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Depression, existential depression and unwanted gifts



This was originally a guest-post I wrote over at Free psychology, but it dawned on me that my Norwegian readers might appreciate it too.

There is a large difference between depression and existential depression, and it is an important one. I have been through the mental health system as in-patient for months and months, and have found little of the tools they try to give me as particularly useful, and in some cases counterproductive. I have found little help exploring this: I am pretty sure – after almost a year of well-meaning therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses – that my depression is existential. There have been little research done on this, and it seems the best reflections around this is written by artists, philosophers and poets.

They say existential depression is «un-caused». This means there is no trigger event, there is no dark secrets of childhood abuse or neglect. It seems to arise from «nowhere». True, in that sense I have no reason to be depressed. What they call a psychological depression stems from disappointments and failure (real or imaginary). existential depression is «irrational.» I strongly disagree with this and will come back to this.

The various – and there has been many! – therapists have hammered relentlessly in their search for childhood trauma, dramatic events and emotions stunted. There is none, I said so from the start. I had a very interesting, fulfilling and extremely exciting life before I realised I was in such a black hole I needed help to get out.

Some people would argue that people can get an existential depression when – for example – a loved one dies or somesuch. The way I see it, is that this is a healthy and normal reaction: it is a memento mori for us: remember that you shall die. You would probably be a little of a psychopath if you did not question life after such an event. But in most cases, it passes. It is not as such, an existential depression. It is an existential episode, a crisis, certainly. But one that has cause and an end.

James Park, of the University of Minnesota have described the differences thus:

Psychological depression Existential depression
1. Specific, understandable feelingof disappointment or failure. 1. Generalized feeling of lowspirits;
undefinable, unintelligible, free-floating.
2. Caused by recognizableproblems and difficulties;specific channels of approach;we know why we are depressed. 2. Uncaused, no recognizable source;arises from within our selves;no channel of approach;we don’t know why we are depressed.
3. Temporary—comes and goeswith our changing life-situations. 3. Permanent—always presentin our selves, altho often repressed.
4. Focused on a specific aspect ofour lives; localized, isolatable. 4. Pervades every corner of our being;cannot be isolated.
5. We can overcome it by correctingthe cause or simply letting it pass. 5. We cannot eliminate it;but we can conceal it or embrace it.

..and he goes on to say:

Existential depression seeps into consciousness not as an invading fluid; we recognize it as our own juice.

In this, I can find part of myself. There is a reason for my existential depression. But it is so ingrained, so saturated in my being, it is me, it has always been. There is no separating the two. Yes, surely, it has crystallised over the last few years; it has taken over and is blown out of proportions; but you cannot take it away without taking away my identity.

Many philosophers, poets and artists will say it stems from looking (too) deeply at/into the depths of life.

What makes me cry every time in this process, what drives me into despair is not the therapy, the therapists (though that can be frustrating too). It is to see the cause, to see that there is a cause. It is just that it is not event-related, it is an identity problem. Existential. And the realisation of this have been the most potent, the hardest: painful beyond belief. I have resisted this insight with tooth and claw: I have struggled, refused to believe it, tried to ignore it as a desperate muddled mind going down a cul-de-sac. I have tried to rationalise it away. But there is, as psychologists will tell you: no escaping your own mind.

So what is the cause of my particular existential depression? What is it that hurts so much? I am gifted. And I can assure you: that is not a gift. I have to rethink my entire life; from feeling that I am average, insisting that I am, a bit of an idiot, to live with being objectively, not solely subjectively different. An explosive creativity, an out of the ordinary view of life. How to live with that is still an open question which does not have a clear-cut answer. That is what makes it existential.

Related articles
(You can find a list of related articles here. Below a select few.).

Deirdre V. Lovecky: Singing flowers, divergent thinkers
Existential depression in gifted individuals
Sensitive and stressed: existential depression, highabillity.org
Intellectual giftedness, Wikipedia

3 kommentarer
  1. Aslaug permalink

    Enig og uenig – vil ikke det å være ‘gifted’ være årsaken til depresjonen og da er det ikke lenger en eksistensiell greie siden det er en årsak (som er komplisert, vel og merke). Eller misforsto jeg definisjonen?

    Enig i at det ikke er lett å være gifted, min første depresjon var resultat av kraftig understimulering på barneskolen + mobbing fordi jeg likte matte (the horror!). Jeg trenger å lære meg, og jobber derfor med det, at det faktisk er greit å være smart. Bare x antall års skolegang som har lært meg noe annet som må overvinnes først.

  2. Wow, another well-written text by you. I love that you discuss this, it is much needed information. I must say I totally agree, therapists should be able to distinguish between depression and existential depression. Hopefully this theme will be acknowledged by therapists and psychology as a subject for that matter.
    I too believe my depressions in life are linked to the existential part and not the bipolar part of my schizoaffective diagnosis doctors tend to believe. Philosophers and people more gifted tend to think about the big questions in life, and failing to dissect and reveal a correct and meaningful response, might lead to existential depression or confusion, because we can never reveal the truth. Anyways, existential depression definately should be treated, however, not through medication and cognitive therapy, but merely in deep discussions about life, maybe with someone who already has mastered to work themselves out of the existential depression?

    I enjoy reading your posts. Keep up the god work and thank you so much for sharing this!

    • Well, many thanks for that glowing review, ekahm. I do think this is important stuff, and not for me only. Feel free to remove the gifted-part; the distinction and the ability to discuss these things remains just as important.

      I find it curious that psychology in many ways tries to dissect people into manageable parts: that we consist of lego blocks in just different configurations. The glaring contradiction would have been funny if not so potentially dangerous to individuals: as you describe; that the profession wants to squeeze your depression into the same section together with your schizoaffective issues. Very handy.

      «We are all the same. We are all different».

      That is not a sensible basis hypothesis or method acceptable in any other profession I can think of.

      Allow me to direct you to a quote by Carl Elliot

Enig eller uenig? Spytt ut! :-)

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