Once referred to as melancholy--an affliction of the humors--depression, dreadful and mysterious, has visited humanity for centuries. The other day, I came across a book from my library and gave the matter some thought.
Published in 1977, Meaning & Void: Inner Experience and the Incentives in People's Lives by Eric Klinger is a fascinating piece of intellectual history, a glimpse at forgotten notions, many of which may seem unreasonable today. To be fair, I clarify that my present reflection is essentially rhetorical and not intended to examine Klinger's work in depth. Rather, at the moment, I want to regard his ideas on depression in isolation, appreciating their historical contexts, as best I can. He states:
Most depressions, even a majority of those severe enough to receive clinical attention, gradually clear up without specific treatment. In fact, except for antidepressant drugs and electroconvulsive shock, there are no reliable treatments. For most depressions, therefore, there is a phase during which the depressed person is gradually returning to normal. This period is what I am calling a "recovery" phase (p. 166).
Here, we must regard the wider framework of this passage; it pertains to a clinician's understanding of how we, in our human complexity, set and achieve goals, making use of various incentives along the way. With this in mind, Klinger regards depression as an aspect of ongoing processes, an influencer of life rather than a compelling and insurmountable condition, which is what the malady has become in our time. According to his conclusions--and, presumably, a convincing body of evidence--recovery appears to be the rule rather than the exception.
A Nation in Search of Healing
For historical context, we recall that the war in Vietnam ended in 1975, the Mỹ Lai massacre of 1968 still uppermost in the nation's memory. Understandably, Americans hoped to put the tumult of war and campus rebellion in the past, moving forward with a renewed sense of selfhood. I see Klinger's concept of the "recovery" phase as a part of this mindset. Situated within a difficult period of history, this belief in automatic healing (the mechanisms of which remain unclear) prompts us to leave yesterday's sorrow in the past.
Solutions remain elusive, and optimism has subsided. In the shadow of Vietnam, depression might have been viewed as a process of human struggle and growth, something for which recovery would automatically arise. However, in the 2020s, it has become something else, a far darker experience with few defined phases of healing. In the face of multifarious theories and treatments, the problem seems to be growing and feeling more permanent.
For a variety of reasons, including (but not limited to) the breakdown of society on various levels, as well as our dependence on electronic media, many cases of depression seem to linger, entering periods of lesser influence often to rise again without warning. After centuries of analysis, and a vast array of treatments, depression remains a mystery. In the absence of spontaneous recovery, which eventually proved to be more the exception than the rule, what remains?
The Era of Meds
Now, we consider the rising prevalence of prescription drug use (and abuse), a crisis perhaps unforeseen in 1977. In three decades, however, the multi-billion-dollar industry has become more of a cash cow than an instrument of healing. And yet, we can be thankful that electroshock "treatment" is relegated to the past, placed in the dust bin alongside instruments of quackery and torture. At any rate, why consider a passage from an old psychology text?
I simply wonder if, in our search for depression treatments, Klinger's older ideas might be of enduring value. I'll reverse my previous skepticism and say, why not look back? Perhaps reducing the condition to a mere facet of experience, rather than allowing it to tower as an all-consuming entity, might serve patients well. Of course, doing so would greatly reduce the profits and influence of the pharmaceutical establishment. Indeed, it's doubtful that such a change will ever occur. I consider all of these things as I re-examine this text with, admittedly, far more to study and assess.
Notes on Eric Klinger
His profile on Researchgate lists his status as Professor Emeritus from the University of Minnesota, Morris. Klinger's areas of expertise include the following: psychotherapeutic processes, personality assessment, use of questionnaires, and psychometrics, with 132 publications to his credit.
Again, to be fair, I have not researched the development of Klinger's practice, neither have I attempted to discover any revisions he made to his work from the 1970s. For the moment, I am content to reflect on an intriguing passage and wonder about its applications. With that in mind, an interview with Eric Klinger would be fascinating.
Human motivations and sorrows are, to be sure, some of our most pressing and complicated realms of enquiry. Insights from the past have much to reveal, but the stakes are perilously high. For those who suffer, time is very much of the essence. I do look forward to continuing this line of research and hope that you will join me.
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