Why Is Depression So Common in the First World?

Jean Vanier Outlines Some Answers

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ROME, MAR. 26, 2001 (ZENIT.orgAVVENIRE).- “Depression: Way to Healing,” is the title of Jean Vanier´s new book. Vanier, a spiritual master, is the founder of the Faith and Light lay movement, which has 1,500 communities in 72 countries.

The life of this Canadian, who left a brilliant military career to study philosophy and theology, took an unexpected turn in 1964, when he met two mentally handicapped people, whom he welcomed into his home, and removed from their state of neglect in a psychiatric hospital.

Vanier founded L´Arche community, with the help of his two new friends. In the community, men and women of different social backgrounds live with handicapped individuals. Since the birth of the first small French community, 103 additional ones have been established throughout the world, embracing 26 countries and more than 2,000 members.

–Q: You are an expert in spirituality, handicaps and ecumenism. Why did you decide to write a book on depression?

–Vanier: I have met too many individuals, Christian and non-Christian, who have lost their self-confidence, and are imprisoned by feelings of sadness and guilt. It is as if they had enormous barriers around themselves. They are men and women who do not really believe that God loves them, when the first thing that Christ says to us is: You are precious, you are valuable, you are important.

–Q: But you are not a psychologist.

–Vanier: Many of the handicapped in our communities manifest the same tendency, not so much of depression, as clinically understood, but of feelings of lack of worth. In fact, when parents have a handicapped child, they are disappointed, and the child feels unwanted. Some of these wounds are normal, inevitable, but the impression is very deep in the subconscious. Later, when they have to face other rejections, the underlying wounds surface again. This is the basis of depression.

The whole pedagogy in L´Arche is to reveal that this is not so: “You are beautiful, we are happy to be with you.” Our treatment consists above all in being happy, and being so together, to transform the negative self-image into a positive one. The purpose is to transform the fear of living with a desire to live.

–Q: It is said that depression is the existential evil of our time.

–Vanier: I think it´s true because today people feel lost.

–Q: More than in the past?

–Vanier: Before, we had the faith, which gave direction and offered moral guidelines. Today many anchors have been destroyed by the idea that the individual´s freedom comes before anything else — except that now we no longer know how to direct this freedom. … Today people want much, but they don´t know where to direct their vital energies — hence, their feeling of sadness. Moreover, there is early failure in marriages.

People are aware of the chaos in themselves: violence, banal sexuality, inability to forgive. Men are more aware of the wounds they carry within. Before, living in the domain of morality and will, many people were able to bear difficulties, although their reasons were not always pure. Today confusion prevails.

–Q: Are you saying that depression is the offspring of ideologies: for instance, rationalism, the Enlightenment? Or, perhaps, consumerism?

–Vanier: No, ideologies come in second place. As I don´t feel loved, I submerge myself in a political project or even in consumerism.

–Q: But, why is depression typical of the so-called developed world?

–Vanier: Because in the West, people don´t know what to do with their leisure. There are no amusements in Africa; one struggles to survive and to eat. All one´s energies are in the service of life; and, when one works, there is no depression. Instead, free time is the ambit for family conflicts, and lack of creativity because of television. In this environment, one wonders about the meaning of life.

–Q: Do we have too much free time, then?

–Vanier: That´s not the problem; rather, we don´t know how to use it. The people who know how to exploit it discover the fruitfulness of loving, of caring for the elderly, of being concerned for others.

–Q: Do you think, therefore, that volunteer work is an antidote to depression?

–Vanier: It depends. If it is simply to care for handicapped children or the poor, no. When, on the contrary, it is an encounter with the other, an exchange of love, then it becomes communion and confidence that can heal our wounds.

–Q: Does the world´s competitiveness make us more fragile?

–Vanier: Yes, we are much more fragile. Unbridled individualism gives birth to depression. Of course, we must not underrate physical and genetic causes. We still do not know what can be cured with medication and what can be cured with psychology.

However, I always say that three things are necessary, in order to have valid psychotherapy: a good community, a job we like, and faith. On the contrary, today many individuals no longer have a family or friends, or a worthy job, nor the faith that allows them to put reality into perspective. Then, not even the best therapy works.

–Q: However, you say that even Christians, who have the faith, get depressed.

–Vanier: The three elements are necessary simultaneously: All human aspects are related. And by saying this, I do not diminish the importance of medication: I have seen believers who have picked up thanks to Prozac.

–Q: Would you establish an Arche community for those suffering from depression?

–Vanier: No. Instead, centers must be created where these people can meet and talk. Groups must be created, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, in which people with the same problem exchange impressions and understand that they are not alone, that sadness is an illness that can be overcome, that it is not a disgrace.

Depression is normal; it often happens between 40 and 55 years of age, the midlife crisis. People must be helped to understand that it is a period of change, that spring can follow winter. There are even well-motivated people, priests and religious, who lose their enthusiasm in midlife. This happened to Tauler [mystic, disciple of Meister Eckhart] in the 14th century.

How can they be helped? A distinction must be made between clinical depression — which needs the attention of a psychiatrist and medication — and a break in life that is accompanied by a sense of sadness. Here, someone who can give advice is needed.

–Q: What can the Church do to help those who are overwhelmed by depression?

–Vanier: There are two aspects to the matter. The first, very painful, is that priests no longer have time to hear confessions. What is necessary is a greater number of priests able to listen to men who have become fragile due to sadness. Confession is not a judgment but a meeting with someone who can listen to another´s sufferings and difficulties, not only to console him but to help him understand the meaning of depression.

Second aspect: the Church pushes a lot toward ideals that inspire youth, but at times it forgets those who do not have the strength to take on these commitments. Both the militants and the weak must be [included] in the mystery of the Church. The elderly, mentally ill, people in crisis. They are increasingly more numerous. There is the Church of enthusiasm, but the Church, as refuge of the wounded, is also needed.

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