Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Depression and genetics

One of the worst things you can say to someone with depression is “it’s all in your head.”  “Come on, just be happy” is a close second but the former still holds on to the number one spot.

There are two problems with saying it.  One, it shows a startling amount of naïveté on the part of the speaker and two, it is actually correct from a certain point of view.  Depression begins inside the brain as levels of the chemical serotonin become irregular.  A 2003 study determined that there is actually a serotonin transporter gene in the human body.  The formation of the gene in an individual is an indicator for depression, thus allowing the media to dub it “the depression gene.” 

And let me tell you, folks.  It is genetic.  I come from a long line of it.  My mother, her father, her brother, and her great-uncle have all dealt with this insidious beast.  Now, a new study suggests that the presence of the gene may predict happiness in children as well. 
Ever wonder why certain people can stand up and face life’s stressors or can be cool in any situation no matter how daunting.  On the other hand, there are those who grow sad under pressure or begin to shut down?  The difference may be this gene and just what kinds of negative experiences the individual was exposed to during childhood.  Benjamin L. Hankin, lead neuroscientist on the study, put it this way:
“Some individuals are orchids, some are weeds. Weeds will grow anywhere; they’ll be just fine. Those are the kids who carry the long version of this gene. The orchid, if [it has] a wonderful, flourishing environment, [will] grow up into a beautiful flower. If not, it’ll wither.”

Therein, my friends, is the difference.
To be sure, there are a number of things that one can do to manage depression, just as there are coping methods for those with diabetes or high blood pressure.  Medications, while still not the greatest, can be a stabilizer while you begin to sort out how to handle things.  A good counselor can teach cognitive and behavioral approaches to gaining control over your emotions and your reactions to negative situations.  There’s meditation, acupressure, and a whole host of other “alternative” methods for dealing with depression that I am ignorant of but wish to learn more about.  I myself am very hopeful that research will bring about methods by which the gene itself can be modified.  That’s right, I’m all for genetic engineering.

However, don’t blame the individual suffering from this condition.  Yes, we’re hell to live with and the things we do might not make much sense and for that you all have my pity but we can’t help it.  Yes, there are ways to manage it and we all should do our best to do so, but in the end it’s just who we are.  We have this thing, this gene, and that’s just how it is.  So if you see someone who responds to a situation in a way that you deem “irrational” or who is perpetually gloomy or “broken,” please don’t tell them to “snap out of it” or worse, “grow a pair of balls and be a man.”  Know that this is a genetic condition, a “gift” left from parent to child.  A “gift” none of us ever asked for nor would we even want to.  Then ask yourself, how would you be if you had it?

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