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What is Depression and its History

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Depression is not something new, it has always been with us and it is inherent to the human being. Already the Greeks spoke of a state of melancholy. Hippocrates considered the father of Medicine, theorized that this state was due to a disorder of black bile, one of the humours that, he said, could be found in the human being. Today we already know that he did not hit one with his theory, but he did in the following:

It is the brain that makes us delirious or crazy, the one that inspires us with fears and anguish, whether at night or during the day; the one that brings insomnia, untimely mistakes, unjustified anxieties, makes us be gone or act as, really, we do not want. All these things that we suffer come from the brain when it is not healthy.

Also, read the modern development in psychology Albert Bandura’s Theory of Social Learning and Its Educational Implications.

During the era of Ancient Rome, it was not so much more melancholy than the Greeks. Either they got married to Hippocrates' theory of humours, or they attributed melancholy to a punishment from the gods or, simply, to the nature of the person itself. You were melancholic because you were given to being melancholic, and there was no more.

And since we are talking about science here, during the following centuries you already know that the thing did not change much, neither in Physics nor in Medicine, Biology or Psychology. In the West, the Middle Ages brought the same stories as some Romans, but changing the protagonists: God punishes you with melancholy because you are a sinner. What's more, being melancholic, in and of itself, was a sin. That perhaps - just maybe - explain why it is sometimes frowned upon to admit that you are depressed.

Later, during the Renaissance, the Enlightenment and other cultural movements, the idea of depression (or melancholy, as it was still called) changed and tumbled from one place to another. Sometimes it was considered as something worthy of intellectuals, geniuses or artists, and still another condition of the human being that had to be accepted and lived with dignity.

A step away from the birth of Psychology as a science, Freud and his gang of psychoanalysts theorized that melancholy was attributed to internal conflicts, unconscious, and should be treated in therapy. But let's stop with stories and stories: we reached our point of interest today, half of the 20th century onwards when we started talking about scientific psychology.

1952: from melancholy to depressive reaction

For us to understand, during the twentieth century there is a maturation of the global scientific enterprise, is increasingly present in culture and society, but in which some savagery still occurs. It is, so to speak, the century of human adolescence, something like giving a teenager absolute freedom. The great development that was taking place in many fields made us think we knew everything and we still did not know that, in fact, we had not explored even the tip of the iceberg.

During this century we tried, in Medicine but also in Psychology, to start doing things. Unfortunately, the tools were still very crude, such as lobotomies, electroshock-based therapies, drug tests, experiments with children (and some juveniles) without any ethics, etc. and these are just some examples.

First edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Whether or not you agree with it, it marked a milestone in the history of Mental Health.

It is not until 1952 that there is a great leap in our approach to mental health. This year the first version of the DSM is published, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of mental disorders used by psychiatrists and psychologists, a compendium that gathers the consensus of the community of mental health professionals and defines what is disorder and what is not. Here, for the first time, melancholy is set aside and depressive reaction begins. From this first manual to the present, different versions have been published, which have been modifying the clinical description over the decades, until the last one that was published in 2015 (DSM-V). However, it is not the only clinical manual that refers to mental and behavioural disorders, which were included for the first time in 1949 in the International Classification of Diseases (ICD) carried out by the World Health Organization (WHO).

The following decades are marked by a more focused approach to the biology of the brain and the neglect of psychoanalytic ideas. Depression will not be understood as a disorder that is caused by an unconscious conflict, but by a mismatch in the levels of certain chemical components in the brain. However, that imbalances in brain chemistry occur during depression does not mean that it is the cause of depression. Nor does it necessarily imply that readjusting these chemical levels will solve the problem. Although our brain and our behaviour are closely related, even today we do not know to what extent modifying nervous tissue causes lasting changes in our behaviour.

As a reaction from the Scientific Psychology, a Psychology based on evidence and not on belief, in the middle of the 20thcentury appear the first therapies to treat depression focused on analysing and modifying the behaviour, ideas, emotions and the current context of a person.


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