Find help and online resources for:

Mental health problems


- The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and it was the vitality that seemed to flow away from me at that time.

Image: Screenshot from video, TED Talks

This is what author Andrew Solomon says in a lecture at TED Talks, where he brings us into the deep darkness of what it means to have a depression. Listen to the entire lecture here (video below). This article is based on Andrew Solomon's lecture by TEDxMet.


The depression: - A funeral in my brain

Andrew Solomon begins the lecture by reading the poem I felt a Funeral in my Brain by Emily Dickinson.

We know depression through metaphors. Emily Dickinson was able to convey it through the language, Goya in an image. Half the purpose of art is to describe such iconic conditions, says Solomon.

Although he has always thought of himself as a strong and masterful person, he himself experienced the dark powers of a depression. In 1991 he had a number of loss experiences in his life, and three years later the depression struck.

I found myself losing interest in almost everything. I didn't want to do any of the things I had previously wanted to do, and I didn't know why. The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality. And it was vitality that seemed to seep away from me in that moment.


The anxiety felt insurmountable

He elaborates that everything that was to be done in this life at this time was experienced as a chore. To call back to friends who have left an answer on the answering machine, to take a shower, to arrange a meal.

And then the anxiety set in, says Solomon.

The depression was in a way manageable, he says - at least if he could know that it would be relatively short-lived. But with the anxiety it was different: Just imagining that he would have to fight with this for a month, was experienced as completely insurmountable.

It's a sensation of being afraid all the time but not even knowing what it is that you're afraid of. And it was at that point that I began to think that it was just too painful to be alive, and that the only reason not to kill oneself was so as not to hurt other people.


The help was helpful but not adequate

One day it peaked: He was lying in bed looking at the phone, thinking that now he just had to seek help. But for four hours he lay staring at the phone, and he could not bring himself to call. Then his father called, and Andrew Solomon could tell:

I'm in serious trouble. We need to do something.

The next day came, and along with it medication and therapy. And that was the beginning of the fact that he had to be confronted with difficult questions in life, including the question of how it could be possible that the "strong" person he thought he was, could experience being completely put out of action in this way. 

In the time that followed, he also learned that depression will not go away for good. After a period of improvement, there was always a relapse.

But is it a chemical problem or a psychological problem? And does it need a chemical cure or a philosophical cure? he asked. But he simply could not find the answer.


Interviewed people with depression worldwide

He set out to understand more about the phenomenon of depression, and he began interviewing people who themselves had depression.

I found that there were people who seemed, on the surface, to have what sounded like relatively mild depression who were nonetheless utterly disabled by it. And there were other people who had what sounded as they described it like terribly severe depression who nonetheless had good lives in the interstices between their depressive episodes.

He was concerned with uncovering what makes some people seem more resilient than other people. - What are the mechanisms that allow people to survive?

One of the first people he interviewed described depression as a slower way to die. Solomon also points out that depression is a condition with a very high disease burden worldwide, and which daily leads a number of people to death.

One of his conclusions through the interviews was this: The difficulty with helping a depressed person is that the depressed person believes that he or she has found the truth in the depression. 

But the truth lies, adds Andrew Solomon.


Depression, the secret we have in common (Andrew Solomon)



His conclusion on the question of who manages to live, seems to be related to how one relates to one's own depressions. 

And what I came up with over time was that the people who deny their experience, and say, "I was depressed a long time ago, I never want to think about it again, I'm not going to look at it and I'm just going to get on with my life," ironically, those are the people who are most enslaved by what they have.

Shutting out the depression strengthens it. While you hide from it, it grows. And the people who do better are the ones who are able to tolerate the fact that they have this condition. Those who can tolerate their depression are the ones who achieve resilience.

He admits that acknowledging one's own depression in this way will not necessarily prevent a relapse into depression, but that it can make the prospect of a relapse and the relapse itself easier to tolerate. Giving meaning to depression is something Solomon recommends: - This will be hellish, but I will learn something from it

I have learned in my own depression how big an emotion can be, how it can be more real than facts, and I have found that that experience has allowed me to experience positive emotion in a more intense and more focused way. The opposite of depression is not happiness, but vitality, and these days, my life is vital, even on the days when I'm sad, Andrew Solomon concludes.



Also read