Mental Health Awareness Month: The Benefits of Depression


It may be the first day of spring, but that doesn’t mean everything is coming up roses. If flowers are budding, but you’re just bumming, here’s some news that might make you feel a little better about your state of mind, and those looming April showers. 

In his book, The Depths: The Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic author (and psychologist) Jonathan Rottenberg claims that depression is a natural response to certain circumstances and environments, and as such, has evolutionary benefits.

To prove this researchers have looked for correlations between human depression and animal depression. For example, they’ve found that when depressed, dogs– much like humans — can lose interest in food, sex, bathing, and develop disruptive sleeping habits. (Meaning…you’re not crazy, it’s natural.)  The book references the instinct that some animals have to freeze when they are in danger– like mice, who when faced with a dangerous situation, innately attempt to stop struggling in efforts to conserve energy. Although this stopped working out for deer about the time that cars hit the road. (Hence the phrase: “deer in headlights.”)

Rottenberg’s claim is that depression in the human version of  this.

He claims that experiencing what is considered a “low mood” has been shown to have benefits that include: improved memory function (our brain is hard-wired to remember trauma, which can also prove detrimental and debilitating) and being better at gauging and recognizing dishonesty. Low mood also makes us think realistically about goals. I.e: “I need a better job,” versus, “I think I’ll win lottery today,”– and then being bummed that you don’t.  Rottenberg says that moods, both high and low, evolved to compel humans to more efficiently pursue rewards.

Considering the World Health Organization has said that by the year 2030 depression will be a more common cause of disability and death, than cancer and heart disease, Rottenberg’s proposal provides a glimmer of hope that all is not lost. And that, evolutionary speaking, there is actually much to be gained. We just have to evolve.

Maybe restructuring the way we look at, talk about, and treat depression will be our way forward in lessening its hold on the human experience.

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