Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning

Rethinking Depression: How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning

by Eric Maisel


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In this provocative and path-breaking distillation of a career spent working with individuals seeking help with mood and motivation, Eric Maisel reveals the implications of one of the era’s most dramatic cultural shifts. In recent decades, much of the unhappiness inherent in the human condition has been monetized into the disease of depression and related "disorders." Maisel persuasively critiques this sickness model and prescribes a potent new approach that updates the best ideas of modern psychology. The result is a revolutionary reimagining of life’s difficulties and a liberating model of self-care that optimizes our innate human ability to create meaning and seize opportunity — in any circumstance.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608680207
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 02/14/2012
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 922,428
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Eric Maisel, PhD, the author of forty books, is widely regarded as America’s foremost creativity coach. Eric is a columnist for Professional Artist magazine and a featured blogger for Psychology Today and the Huffington Post. He reaches thousands through his website, workshops, and online courses. He is the founder of noimetic psychology, the new psychology of meaning, and lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Read an Excerpt

Rethinking Depression

How to Shed Mental Health Labels and Create Personal Meaning

By Eric Maisel

New World Library

Copyright © 2012 Eric Maisel
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60868-020-7



I THINK WE CAN AGREE that most people are made anxious by public speaking. Aren't you therefore "normal" if public speaking makes you anxious? And aren't you "abnormal" if you're able to give a speech without breaking a sweat? Since that's the case, why would we consider feeling anxious before giving a speech a symptom of a mental disorder ("generalized anxiety disorder")? Have we stepped into Wonderland, where common reactions, such as feeling anxious, are considered abnormal, and uncommon reactions, such as not feeling anxious, are considered normal?

Our anxiety in these situations is common, understandable, and normal. If it is common, understandable, and normal, how can it also be used as evidence of a mental disorder?

Just by virtue of the anxiety being unwanted.

That is the key.

Unwanted ≠ abnormal.

As soon as you employ the interesting linguistic tactic of calling every unwanted aspect of life abnormal, you are on the road to pathologizing everyday life. When you make every unwanted experience a piece of pathology, it becomes possible to knit together disorders that have the look but not the reality of medical illness. This is what has happened in our "medicalize everything" culture.

Mel Schwartz wrote in his blog for Psychology Today: "I would offer that what would otherwise be a normal experience of the ups and downs of being human are now viewed through the prism of dysfunction. Every challenge and travail has a diagnostic label affixed to it and we become a nation of victims — both to the malaise and [to] the pathologizing of what it means to be human."

It is a grave mistake to make every unwanted aspect of life the symptom of a mental disorder.

A heart attack may come with symptoms such as chest tightness and shortness of breath. These symptoms occur because an artery is blocked, a valve is failing, and so on. In the case of a heart attack, there is a genuine relationship between an organic malfunction and the symptoms of that malfunctioning. Unhappiness too may come with certain "symptoms," such as sleeping a lot and eating a lot. But these symptoms are not evidence of organic malfunctioning. They are what come with unhappiness.

For thousands of years human beings have made the sensible distinction between feeling sad for certain reasons (say, because they were jobless and homeless) and feeling sad for "no reason," a state traditionally called melancholia. Some people got sad occasionally, and some were chronically melancholic. Today both varieties of unhappiness, the occasional and the chronic, have been gobbled up by the mental health industry and turned into disorders.

With the rise of four powerful constituencies — the pharmaceutical industry, the psychotherapy industry, the social work industry, and the pastoral industry — and their handmaidens — advertising, the media, and the political establishment — it has become increasingly difficult for people to consider that unhappiness might be a normal reaction to unpleasant facts and circumstances. Cultural forces have transformed almost all sadness into the mental disorder of depression.

In fact, the word depression has virtually replaced unhappiness in our internal vocabularies. We feel sad but we call ourselves depressed. Having unconsciously made this linguistic switch, when we look for help we naturally turn to a "depression expert." We look to a pill, a therapist, a social worker, or a pastoral counselor — even if we're sad because we're having trouble paying the bills, because our career is not taking off, or because our relationship is on the skids.

That is, even if our sadness is rooted in our circumstances, social forces cause us to name that sadness "depression" and to look for "help with our depression." We are seduced by the medical model, in which psychiatrists dispense pills and psychotherapists dispense talk. It is very hard for the average person, who suffers and feels pain because she is a human being but who has been trained to call her unhappiness depression, to see through this manipulation.

Tens of millions of people are tricked into renaming their unhappiness depression. Charles Barber elaborated in Comfortably Numb: "In 2002, 16 percent of the citizens of Winterset [Iowa] were taking antidepressants.... What is compelling one in six of these generally prosperous and stable citizens to go to their doctor, get a prescription, and go to the ... pharmacy? And Winterset is by no means alone ... for Ames it is 17.5 percent; for Grinnell, 16 percent; Des Moines, 16 percent; Cedar Rapids, 16 percent; and Anamosa, Red Oak, and Perry, 15 percent."

Isn't that something? Not the fact that so many people feel unhappy — the number of people who are unhappy is huge. What is quite astounding is that folks in the heartland, where stoicism and common sense are legendary, should have swallowed whole hog the idea that unhappiness is a medical condition.

