How the media got it wrong about depression

Today I was listening to the radio, when there was a story about how depression might be an allergic reaction to stress. I was surprised to hear how wrong the conclusions were about what causes depression, and how to treat it.

The story was about a neuroscientist who put a small mouse into a cage with a larger, more aggressive mouse.  This allowed the large mouse to bite and claw at the smaller one. The next day, a different large, aggressive mouse was put in, who proceeded to beat up the smaller mouse. This went on for 10 days.  After this, the scientists watched the small mouse interact with yet another mouse. They found that some of the abused mice avoided the new mouse. They also found that these mice had higher levels of chemicals called cytokines, which are present after injury or inflammation.

From this, the scientist concluded that depression was like an allergic reaction. Even my 14 year old son could see the flaws in this reasoning. Maybe the abused mice were avoiding the new mice because they were smart. After all, they had lost a cage fight each day for the last 10 days, so why would they want to interact with a new mouse. Maybe the abused mice had more cytokines because they just had their fur ripped out.

Finally, the clearest explanation is that the mice had just been terrorized. And seriously terrorized at that. It was the psychological injury that caused the avoidance and possible depression.

I see this over and over in my psychotherapy work with clients. They are depressed because they had an alcoholic father. Or they are depressed because their mother was very critical and negative. Or they are depressed because their manager sneers at and mocks them. These psychological injuries of abuse, or unending criticism, or parental neglect are what causes depression.

And the treatment is psychotherapy. When clients experience understanding and empathy, then the psychological injuries start to heal. They are able to shift their beliefs about themselves, and become more positive. They do not need a pill that suppresses interleukin 6. They need the mix of deep understanding, and practical tools, that therapy offers to help them recover from the emotional damage of the past.