Solomon, who suffers from depression himself, clearly has an agenda. He wants to provide a thorough accounting of the history of depression, its causes and ‘cures.’ And the book is certainly exhaustive. There are sections that are utterly engaging and others required some effort to push through. He can be a bit too casual with his use of often hyperbolic anecdote as evidence. And it’s often hard to track how and why he includes accounts of his own struggles.
But a thesis emerges. Depression is hard to define. It needs to be treated as its own entity, not as a corollary or symptom of something else. It still carries an incredible stigma. Those who struggle, almost by definition, are not particularly good advocates for themselves, so there’s little political motivation to develop a more coherent approach to our treatment of the mentally ill. Throughout history, we’ve shifted from blaming the person, to blaming God, to blaming the chemical imbalance. [Solomon, to his credit, will have none of these. We are, he argues, more than our illnesses. “Medication and therapy,” he writes, “are tools to be used as necessary. Neither blame nor indulge yourself” (102). ]
It’s hard to know whether to recommend this book. There’s a lot in it – to consider, to digest – particularly if you know someone who struggles with depression. [And there are more, Solomon argues, than statistics generally suggest because of the stigma attached to self-reporting.]
The writing is fine, the organization a bit cryptic [why does he tell the history of depression in Chapter 8?), but the argument is clear. Though I think Solomon’s sweeping glosses in the inevitable final chapter called “Hope” are too broad, I think there are small moments of hope here – in the people Solomon meets and some of the places he visits.