April 05, 2012
"Rethinking Depression" Q&A Interview with Eric Maisel: Part One
The first section of your book focuses on debunking depression as a “mental illness,” which is not to say that sadness and unhappiness cannot be debilitating. Can you briefly describe the main thrust of your argument?
What I hope to demonstrate is that there is something profoundly wrong with the way we name and treat certain human phenomena. When we call something a “mental disease” or a “mental disorder” we imply a great deal about its origins, its treatment, its intractability, and its locus of control. The mental health industry has its reasons for calling life’s challenges “disorders,” but we have few good reasons to collude with them. I ask that readers who do feel depressed seek help. I hope that this book aids people in understanding what help to ask for from professionals and what help we should realize they can’t possibly offer us.
If there is no “mental disorder of depression,” why are millions of people convinced that “depression” exists?
As soon as you employ the interesting linguistic tactic of calling every unwanted aspect of life abnormal, you are on the road to pathologizing everyday life. By making every unwanted experience a piece of pathology, it becomes possible to knit together disorders that have the look but not the reality of medical illness. This is what has happened in our “medicalize everything” culture. In fact, the word depression has virtually replaced unhappiness in our internal vocabularies. We feel sad but we call ourselves depressed. Having unconsciously made this linguistic switch, when we look for help we naturally turn to a “depression expert.” We look to a pill, a therapist, a social worker, or a pastoral counselor — even if we’re sad because we’re having trouble paying the bills, because our career is not taking off, or because our relationship is on the skids. That is, even if our sadness is rooted in our circumstances, social forces cause us to name that sadness “depression” and to look for “help with our depression.” People have been trained to call their sadness “depression” by the many forces acting upon them, from the mental health industry to mass culture to advertising.
If there is no “mental disorder of depression” but only human sadness mislabeled as “depression,” what are your thoughts about antidepressants and psychotherapy?
Chemicals have effects and they can alter a human being’s experience of life. Chemicals can affect how your mind works. Chemicals can affect how you sleep. Chemicals can alter your moods. That a chemical called an antidepressant can change your mood in no way constitutes proof that you have a mental disorder called depression. All that it proves is that chemicals can have an effect on mood. There is a fundamental difference between taking a drug because it is the appropriate treatment for a medical illness and taking a drug because it can have an effect. This core distinction is regularly obscured in the world of treating depression. Psychotherapy, too, can help remediate sadness for the simple reason that talking about your problems can help reduce your experience of distress. Psychotherapy works, when it works, because the right kind of talk can help reduce a person’s experience of unhappiness. To put it simply, chemicals have effects and you may want those effects; talk can help and you may want that help. Antidepressants and psychotherapy can help not because they are the “treatment for the mental disorder of depression” but because chemical have effects and talk can help.
Why is recognizing the role of unhappiness in our lives an important feature of “rethinking depression”?
To acknowledge the reality of unhappiness is not to assert the centrality of unhappiness. In fact, it is just the opposite. By taking the common human experience of unhappiness out of the shadows and acknowledging its existence, we begin to reduce its power. At first it is nothing but painful to say, “I am profoundly unhappy.” The words cut to the quick. They seem to come with a life sentence and allow no room for anything sweet or hopeful. But the gloom can lift. It may lift of its own accord — or it may lift because you have a strong existential program in place whereby you pay more attention to your intentions than to your mood. One decision that an existentially aware person makes is to focus on making meaning rather than on monitoring moods.
What does your Existential Program offer people who are hoping to shed the mental illness label of depression?
I ask that people take as much control as possible of their thoughts, their attitudes, their moods, their behaviors, and their very orientation toward life and turn their innate freedom into a virtue and a blessing. Even if people decide to take antidepressants or engage in psychotherapy to get help with their unhappiness, they will still have to find ways of dealing with their meaning needs, the shadows of their personality, their consciousness of mortality, and the facts of existence. This book offers guidance in all of those areas.
How does your Existential Program make it possible for people to take control of their lives?
Living authentically means organizing your life around your answers to three fundamental questions. The first is, “What matters to you?” The second is, “Are your thoughts aligned with what matters to you?” The third is, “Are your behaviors aligned with what matters to you?” You begin by removing the protective blinders that human beings put in place to avoid noticing the many painful facts of existence, including painful facts about their personality shortfalls. You decide to understand “what meaning means” to you so that you can proceed to lead your life in ways that feel personally meaningful. You choose to take responsibility for your thoughts and your actions and to lead life instrumentally. You accept and embrace the fact that you are the final arbiter of your life’s meaning. With this approach to life, each day is a project requiring existential engineering skills as you bridge your way from one meaningful experience to the next. By accepting the realities of life and by asserting that you are the sole arbiter of the meaning in your life, you provide yourself sure footing as you actively make meaning.
So much of what you propose is dependent on people accepting responsibility for their own life’s meaning. How does one arrive at such a definition?
Nothing is more important than meaning, and nothing is so little investigated. I encourage people to understand and embrace the fact that meaning — what we value, how we construe our life purposes, what we make of the facts of existence — is a completely subjective affair. Not only is meaning subjective; meanings are bound to shift and change. Once we accept this view, meaning is always available to us. It is waiting for us. All we need to do is think and act in ways that tease it out of its latency. What we are teasing out is a certain psychological experience. Things do not have meaning; human beings experience meaning. Some activities, such as service, ethical action, and self-actualization, and some states of being, such as contentment, appreciation, and intimacy, are regularly experienced as meaningful. A list of these meaning opportunities make for an excellent “meaning menu” to peruse as we decide where we want invest our human capital. But they are not intrinsically meaningful. They are only meaningful when they are experienced as meaningful.
Eric Maisel, Ph.D., is the author of more than 30 books and is widely regarded as America’s foremost creativity coach. He trains creativity coaches nationally and internationally and provides core trainings for the Creativity Coaching Association. Dr. Maisel is a columnist for Art Calendar magazine and a featured contributor to wholeliving.com. His books include "Coaching the Artist Within," "Creative Recovery," "Fearless Creating," "The Van Gogh Blues" and many others. His most recent book is "Brainstorm: Harnessing the Power of Productive Obsessions." He lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with his family. His websites include www.ericmaisel.com and www.brainstormthebook.com and he can be reached at email@example.com.