In response to my post linking the new study questioning the serotonin-deprivation theory of depression, I received a very thoughtful email from a reader who wrote,
“Dr. Popcak, some of my friends who suffer with depression are saying that in this article you are blaming them for their depression. Can you explain further?”
Blaming the Victim? A Response
I am grateful for her question because I would never want anyone to think that I was blaming sufferers of depression for being depressed. She was referring, I suspect, to this part of my post where I addressed the notion that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance. I wrote, “every choice you make, every behavior you exhibit sends a wash of chemicals through your body. It stands to reason that healthy thoughts, choices, and behaviors would facilitate a healthy chemical balance and unhealthy thoughts, choices, and behaviors would increase the likelihood of an unhealthy chemical imbalance.”
As I assured my correspondent in the comments section of that post, it was not my intention to blame depression sufferers, rather it was (and is) my intention to show depression sufferers that they don’t have to be passive victims of this horrible disease, that there is a lot that they can do to contribute to their healing.
Depression: No One’s Fault.
It is not the depression-sufferers “fault” that they think the way they do, approach problems they way they do, or have some of the unhealthy habits and/or relationship patterns they have. For the most part these things were taught and modeled and “caught” unconsciously in one’s family-of-origin over the course of tens of thousands of interactions between parents and children and grandparents and siblings and the community and the belief system one is raised in. No one person could possibly be personally responsible for all that, but it still impacts us mightily.
How Environment Influences Depression Gene Expression
On top of all this, biology certainly is a factory, but it isn’t as straightforward as saying, “depression is caused by genetics and biology.” In the first place, depression is not so much genetic as it is an epigenetic illness. Epigenetics studies how environment effects the expression of certain genetic traits and profiles. Certain genes won’t “turn on” if the environmental conditions aren’t right. Depression has genetic and biological components, yes, but those components, by and large, won’t come online unless the environment tells them to. And, curiously enough, once our life experiences activate our genes they can be passed on to the next generation, communicating positive and negative environmental experiences from parents to children through genetic encoding, which is why depression tends to run in families.
Victim No More
The good news is, we don’t have to be passive victims of any of the “bad programming” from these environmental and epigenetic triggers that cause poor thinking habits, unhealthy attitudes, and destructive approaches to life. Medication can certainly take some of the edge off the worst of it, but counseling can help us make dramatic changes in our thoughts, behaviors, and relationships that not only help us feel better emotionally, but rewire our biological and genetic programming, bringing healing both to us and the next generation. With God’s grace and consistent effort, we can master the environmental programming–even the environmental programming that triggers certain biological responses–that causes depression and other emotional illnesses.
A Light in the Darkness
To my way of thinking, that is anything but “blaming the victim.” That is a tremendously liberating and hopeful idea, a light that shines the way out of the terrible darkness that is depressive illness.
If you would like to learn more about faithful and effective treatments for depression and other emotional and relational problems, visit the Pastoral Solutions Institute’s website (or call 740-266-6461) to learn more about how our Catholic telecounseling practice can help you set you free.