The concept of depression and anxiety disorders in modern society has been bothering me for a long time. I have so many friends who suffer from anxiety and depression issues, and I myself went through a horrible time when I was so anxious about going to work that I didn’t want to go to sleep at night. I would stay up until all hours of the night, squeezing every last bit of the day out of my personal time before succumbing to sleep and preparing for the next day. I quit that job, and was able to reach a more normal function in time, but not everyone has that choice. It got me thinking: Are the demands of employers in a capitalistic society and the restrictions of our modern lifestyle at least partially to blame for the increase in depression and illness?
I did some research, and the results are understandably inconclusive. Statistical analysis of depression has only really been done in depth in the 20th century and afterward. Depression, or melancholy/melancholia is hardly a new thing. Doctors have been working out various treatment methods for the illness for millennia. A correlation has been noted between higher rates of depression and the switch between a hunter-gatherer tribe and an agricultural one in the past 100 years, as well as during the change of rapidly modernizing rural societies. This isn’t definitive, as people tend to minimize past depression, especially when they didn’t seek treatment. The same correlations have been found for obesity, cancer, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes, considered diseases of modern society. Some studies find a correlation between a country’s GDP and depression rates, but these more developed countries tend to change their diagnosis criteria, making increased diagnoses during episodes of understandable sadness or stress, and making comparisons challenging. Some studies even found that depression was more likely in each subsequent generation, beginning earlier in life. This may be true, but higher rates of diagnosis are associated with the changing view of depression from a mood to a syndrome that can be treated. It can’t be that straightforward though.
One major change that has happened as our society becomes more developed is a change in time spent outdoors, in natural light, as well as level of physical activity. The less natural light, the greater the chance of vitamin D deficiency, a lack of which has been tentatively tied to a host of other illnesses. Lack of physical activity is linked to all sorts of illnesses as well, including diabetes and obesity, and the lymphatic system relies on muscular contraction and movement in order to function properly.
Another change we go through as our society becomes more developed is a change of diet. Unprocessed foods, containing balanced nutrients, tend to give way to processed foods in which the ingredients have been heavily refined and many nutrients have been lost. There tends to be an increase in sugar consumption and carbohydrates. Convenience foods are a part of a busy lifestyle. Unbalanced diets can also contribute to inflammation, which leaves us vulnerable to more health issues, including allergies. Although our bodies are well-adapted to adjust to whatever diet is available, as we do, to thrive our bodies need those missing nutrients.
The next thing a modern, capitalistic society has brought is a sense of looking out for number one. Businesses tend to care less about their employees and more about how much they can get out of those employees to increase their bottom line. Employees are often expected to be “always on,” even when their job description doesn’t require it, eating away at their rest time off of work, and taking away from their ability to advance in their profession if they carefully guard their personal time. Increased competition leads to more cutthroat tactics, false friends, and a loss of community. Inequality also creates stress, as those with little fight to achieve more and hope they are given a chance to succeed, but those opportunities can be few and far between. The increase of electronic communications leaves us feeling less connected than ever, as we rely on electronic connections in the absence of face-to-face time with friends, and a single, small error can spread far beyond a small group of friends and can stick with us long after they would otherwise have been forgotten. Even the goal of educating our children so they can beat out the competition and over-testing their progress can lead to loss of play and undue stress and anxiety in some of our society’s most vulnerable.
Is our modern lifestyle causing depression? It depends what you call depression, and it depends what you call modern, and then it still isn’t certain. All of these factors certainly can’t be helping us to live healthy and fulfilled lives. Even depression that starts for purely psychological reasons can affect body processes and require biological treatments to bring back normal neurological function.
Depression is an enormous topic and I can only hope to provide a brief overview of one facet to help guide you towards seeking out more information for yourself. Regardless of cause, if you are feeling symptoms of depression it is important to talk to those around you and see your doctor for help.
Depression as a Disease of Modernity: Explanations for Increasing Prevalence
Historical Understandings of Depression
A Review of Depression Diagnosis and Management