Final Project: Depression

Depression is a serious illness that affects 11.5% globally (Washington State University Department of Anthropology). Depression does not only affect the victim mentally but physically as well. The symptoms of depression range from moodiness to loss of interest in all activities. Since this illness affects a large portion of our population it is important to study this  illness through various lenses. Through anthropological approaches we can better understand the underlying factors of depression thus helping us to create better educational and preventative measures.  There are 5 anthropological approaches, ecological and biological, ethnomedical, experimental, critical and applied. With these approaches we can examine this illness in different but equally important ways.

How do people get depression? Or what causes depression? These are common questions anyone interested in or dealing with depression ask. Well, the answer is kind of complicated with various factors combined to result in different levels of depression. “…depression has many possible causes including faulty mood regulation by the brain, genetic vulnerability, stressful life events, medications, and medical problems.” (Harvard Medical School) Researchers have found certain genes that would make a person more susceptible to low moods -depression. A lot of depression has to do with your brain and how it regulates mood. There has been extensive research on how genes affect depression and mood, it is found that the serotonin-transporter gene greatly influences how people handle and react to stressful events. There are medications to help control depression, for example Zoloft. Zoloft aims to alter the levels of serotonin to help level a person, however this drug has negative side effects like birth defects etc. as like all the anti-depressants. This is what the ecological and biological approaches examine. They aim to answer questions like, what biological factors make someone pre-determined to have depression? What environmental factors would allow someone to get stressed? These are crucial ideas to explore when we are trying to find patterns of this illness.

People deal and treat their depression through different methods. Some go for the anti-depressants and some opt for natural healing or holistic treatment.  Massimo Conte is a spiritual healer of depression and believes that this illness is caused by a disturbance in the spiritual equilibrium. He believes in positive and negative energy, in order to return to equilibrium, you must learn to harbor and take control of good energy. He also states that the easiest path to natural healing is meditation. (Spiritual Healing For you) Meditation has been proven to increase overall positive mental health, however it does not work for everyone. People experience pain and illness differently, it is important for everyone to share and come to terms with what they are feeling, and I think that is what holistic healing aims to do.

The ethnomedical approach explores the different ways and options people seek treatment. While many people have been helped through holistic healing practices some will go towards the medical interventions by doctors/professionals. The ways people seek treatment are culturally based, for example, some cultures believe that getting sick is a punishment so they have shamans to help relieve them of their sickness, these cultures would not understand or accept the modern medicalized treatments. Understanding how different cultures view and approach illnesses is key to helping a professional relate to a patient suffering from depression.

The Experiential approach looks at how people are dealing and coping with their illness, in this context depression. There are several support groups that deal with anxiety and depression where people listen, tell, and support others in their quest to relieve their pain. Experiential approach has an emphasis on narratives and the goals each narrative has. For instance, someone with chronic depression might identify with the “Chaos narrative” which includes social suffering and frustration, the goal for this person is to help them feel less isolated. (MSU Anthropology 204 lecture) It is important to learn how the patient is feeling and dealing with their depression, it helps professionals learn the best methods for treatment for each individual case. This method goes deep in the narrative asking questions like where, how, and why do you think you have this illness. What have you done to try and treat yourself, has it worked, and how have you been doing now. All these questions are essential to helping better understand the disease and how it’s different for individuals.

It is estimated that 350 million people globally suffer from depression (World Health Organization). That is a pretty serious metric. It’s an epidemic that everyone is trying to solve, today there are hundreds of medications claiming to help treat depression. The most popular being Zoloft, Prozac, Sarafem, Lexapro etc. These are SSRIs that increase levels of serotonin in the brain, they block the reabsorption of serotonin thus having more serotonin available. (Mayo clinic) Big pharma companies make billions off of the drugs, they have so much power, they can fund university research, doctors, politicians and professionals in the given field. As you can make out, there is a lot of politics involved which affect everyone. Critical approach dives into the culture and trends of biomedicine. I think it is really important to understand the trends of biomedicine because that is the future and everyone is using technology to help enhance our selves. Pretty soon maybe we won’t need to use a pill, maybe when we are born we are injected with a universal serum, who knows!

Once you have an idea or a product ready it is time to see if the work has any effect on the population. There are a ton of studies on depression that aim to better understand the disease and look for the most effective ways to treat individual cases. For example, Charles Nemeroff MD Ph.D conducted a study researching Adults Who Experienced Abuse as Children Are Less Likely to Respond to Antidepressants. They dig deeper to the causation and it opens new doors and understandings of depression and the factors that surround it. Applied approach is very important because it gives evidence and background to our understanding of depression. Depression is a complicated illness that has layers to it which all the anthropological approaches aim to uncover.

Through all these approaches and understandings I think that the ethnomedical approach is the best to look at. We can sit here pick and poke at patients all day long, but what is really important is to see how the patient reacts and how they seek treatment. I think that tells us a lot about the disease and the individual. However, all the approaches are key to figuring out the patient, learning the patients beliefs, culture, habits, environment etc. will overall have great impact on how we view depression. There are different types of depression and I think each approach will be important to helping patients, learn, empower, and hopefully treat them.

“Depression and other mental health issues in the evolutionary perspective” Edward H Hagen, opened 8/17/16,

“What Causes Depression?”, Harvard, June 2009,

“Anti Depressants and SSRIS”Drug watch, March 22, 2016,

“Natural Healing for Depression” Massimo Conte, opened 8/17/2016,

“Depression” Mayo Clinic Staff, opened 8/16/2016,


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