The first linguistic ploy is to substitute the word abnormal for unwanted. Next, since it is almost certain that profound unhappiness will make it harder for you to get your work done and deal with your ordinary responsibilities, one way to ensure that your unhappiness will be labeled "depression" is to name as a significant diagnostic criterion an "impairment of function." Maybe you're unhappy with your unsatisfying job and you start skipping work. That is certainly not a symptom of a mental disorder unless we make it one — which we can do by calling it "impairment of function."

Let's say that you're a mystery writer. You've written three mysteries and managed to sell them. But they haven't sold well enough to justify your publisher's buying a fourth mystery from you. Your literary agent is certain that no other publisher will buy that fourth mystery, either. You get that news right in the middle of writing mystery number four. What happens? You grow seriously unhappy and you stop writing your fourth novel. Why bother? The thought passes through your mind: Why bother to live? Suddenly you have no chance of ever escaping your day job. You somehow manage to go to your day job, but you find yourself working listlessly and carelessly. Nothing amuses you. Nothing interests you. You begin to chain-eat Twinkies.

In this contemporary culture of ours, you are almost certain to call yourself depressed. The instant you do so, you reduce your chances of effectively handling your painful situation. Having called yourself depressed, you'll probably take yourself to a mental health provider to whom you'll explain your situation. You'll say, reasonably enough, that you're sleeping too much, eating too many Twinkies, not writing your novel, and performing carelessly at your day job. The first two, by virtue of being unwanted, become "symptoms of a mental disorder"; the second two become evidence of "impairment in functioning." You are diagnosed with depression — which, of course, is exactly what you expected to hear. Any other outcome would have been very surprising!

The following transaction occurred: You visited a mental health professional because you were feeling unhappy and because you had already affixed the label "depression" to your state. Having affixed that label, you naturally went in search of someone trained to diagnose and treat depression. What you reported were exactly the sorts of things contrived by the mental health industry to prove that you have a mental disorder. You came in "depressed" and you received the diagnostic label "depression." Transaction completed.

That there are many things going on in your life that you wish would change or go away does not make them abnormalities. They may even "impair your functioning," but to use that phrase is to medicalize your situation. These linguistic ploys, which are now fully embraced by millions of Americans and growing millions worldwide, have transformed the human landscape, making countless people sicker and weaker than they otherwise might be.

Creating Mental Disorders

When you define something with a series of ors rather than a series of ands, you do a poorer job of distinguishing among things. If you define a table as an object with a top and four legs, you exclude cattle. But if you define a table as an object with a top or four legs, you include them. Has the thing got four legs? It's in! If you intend to include a lot of things, perhaps because that makes you more money, it makes sense that you would define those things with a lot of ors.

That is exactly how mental disorders are defined, with a lot of ors. The American Psychiatric Association defines mental disorder as "a clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome or pattern that occurs in an individual and that is associated with present distress or disability or with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, disability, or an important loss of freedom."

This definition is specious. Critics of the mental health industry have pointed out time and again that virtually anything unpleasant meets these pointedly empty criteria. If I run too many marathons and hurt my knees, I've met the criteria for a mental disorder. (I have a "clinically significant behavioral syndrome with present distress.") If I feel elated and I treat myself to a climb up a steep mountain, I've met the criteria for a mental disorder. (I have a "clinically significant psychological syndrome with a significantly increased risk of suffering death, pain, and disability.")

You may think that in presenting these absurd examples I'm not keeping to the spirit of the definition. In fact, that is exactly the spirit of the definition, to create such a large tent that virtually anything can qualify — your son's restlessness in math class, your worry about your dwindling retirement account, your daughter's unhappiness with her college choice, your sister's trips to the casino, your brother's boredom on the weekends. Countless critics of the mental health industry have pointed out that mental disorder is a term used as a professional opportunity and not as a marker of a genuine medical condition.

The first step in creating mental disorders out of ordinary human experiences is to define those ordinary experiences as pathological by using phrases such as "clinically significant behavioral or psychological syndrome." The second step is to refuse to say what causes the disorder or, alternatively, to assert that just about anything might cause it. If you say that it takes sawing and joining and so forth to create a table, then you've excluded cattle from the mix of things called tables. But if you include any four-legged thing and you refuse to distinguish among causes (say, between natural selection and carpentry), your cattle can't be excluded. If you say that anything with four legs created any which way is a table, a cow is a table.

If you are in the business of creating mental disorders, it is very important to throw up your hands in a kind of ecumenical fervor of allowing and make sure not to say what is causing the mental disorder you've created. The mental health industry does this by saying that depression may be caused by any number of things — psychological things, biological things, social things, spiritual things, the weather, hormones, motherhood, genes, childhood, anything. This makes some kind of sense because if what they are talking about is human unhappiness — and it is — then naturally that unhappiness might be caused by anything that makes human beings unhappy. But it makes no sense whatsoever as scientific explanation. Imagine that your physician looked at a tumor growing on your arm, shrugged, and said, "Could be caused by anything" — and took zero interest in ascertaining what was causing it.

