Excerpt from The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Noonday Demon

An Atlas of Depression

by Andrew Solomon

The Noonday Demon
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  • First Published:
    Jun 2001, 576 pages
    Apr 2002, 576 pages

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It is too often the quality of happiness that you feel at every moment its fragility, while depression seems when you are in it to be a state that will never pass. Even if you accept that moods change, that whatever you feel today will be different tomorrow, you cannot relax into happiness as you can into sadness. For me, sadness always has been and still is a more powerful feeling; and if that is not a universal experience, perhaps it is the base from which depression grows. I hated being depressed, but it was also in depression that I learned my own acreage, the full extent of my soul. When I am happy, I feel slightly distracted by happiness, as though it fails to use some part of my mind and brain that wants the exercise. Depression is something to do. My grasp tightens and becomes acute in moments of loss: I can see the beauty of glass objects fully at the moment when they slip from my hand toward the floor. "We find pleasure much less pleasurable, pain much more painful than we had anticipated," Schopenhauer wrote. "We require at all times a certain quantity of care or sorrow or want, as a ship requires ballast, to keep on a straight course."

There is a Russian expression: if you wake up feeling no pain, you know you're dead. While life is not only about pain, the experience of pain, which is particular in its intensity, is one of the surest signs of the life force. Schopenhauer said, "Imagine this race transported to a Utopia where everything grows of its own accord and turkeys fly around ready-roasted, where lovers find one another without any delay and keep one another without any difficulty: in such a place some men would die of boredom or hang themselves, some would fight and kill one another, and thus they would create for themselves more suffering than nature inflicts on them as it is...the polar opposite of suffering [is] boredom." I believe that pain needs to be transformed but not forgotten; gainsaid but not obliterated.

I am persuaded that some of the broadest figures for depression are based in reality. Though it is a mistake to confuse numbers with truth, these figures tell an alarming story. According to recent research, about 3 percent of Americans -- some 19 million -- suffer from chronic depression. More than 2 million of those are children. Manic-depressive illness, often called bipolar illness because the mood of its victims varies from mania to depression, afflicts about 2.3 million and is the second-leading killer of young women, the third of young men. Depression as described in DSM-IV is the leading cause of disability in the United States and abroad for persons over the age of five. Worldwide, including the developing world, depression accounts for more of the disease burden, as calculated by premature death plus healthy life-years lost to disability, than anything else but heart disease. Depression claims more years than war, cancer, and AIDS put together. Other illnesses, from alcoholism to heart disease, mask depression when it causes them; if one takes that into consideration, depression may be the biggest killer on earth.

Treatments for depression are proliferating now, but only half of Americans who have had major depression have ever sought help of any kind -- even from a clergyman or a counselor. About 95 percent of that 50 percent go to primary-care physicians, who often don't know much about psychiatric complaints. An American adult with depression would have his illness recognized only about 40 percent of the time. Nonetheless, about 28 million Americans -- one in every ten -- are now on SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors -- the class of drugs to which Prozac belongs), and a substantial number are on other medications. Less than half of those whose illness is recognized will get appropriate treatment. As definitions of depression have broadened to include more and more of the general population, it has become increasingly difficult to calculate an exact mortality figure. The statistic traditionally given is that 15 percent of depressed people will eventually commit suicide; this figure still holds for those with extreme illness. Recent studies that include milder depression show that 2 to 4 percent of depressives will die by their own hand as a direct consequence of the illness. This is still a staggering figure. Twenty years ago, about 1.5 percent of the population had depression that required treatment; now it's 5 percent; and as many as 10 percent of all Americans now living can expect to have a major depressive episode during their life. About 50 percent will experience some symptoms of depression. Clinical problems have increased; treatments have increased vastly more. Diagnosis is on the up, but that does not explain the scale of this problem. Incidents of depression are increasing across the developed world, particularly in children. Depression is occurring in younger people, making its first appearance when its victims are about twenty-six, ten years younger than a generation ago; bipolar disorder, or manic-depressive illness, sets in even earlier. Things are getting worse.

Copyright © 2001 by Andrew Solomon

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