Are Antidepressants a Scam? 5 Myths About How to Treat Depression
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A Path for Treatment Resisters: Critical Thinking about Critical Thinking
Critical thinking and an absence of self-deception are crucial for success in many areas of life, but these same talents can be problematic with respect to depression. A more accurate notion of how truly powerless one is in a situation (such as family, an organization, or society) can result in a greater feeling of helplessness, pain, and depression.
From several classic studies, we know that moderately depressed people are, in a sense, more critically thinking than are nondepressed people. These studies show that depressed people are more accurate than are nondepressed people in both their assessment of control over events and in judging people’s attitudes toward them. Researchers Lauren Alloy and Lyn Abramson at the University of Pennsylvania in 1979, studying nondepressed and depressed subjects who played a rigged game in which they had no actual control, found that depressed subjects more accurately evaluated their lack of control when either losing or winning. And researcher Peter Lewinsohn at the University of Oregon in 1980, found that depressed subjects judge other people’s attitudes toward them more accurately than nondepressed subjects.
Critical thinking also creates a problem for depression treatment, as skepticism makes one stubbornly resistant to much of what helps others. Specifically, to the extent one has uncritical faith in a treatment, it is far more likely to be experienced as successful; but to the extent that one is more skeptical about the effectiveness of treatment, one is less likely to have expectations that it will be effective, and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.
Before modern research borne out this problematic relationship between depression and critical thinking, the American psychologist and philosopher William James (1842-1910) recognized this reality based on his personal experience. James had a history of severe depression, which helped fuel some of his greatest wisdom as to how to overcome depression.
In The Thought and Character of William James , Ralph Barton Perry’s classic biography on his teacher, in the chapter “Depression and Recovery,” we learn that James at age 27 described himself as going through a period of a “disgust for life” in which Perry describes as an “ebbing of the will to live. . . . a personal crisis that could only be relieved by philosophical insight.” What was James’s transformative insight?
James was a critical thinker and had no stomach for smiley-faced positive thinking, but he also concluded that his pessimism might just destroy him. With his critical thinking, he came quite pragmatically to “believe in belief.” He continued to maintain that one cannot choose to believe in whatever one wants (one cannot choose to believe that 2 + 2 = 5); however, he concluded that there is a range of human experience in which one can choose beliefs. He came to understand that, “Faith in a fact can help create the fact.” So, for example, a belief that one “has a significant contribution to make to the world” can keep one from committing suicide during a period of deep despair, and remaining alive makes it possible to in fact make a significant contribution.
Critical thinkers are skeptics who have difficulty with belief and faith, but depression treatments work to the extent that one has faith in them. Instead of viewing themselves as failures for not improving with standard treatments, depressed critical thinkers can logically acknowledge the downside of their temperament. Myth busting about standard treatments enables critically-thinking treatment resisters to release their pain over “treatment failure.” The pain of failure is one of the many pains that results in depression as well as substance abuse and other compulsions that are fueled by a need to shut down one’s pain. Releasing any pain, including the pain of treatment failure, can be helpful.