Magazine

Not depressed, just sad, lonely or unhappy

  • 29 September 2010
  • From the section Magazine
Woman gazing out of window
Image caption Is sad so bad?

Cases of depression have grown around the world. But while awareness of the illness has helped lift the stigma it once attracted, have we lost touch with the importance of just feeling sad, asks Mary Kenny.

Looking back on my own reasonably serene childhood in Ireland during the 1950s, I recall quiet murmurs about people who suffered from "nerves".

I remember hearing that a neighbour - a well-to-do woman whose larger house and smart appearance was rather envied in the community - had had a "nervous breakdown".

Although when I repeated this to my aunt and uncle, with whom I was living, I was hushed up with a peremptory word of censure. There was, clearly, something slightly shameful about a "nervous breakdown" and one didn't speak about it.

I can see now, though I did not see then, that these were hidden incidents of depression among family and neighbours. But the stigma over depression, or even mental illness of any kind, must have added to their anguish.

How times have changed. It is an accepted truth, in our time, that depression is an illness with a global reach.

It seems that depression in various guises - whether chronic, uni-polar, bi-polar, clinical, recurrent, major or minor - accounts for a greater burden of disease, world-wide, than war, cancer and AIDS all put together.

This new openness is a good thing. Yet in the process, are we losing something?

Take the word, "trauma," which is now frequently and commonly invoked in conversation today. A person who has suffered a bereavement is said to be "in trauma".

A person who has been subjected to shock is said to be "traumatised". The break-up of relationships - a sad human experience which brings us a sense of loss, and hurts our need for attachment - is, similarly, described as "a traumatic experience".

In his excellent autobiographical study of depression which he so adroitly called Malignant Sadness, Professor Lewis Wolpert employs the concept of "trauma" to describe, for example, bereavement.

Death - part of life

"Trauma" comes from the Greek word for a "wound", and in a medical sense, it is what happens to the body when a wound delivers a shock.

But bereavement, of which I have much sorrowful experience is, alas, part of the natural course of life's sad events.

As Shakespeare observes, with Hamlet, his father lost a father, and that father lost a father before him, and so on, ad infinitum, through the hinterland of human history.

Grief is desperately upsetting: it hurts you for ages, and the loss of someone you love is emotionally painful, and can be enduringly so. But why not call it by its proper name: bereavement: grief: loss?

One reason may be that we are losing old rituals which human beings have practised for eons.

When I was a young woman in France in the 1960s, you would come across a shop with its blinds drawn, and a notice saying: "Ferme pour deuil": closed for mourning.

Image caption Virginia Woolf endured a condition of fatigue, loss of motivation and energy

It is still seen in France, and is also a usual response in Italy. Mourning symbols were widespread in all cultures - widows' weeds, black armbands - and the community was expected to respect those who mourn.

Outward signs of mourning have declined, if not been abolished in more secular societies now: but our sense of sadness and loss endure, and instead of this being called mourning, it is called "trauma".

It might be a start to revive or recapture some of the wider, non-medical vocabulary for the gamut of human experience.

Depression may also be melancholy: it may be discouragement, disappointment, abandonment, sadness, sorrow, mourning, rejection, regret, anxiety, grief, obsession, introspection, loss, separation, loneliness, isolation, alienation, guilt, loss of hope, temperamental woe and simple, pure, unhappiness.

It can be forms of low mood now out of date. The Edwardians were very keen on a condition known as "neurasthenia"; Virginia Woolf was diagnosed with it.

It was also known as "nervous debility", or, in its milder form, being hyper-sensitive and thin-skinned.

Yearning for the past

"Anomie" was another condition once favoured in the 19th Century by the sociologist Emile Durkheim, and from a sociologist, a sociological condition. Anomie was defined as an isolated mood caused by the breakdown of social norms, sense of purpose and rules of conduct.

There was also a spiritual form of depression called "accidie" much brooded on by some of the saints - this was "dryness of the soul". The writer Malcolm Muggeridge also complained of suffering from it at times.

There are even, I think, some romantic-sounding forms of melancholy: the German idea of weltschmerz - a yearning sense of "world-sorrow" and unfocused sadness for humanity: or the French nostalgie du passé, that bittersweet Proustian condition of longing for the past, with a rueful sense of regret for missed chances and lost opportunities.

I also rather like mal du pays - the exile's yearning for the country of childhood, and it comes to me in flashes, both in the spring and autumn, when I think of Irish country lanes, and the smell of fields of mown hay. Ah, bonjour tristesse!

No doubt we are better off for shedding much of the stigma surrounding mental illness - but with it, have we lost some of the variety, the dark poetry of the human condition?

Mary Kenny is an author, journalist and public speaker

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