This leads to our next point: when creating a disorder, make sure that there are no real tests to employ to determine what is causing your depression. Your physician, having looked at your tumor, would run tests because she is interested and because she does believe that you have a genuine medical condition. Your mental health provider won't run any tests. What could he be testing for, if it is human unhappiness? Does he dare announce that such a test is intended to distinguish between a mental disorder and human unhappiness? Wouldn't that put it into your head that maybe you are not ill but sad?

First he defines disorder broadly. Then he says that almost anything might cause it. Then he avoids testing for it. Fourth, he makes very muddy the idea of cause and effect. The truth of the matter may be that your mood has caused changes in your brain chemistry; he looks at those changes and cries, "See, depression must be biological!" That is, he acts as if changes in brain chemistry caused the unhappiness — even though what actually happened was the exact opposite. He knows that very few people will pay enough attention to see through his gambit, and even if they do, their cry of outrage will fall on the deaf ears of a society not trained to think very deeply about cause and effect.

In "The Myth of Biological Depression," Lawrence Stevens discussed the relationship between cause and effect:

Even if it was shown that there is some biological change or abnormality "associated" with depression, the question would remain whether this is a cause or an effect of the "depression." At least one brain-scan study (using positron emission tomography or PET scans) found that simply asking normal people to imagine or recall a situation that would make them feel very sad resulted in significant changes in blood flow in the brain. Other research will probably confirm it is emotions that cause biological changes in the brain rather than biological changes in the brain causing emotions.

Define the disorder broadly. Say that anything might cause it. Provide no tests. Mislead about cause and effect. Now comes the clincher: create a laundry list of symptoms that anyone who can read can use to diagnose the disorder. This is a crucial step because without this laundry list in hand the mental health provider would have no way to turn a new client's self-report of unhappiness into the mental disorder of depression. This checklist, created by industry professionals sitting around a table, is gold. In a moment we'll create a mental disorder of our own — it's such a simple task it won't take us more than a minute or two.

In Before Prozac, Edward Shorter wrote: "Many of the diagnoses of mood disorder today really don't make a lot of sense.... Medicine is supposed to make progress, to go forward in scientific terms so that each successive generation knows more and does better than previous generations. This hasn't occurred by and large in psychiatry, at least not in the diagnosis and treatment of depression and anxiety, where knowledge has probably been subtracted rather than added."

Knowledge has been subtracted for the sake of a profit. The game is very easy to play. If we were in a position of power and influence within the mental health industry, we would have absolutely no trouble creating innumerable mental disorders and foisting them on an unsuspecting — and all too willing — public. Let's see how this process works by creating our very own mental disorder.

Creating Our Own Mental Disorder

First, let's choose some human experience that most people find unpleasant. How about boredom? Most people find boredom unpleasant. So let's get started and substitute the word pathological for unpleasant. Doesn't that simple switch start to make it feel like a disease already? Pathological boredom!

The next step is to name our disease. How about "interest deficit disorder" or "motivation deficit disorder"? Better yet, let's find a medical-sounding word from Latin to substitute for boredom. Movere is Latin for "motivation." How about "dysmoveria"? By naming our disease, we have practically created it. When you open a door to a new mental disorder, millions of people will rush headlong right through it, as if they'd been waiting their whole lives for just this opportunity. Suddenly they aren't sad or anxious or bored — they're afflicted with something.


Excerpted from Rethinking Depression by Eric Maisel. Copyright © 2012 Eric Maisel. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction: The Reality of Unhappiness 1

Part 1 Rethinking Depression

Chapter 1 Creating Mental Disorders 9

Chapter 2 What Do "Treatments" Really Do? 27

Chapter 3 Fifteen Reasons Why People Believe That "Depression" Exists 39

Part 2 Your Existential Plan

Chapter 4 The Existential Ideal - and Its Reality 49

Chapter 5 You Look Life in the Eye 63

Chapter 6 You Investigate Meaning 69

Chapter 7 You Decide to Matter 75

Chapter 8 You Accept Your Obligation to Make Meaning 83

Chapter 9 You Decide How to Matter 89

Chapter 10 You Honor Your Wants, Needs, and Values 97

Chapter 11 You Create a Life-Purpose Vision 105

Chapter 12 You Use Your Existential Intelligence 115

Chapter 13 You Focus on Meaning Rather Than Mood 123

Chapter 14 You Snap Out of Trance 129

Chapter 15 You Reckon with the Facts of Existence 135

Chapter 16 You Personalize a Vocabulary of Meaning 141

Chapter 17 You Incant Meaning 151

Chapter 18 You Maintain a Morning Meaning Practice 157

Chapter 19 You Negotiate Each Day 163

Chapter 20 You Seize Meaning Opportunities 169

Chapter 21 You Handle Meaning Crises 177

Chapter 22 You Engage in Existential Self-Care 187

Chapter 23 You Engage in Cognitive Self-Care 193

Chapter 24 You Engage in Behavioral Self-Care 201

Conclusion: Cracking the Depression Code 207

Notes 213

Bibliography 217

Index 225

About the Author 237

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