of neuroplasticity mean that there is nothing fixed about the way in which we think and feel that by reducing those experiencing depression to victims we’re perpetuating their illness.