The following article is one of many published in a series on “escape.” You can find out more about the project and articles similar to this one here.
TW: depression, suicidal ideation
Disclaimer: depression can be experienced in a variety of different ways, and this article does not intend to address all of them
You wander through life as if half-awake, time passing by. Activities you used to enjoy are now trite, exhausting, and empty of meaning. You feel alienated from others, who now seem far away, belonging to an inaccessible, alternate world where happiness is still possible. You are pushed further into the dark, hateful place inside yourself, where your thoughts– abusive, apathetic, and pessimistic– swirl relentlessly: I hate myself, it’s all pointless, I want to die. From where you are, there seems to be no hope, no relief, no escape. You are depressed.
Depression is often framed as a psychological or biological illness. While these approaches are promising and helpful to many, I want to investigate depression using the comparatively neglected philosophical lens, with the hope of unearthing new insights about how to approach the problem.
I. The circularity of depression
The depressed individual is often inclined to ruminate on their depression, seeking to make sense of it. “Why am I depressed?” they ask (or else are prompted to ask by their therapist). However, one of the defining features of severe depression is that there is no clear answer to this question. It dissolves into circularity, into mere explication of its symptoms: I’m depressed because I’m worthless, I’m depressed because everything is pointless— in short, I’m depressed because I am depressed. This is a common distinction between sadness and depression: whereas sadness can be explained in relation to an external event, the mental state of depression has no clear explanatory reason. Here, I am not claiming that depression is beyond scientific explanation—of course, we can describe to some extent how depression occurs in biological and genetic terms. Rather, I argue that within the domain of the depressed individual’s experience, there is nothing to point to that would render the depression explicable in the way that the sad individual could, for example, point to the event of their dog dying to explain their sadness.
That’s not to say depression always occurs without an experiential explanation— one can, of course, become depressed after a devastating life event, such as losing a close loved one. However, I think it is particular to the experience of depression that such a life event would not suffice as the sole explanation— in some way, depression goes beyond the scope of what this event could explain, whether temporally in the sense depression persists far beyond the event in question, or psychologically, in that the intensity and extent of depression is disproportionate to or disconnected from the event. Naturally, this raises questions concerning the diagnostic criteria of depression, but for now I simply want to make the claim that depression withholds a full explanation: the depressed individual finds themselves in this state without understanding why.
Without a clear entryway into this mental state, how, then, could the depressed individual escape?
II. Sadness and depression in terms of value
I argue that putting the problem in terms of value can help overcome this entrapping circularity. First, I want to put forth a clearer definition of sadness to juxtapose with depression: sadness can be defined as the emotional response to the loss of something valued, whether vicariously or empathetically through music and literature, or literally in the case of loss of opportunity, employment, or a relationship. There are certainly more nuanced subcategorizations of such an emotional state, but this definition suffices for our purposes. The sad individual is pained because they value what has been lost, but with time, they are able to escape this mental state through valuing anew or differently— they may focus more intensely on existent objects of value or come to value new ones, potentially even devaluing the lost object of value in the process. In this way, the explanatory reason for sadness, the entryway into this emotional state, also points to a corresponding escape.
Depression is, of course, trickier. It is not uncommon for depressed individuals to describe a feeling of loss as well, but they cannot associate it with any one particular loss the way the sad individual can. While someone might be sad as a result of a breakup, losing a relationship of value, the depressed individual may still have the relationship question but no longer gain a sense of fulfillment, enjoyment, or meaning from it— the relationship has lost value, along with much of anything that the depressed individual once valued. If sadness is the emotional response to the loss of something valued, then depression could be defined as the emotional response to the loss of value more generally to some significant (although not necessarily all-pervading) extent.
What is the explanation for this loss of value? While this question still can not be answered fully, it seems likely that something has gone wrong with the depressed individual’s ability to value. This is a promising framing of depression because it captures many of the common experiential descriptions of this illness: feelings of emptiness, worthlessness, and self-loathing can be associated with seeing oneself as devoid of value; anhedonia and general feelings of pointlessness with the inability to value any activities that could be engaged in; feelings of alienation and isolation with the inability to value in the way others do, especially in the case of being unable to reciprocally value a relationship one is a part of.
Returning to the issue of circularity, the depressed individual can now say I am depressed (i.e. experiencing a state of valuelessness) because I have lost the ability to value fully and properly. While this statement retains some of the ambiguity and abstractness seen in the circular explanations discussed in the previous section, it does provide a way for a depressed individual to understand their experience that more clearly suggests a way out.
III. Escaping depression
Framed this way, we can see a corresponding escape from depression. If escape from sadness involves valuing anew or differently, escape from depression involves recovering the ability to value itself. The sad individual is thrown into a pit of loss and escapes by simply climbing back out, valuing in another or a new way. The depressed individual is thrown into a far deeper pit of loss, so deep that they cannot remember why they fell and that break their legs in the fall. In the case of depression, escape requires the arduous task of practicing, re-growing, and healing one’s ability to value in the first place.
But how does one begin this process of re-learning valuation? A promising starting point is the following observation: there is a gap between what the depressed individual is actually capable of valuing and what they want to value. For example, a depressed artist may no longer experience making their art as valuable, but they still want to value this activity as they once did. Yet facing the devaluation of this activity can be extremely disheartening, often resulting in giving it up, withdrawing further into the prison of depression. It is, after all, deeply painful to go through the motions of a once-loved activity without the attendant joy or fulfillment— one tends to focus what once was, what has now been lost. Escape from depression involves reframing one’s understanding of this dynamic: the gap to attend to is not between the past and the valueless present, but rather between the valueless present and the value one desires to grasp, or re-grasp, including that very ability to grasp value at all, in the future. In the vein of Agnes Callard’s theory of aspiration, the depressed individual must act upon this desire, going through the motions anyway, slowly and imperfectly working to value again. Medication could certainly complement or even enable this aspirational activity, in addition to the paradigms of valuation offered by others, especially loved ones. Of course, this process is likely never complete, at least in any permanent sense, but re-learning valuation is one way to understand how one might begin to escape depression.