Comment by Bruce Levine in response to Depression’s Evolutionary Roots

bruceI am in an email group with Bruce Levine. A discussion was started in that group about a article I posted the other day from Scientific American. A small excerpt from that article to remind you:

There is another possibility: that, in most instances, depression should not be thought of as a disorder at all. In an article recently published in Psychological Review, we argue that depression is in fact an adaptation, a state of mind which brings real costs, but also brings real benefits.

I found Bruce’s email beautifully and thoughtfully written and so asked if I could reprint it here for y’all. Here it is:

The article Depression’s Evolutionary Roots:

…Relates to William James’ life and his work.

James actually spent a good  part of life rationalizing his decision not to commit suicide (he never did commit suicide). James said, “I take it that no man is educated who has never dallied with the thought of suicide.”

In the classic biography on James by his student Ralph Barton Perry (The Thought and Character of William James in the chapter “Depression and Recovery”) at 27 y.o., James said, “I have been prey to such disgust for life during the past three months as to make letter writing almost an impossibility.” Perry concludes that James’s “ebbing of the will to live” resulted in a personal crisis “that could only be relieved by philosophical insight.”

James’s philosophical insights? Much of James philosophy on pragmatism, radical empiricism, and his famous “Will to Believe” essay (“faith in a fact makes it so”) were fueled by his emotional pain and depression.

My experience is that a contemplative depression can be used, as James did, to transform emotional suffering into insights that are valuable on a personal level and which, at times, may be valuable to others on a universal level.

However, the more society becomes afraid of depression symptoms — afraid of people not going to school or work — then the fear of depression will pressure people to get out of it as rapidly as possible, but of course this will simply make depression chronic and meaningless.

In a culture that worships a sort of robotic efficiency and productivity, the role of mental health professionals is that of  police who attempts to get people back on the assembly line as quickly as possible.

Ironically, the more mental health professionals try to eliminate depression symptoms as rapidly as possible, the more they create either a healthy resistance (in someone who feels there is some meaning behind those symptoms) or they create a narcissistic, self-absorbed person who becomes obsessed ONLY with eliminating his or her symptoms — and believe there is no meaning behind them (e.g. Peter Kramer); and this kind of narcissism and self-absorption results in NO insights and NO meaningful experiences (and book’ such as Kramer’s Against Depression).

So, it’s no accident that mental health depression treatments work so poorly and their dropout and relapse rates are so high, and there is decreasing amount of serious confrontation of an insane culture as there are increasing numbers of people who view themselves as having a depression disease.

William James, the Buddha, and many others who have used their pain/suffering/depression to fuel their brilliant insights would most likely look at Kramer and other establishment psychiatry diseasers as simply ignorant and pitiful.

Bruce Levine has shared several of his articles on this Beyond Meds:

Listen to him speak here: Opposing the dominant paradigm in mental health and promoting holistic, person-centered alternatives

Articles here:

Books by Bruce Levine:

Comments are closed.

Blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: