What is ‘depressive realism’? It’s the idea that those with depression have a more ‘realistic’ view of life. When I first heard of this, I was hostile to the idea. It seemed to imply that depression had advantages, an experience that, I felt, was too awful to have them (and that’s putting it lightly). However, upon looking into it more, it intrigued me.

Joshua Wolf Shenk proposes in his book on Abraham Lincoln’s depression, Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged A President and Fuelled His Greatness, that Lincoln was able to act as he did within the American Civil War due to depressive realism. First, a bit of background. Lincoln wrote in a letter that he was “the most miserable man living”, going on to write “If what I feel were equally distributed to the whole human family, there would be not one cheerful face on the earth.” In the same letter he goes on “Whether I shall ever be better I can not tell; I awfully forbode I shall not”. Lincoln also didn’t carry a pocket knife, for fear of self-harming or committing suicide. He later wrote “To remain as I am is impossible; I must die or be better”. Shenk’s argument is an interesting one that provokes many questions.

Is depression merely the tendency toward realism gone awry, in extremis? Maybe. But I can’t say I’m comfortable with the idea of conferring benefits upon depression. When you’re there they are no benefits. Perhaps others think differently but that’s my two cents. I suppose it boils down to the age old question people are often asked about their lives/illnesses in general – if a button existed that eradicated your depression would you push it? If I had been asked this during my severe episodes I would have pushed it a thousand times over in a heartbeat. Now I’m not too sure. For it is only the experience of depression that has allowed me to speak about it, if only after the fact. It is only through depression that I engaged in psychology and literary depictions of depression. Maybe it’s given me more empathy, but that’s anyone’s guess. I don’t really know.

Another figure that is often cited when one researches depressive realism is Winston Churchill. Churchill famously called his depression “the black dog” which is a beautifully and painfully accurate portrayal of a hellscape. Churchill, modern psychologists believe, exhibited many symptoms of bipolar or manic-depressive illness. The very traits that one exhibits in mania proved valuable as the traits of a leader, jubilant, boisterous etc. However I’m reluctant to put things that straight forwardly, as this presents what is after all an illness as something to be almost striven for. It also cuts out the severe negative effects of mania such as severe agitation and the possibility of descending into psychosis if left untreated.

Anyway, Churchill is often cited in depressive realism studies due to his role as the British PM during WWII. I’m no war historian, so I can’t comment on how depressive realism would have aided Churchill, if at all. Perhaps it influenced his predicting the cold war and the iron curtain. Maybe. I’d have to research it more.

Of course, using exclusively leader figures as examples is open to a myriad of criticisms. What use is depressive realism to the average joe who can’t even shower or get out of bed in the morning? And not everybody is going to be a Lincoln or a Churchill, and that’s fine. What use is depressive realism to the average person with depression?

Andrew Solomon, author of the brilliant The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, cites some research in a talk he gave to a university titled “Inspired By Melancholy: The Creative Mind and Its Pain” (available on YouTube). (I’ll be doing a post on mental illness and creativity later!). He cites a study that, in practice, proves that the idea of depressive realism may hold some credibility. The study got both depressed and non depressed people to play a video game for a few minutes and estimate how many enemies they had killed. The non depressed estimated far higher than their actual scores, while the depressed people were far closer in their estimates.

I’m still not entirely comfortable with the idea of depressive realism, but it is none the less an extremely intriguing one. It provokes questions such as if we were able to screen for mental illness in a fetus and thus root it out, would we be rooting out an essential asset of society in the process? Can something as horrible as depression have advantages? I don’t know how to answer these questions but they intrigue me greatly and peak my interest.

Ultimately, I’ll leave the last words to the writer David Foster Wallace, who described depression “as though every axiom of your life turned out to be false and there was actually nothing. And that you were nothing. And it’s all a delusion. And you’re so much better than everybody because you can see that it’s just a delusion” however the bit I, and anyone else I think can’t forget is “you’re so much worse because you can’t fucking function.”


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