Is Depression A Social And Cultural Problem?


Hi, it’s Alex! Today I want to talk about depression. And I want to ask a question that I think has a really obvious answer if
you think about it, but it’s a question we don’t really ask very
often, and that is: “Is depression strictly an individual problem?” like: “Is depression a mental illness that
affects only individuals?” “Or does it have a social and cultural component?” One of the questions that I’ve seen people
ask that has a pretty clear answer is: “Is depression contagious?” and there is some very compelling psychological
research that says “Yes, depression is contagious.” It can spread through social networks. I am someone who has struggled on and off
with depression, and it has sometimes been pretty debilitating
for me. And, this is something I have a personal interest
in. I want us as a society to figure out to combat
depression, both how to recover from it as individuals, but how to prevent it on a large scale. And I think that our society is getting better at how to treat individual depression. There are established types of therapy that
work. I am personally skeptical of medications, and I think that they can be over-prescribed, but I do think that they help some people, so that’s another thing that’s out there. And there is also a lot of research on like
diet and exercise and things like that. Especially exercise can be really effective
for fighting depression. But I see very little discussion of the social
component of depression, and, in spite of there being studies that
establish that depression is contagious, that, like, there is not much discussion of
this. What is meant by depression being contagious? This means that if someone close to you becomes
depressed, and, by depressed, I mean they have clinically
measurable symptoms of depression. There are all these scales and, like, checklists that you can use to determine if you or someone
else has depression, and they are pretty effective. They hold up to like statistical scrutiny. So, basically, if someone close to you becomes
depressed, then, you become at higher risk of depression. It doesn’t guarantee that you’re gonna become
depressed, but it increases the likelihood that you become
depressed. Similarly, if people close to you recover
from depression, it increases the likelihood that you too will
do that if you are struggling with depression. So it’s like, people’s depression risk and
rate of recovery is influenced by people in their social network. How does this happen? If you think about it, and if you have experience
with depression, I think it can be kind of obvious. Depression is influenced by a lot of things. For me, this is a real key element, it’s influenced by your way of thinking. There are certain ways of thinking about things, ways of interpreting events, that can make you at greater risk of depression. And like, one of them is if you have like
all-or-nothing thinking. So, an example of like a “depressed” thought
process or thought pattern might be, if I’m in school, and I fail an exam, I might have a thought process that goes like: “Oh my God, I failed this exam.” “I’m gonna fail the whole class.” “I’m so terrible at this subject.” And it sort of like spirals out of control. What started with like one negative experience has already jumped to like: “I’m terrible
at this subject.” And it can go much farther than that, like it can go to: “I’m going to fail out
of school.” “I’m a complete failure.” It may sound ridiculous to you, but to people who struggle with depression, that kind of thought process can be very easy
to fall into. The thing about it though, is that we all hear people around us expressing ideas
like that or expressing different ideas, on a daily
basis. And people learn from others by examples. So, I might be in college, like at the lunch
table, and someone’s like: “Oh my God, I failed this exam.” and then someone else might respond to them: “Oh,” like “It’s alright, that professor gives
really hard exams.” or something like that. And that is a little idea right there that can protect them from depression. Like, maybe they are at risk of going down
that negative thought spiral. But if they get this little piece of evidence, “Well, this professor gives particularly hard
exams.” it might protect them. I’m just giving this as an example or how
these little social exchanges as we go through our day can either make us more or less vulnerable
to depression. People may not think about these things, especially if they themselves don’t have experience
with depression, but one thing I’ve seen many times is people voicing ideas that, to me, are kind
of dangerous. Ideas that, if I start believing in those
ideas, it becomes very easy to get caught up in that negative spiral of thoughts that in extreme cases can lead into feelings of hopelessness and even suicidal
thoughts. But like some people might not be vulnerable
to depression, but they might still be voicing these thoughts. So it’s like these thoughts and ideas can
propagate through their heads, and propagate through these networks of people. I think that’s one way depression can spread. Another is through behaviors. People tend to pick up behaviors from people
around them. So it’s like, if my friends are into a certain
type of activity, they might ask me to come along, it’s like: “Hey, do you want to go on a bike ride?” or
like: “Hey, I’m going dancing, do you want to come
dancing with me?” Well, those are both types of exercise. So, if the people close to me are engaged
in exercise, then I’m more likely to engage in exercise
myself. Similarly, they might ask me to do something
sedentary, like: “Hey, do you want to like sit at home and
watch a movie?” or whatever. And so then, that might influence me to be
more sedentary and get less exercise. These things may seem subtle, but like, as
a whole, like these behaviors, which may increase or
decrease risk of depression, propagate through social networks too. In addition to these things propagating through
social networks, they also are part of our culture. Like, if you think about the culture in the
United States as a whole, things like exercise and things like ways
of thinking are embedded in our culture. There are certain things, activities out there
that are widely available, and there are certain that are more hard to
come by. And, I think that, like there are all these
cultural notions of success, and these cultural narratives of like how
to interpret what happens to us in our daily life. And I think that there are elements of culture that can make us more or less vulnerable to
depression too. I’m just like scratching the tip of this subject
here, but I want us to start talking about this and start thinking about this. I don’t think that depression is strictly
an individual problem. It certainly manifests in individuals, but I think it has this social component to
it, and also a cultural component, and I think that when we start thinking about
those things, we start getting all these insights of like changes we could make to society and culture
as a whole that could help protect people from depression, and also, for people who don’t personally
struggle with depression, it can give us insights into how to protect
other people close to us. I sometimes think that people who don’t struggle
with mental illness can sometimes be a little bit careless in terms of like passing on ideas that might be more dangerous to other people
than they realize. So I think that, especially, listening to
people who have dealt with depression and other mental
illness and listening to them about what types of
ideas they feel are most harmful, that can be really helpful. I also think there are benefits to everyone, like maybe you don’t personally feel vulnerable
to depression, but you might be happier and more productive if you could sort of get rid of some of these
unhealthy ways of thinking in your own life too. So I think there are additional benefits to
be had by everyone. Yeah! I hope this has been thought-provoking, and I want to talk more about this, so I’d love to hear from you, if you had any particular element where you
were like: “Yeah! I’m curious about this one thing. Talk more about that.” I’d love to hear from you. Thank you!

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Comments

  1. this was really cool and good

    im interested in communication science in general, so im interested in thinking about the specific ways that we interact, in what circumstances, how often, etc and how that can affect our feelings of connectedness. i often struggle with feelings like loneliness, unlikeablility, rejection and so on, which really feed into my depressive episodes, especially because it can spiral if it makes me want to stay in more and go out less.

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