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You do look glum! What you need, is a gramme of soma

3rd February 2012

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If we could, wouldn’t we all take a long well deserved trip to “the warm, the richly coloured, and the infinitely friendly world of soma-holiday”? For those not acquainted with Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, “Soma” the all-purpose, happy drug regularly taken by the majority of the characters in the novel is described as endowing the user with "all the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; and none of their defects.”

Happy PillsThe reason I ask this question is because it appeared to echo the conclusion of Geoff Watt’s two part programme on depression which was recently broadcasted on the BBC World Service programme Discovery. The programme, using scientific research discusses the paths of different individuals and looks at new methods for dealing with depression. The accompanying article to the programme ( suggested that those that undergo great stress or trauma but do not get depressed are resilient. So what do people need that undergo great stress and trauma and do get depressed? A resilience pill!

This solution did not sit well with me for a number of reasons which I shall attempt to discuss in this article. In 2011 a survey conducted by WHO World Mental Health Survey Initiative found that 15% of the population from high-income countries were likely to get depression over their lifetime compared with a rate of 11% from low and middle-income countries.

Assuming that the low and middle-income countries did not beat us in the UK by 4% because they are all high on resilience pills it seems a contradiction that we are presented with this solution, to develop a pill “tailored to our brain activity or chemistry.” Surely the focus should be on the positive aspects of life in low middle-income countries whose populations haven’t had their brain chemistry meddled with.

Although it is remarkable to hear that the science of depression has left the days of lobotomy and anti-depressants behind I do think there are crucial triggers of depression that this blasé one size fits all approach excludes.

It does not deal with the external factors that can cause depression for example bereavement, divorce, illness, redundancy and job or money worries, would we still be human if we didn’t allow ourselves to react naturally to these stressful and traumatic events? This solution may well be the answer for some but there are still prescription issues, who would take the pill? When? And how often?

In part one of Geoff Watt’s two part programme the first victim of depression a young mother claimed it was the isolation and emotional detachment that affected her most. Just like in Brave New World where “soma” raises “a quite impenetrable wall between the actual universe and their minds,” I would suggest that taking a pill is a solitary act which has the potential to further isolate the already alone.

The questions posed at the beginning of the programme, “why hasn’t natural selection done away with depression?” And “does depression have an up-side?” Appear equally problematic especially when listening to the conclusions of the programme. I would suggest that just like we can’t have night without day or good without evil similarly we could not exist in a pure state of happiness if we had no other emotional state to measure it against. Yet if the depressed start taking pills to alter their moods it is probable the market would be exploited commercially. When some of us need a pick-me-up wouldn’t it be great to pop down to the chemist where resilience pills will be sold alongside Paracetamol, Ibuprofen and ProPlus?

However, I’m not alone in my scepticism, the scientists on the programme disagreed about depression being a distinguishable feature of the brain. One claiming that depression is distributed in systems therefore cannot be found in one part of the brain. Furthermore he suggested that our capacity for mood is useful which answers the second question “does depression have an upside?”

The programme suggests that those of us who experience high levels of depressive symptoms are more realistic when it comes to giving up those unattainable, futile goals and lofty ambitions. Surprisingly my day wasn’t much injected with optimism after listening to the programme. Perhaps a happy pill could counter my negativity!

If you would like to listen to Geoff Watt’s programme or read the accompanying article the links are available below.

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