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“Depression is a cry in the soul that something is dreadfully existential crisis calling me to face my life, my death....”

This paper proposes to look at depression, not from the medical opinion that mental illness is a chemical imbalance and all inner experience is a by-product of brain activity - but rather as a final symptom of an inner conflict of the soul. The possible roots of depression and how psychotherapy can help in the healing process will also be the focus of this paper.

For someone in the grip of depression it can feel like a complete hopelessness, where the spirit is tired and any activity feels like too much of an effort. Intense emotions such as anger, sadness, self loathing and worthlessness can be present. We can feel that we are all alone and for some, thoughts of death and suicide can invade. Other symptoms might include irritability, loss of appetite, chronic fatigue, inability to relax, gluttony, alcohol excess, chain smoking, loss of libido, poor concentration and many more.....

Depression can occur in persons of all genders, ages and backgrounds, it knows no boundaries. It is a “Universal Phenomenon”.

.....”At one time or another all of us have experienced it”.¹

The World Health Organisation tells us that there are several types of depression: Manic Depressive Disorder – also known as Clinical Depression, Dysthmic Disorder – also referred to as Dysthymia and Manic Depression – more commonly now referred to as Bipolar. These types of depression (and others) are often distinguished by their prevalent features, duration and severity of symptoms and are defined by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), an American Psychiatric Association publication which describes the standard criteria for different types of psychiatric disorders.²

Whilst there are many schools of thought on depression, i.e the common medical opinion sees depression as a mental illness or “a disorder that can seriously affect the body, mood, and thoughts of a person experiencing this sometimes debilitating disease”.³ 

Modern psychology now recognises that depression can be a symptom of something much bigger, an existential crisis, where the lack of meaning and hopelessness can be related to a lack of spiritual meaning, a “disharmony of body, brain, mind and spirit within the whole person: an inner conflict of the soul”.

Central to a spiritual depression or existential crisis is an overwhelming awareness and reaction, that there is no meaning to life at all – that life is merely a coincidence, it has no purpose. Life becomes very uncertain and you can feel all alone, with everything that you previously believed in up for question. An existential crisis can happen over a period of time, but often it is triggered by life events that cause you to ask questions like, “What’s the point in living if everything dies anyway?” Marriage, separation, major loss, the death of a loved one; a life-threatening experience; psycho-active drug use; adult children leaving home; reaching a personally-significant age (turning 30, turning 40, etc.) can all provoke this type of crisis.⁵

This crisis may be accompanied by any combination of the following symptoms, which include feelings of depression, despair, loneliness; loss of energy or chronic exhaustion not linked to a physical disorder; loss of control over one's personal and/or professional life; unusual sensitivity to light, sound, and other environmental factors; anger, frustration, lack of patience; loss of identity, purpose, and meaning; withdrawal from life's everyday routines; feelings of madness and insanity; a sense of abandonment by God; feelings of inadequacy; estrangement from family and friends; loss of attention span, self-confidence, and self-esteem; and frequent bouts of spontaneous crying and weeping.⁶

If the depressed person speaks at all, it may be to criticise or attack other people, particularly partners or children. Alternatively, the attack may be internalised as a constant undermining, critical voice which has a devastating effect on the balance of the psyche, (Greek – Soul). The memory of happy relationships or a happier mood vanishes as if it had never been and will never return. It is as if the personality has been invaded and taken over by a destructive entity. One is left, as Dante describes it, in the midst of a dark wood, with no indication of a way out.⁷

Whilst recognising that the life events, relational experiences and genetic disposition of a person may need to be considered to help us understand the roots of depression, I think the work of Frank Lake gives me the greatest understanding, when he suggests that our pre and perinatal experiences play a large role in who we are and how we become in the world. Lake maintained that disturbances experienced in the “Being” or “Well-Being” phases of the dynamic cycle had the greatest impact upon personality formation.

That is to say, that if the neonate or infant experiences denial/non acceptance of being, absence of mother either physically or emotional withdrawal or disconnection, deprivation of love and sustenance, the child can form defended personality adaptations and reactive patterns that can have huge ramifications on their continuing life, such as, schizoid, hysteric, obsessional, phobic and depressive.⁸

Anna Baring, a Jungian analyst and lecturer in the UK supports Lake’s theory when she explains five major source-experiences which she believes give rise to unconscious memories which later manifest as a chronic depressive mood:

1. The perinatal memory of a long and difficult birth trapped and compressed in the birth canal.
2. The separation from the mother in infancy and early childhood due to bereavement or abandonment.
3. The emotional "absence" of the mother because of her own depression.
4. The child's helpless witnessing of a constant pattern of violence, whether physical or verbal, inflicted on one parent by the other. (This can be extended to the child witnessing the horrors and devastation of war).
5. The child's experience of being the helpless victim of a parent/adult's rage, violence, sexual abuse and cruelty, or of bullying by siblings or other children. To this must be added the suffering of a child who is exposed to an ambitious and bullying parent demanding high achievement through an unremitting barrage of negative criticism.⁹

The late singer/songwriter Johnny Cash wrote about the impact of his own darkness and despair, the day he crawled into a cave to die.

“.....I crawled and crawled until after two or three hours.......I lay down to die in total darkness. The absolute lack of light was appropriate, for at that moment I was as far away from God as I have ever been. My separation from Him, the deepest and most ravaging of the various kinds of loneliness I’d felt over the years, seemed finally complete”.¹⁰

Whilst experiencing this kind of deep and hopeless despair, it can seem all too difficult to stop and pay attention to what our soul may be trying to bring our attention to. Mostly we want to recoil, isolate ourselves, beat it, so we can get back to the way things were, but as Dr M. Scott Peck tells us, things cannot go back to the way they were because:  

“...the unconscious in its wisdom knows that the way things used to be is no longer tenable or constructive.....the process of growing and giving up is begun on an unconscious level...”¹¹

Because the prevailing medical view is, that depression is most likely caused by a physical bodily defect: either a biochemical imbalance in the brain or a genetic defect, it is usually treated with anti depressants, sleep medications, ECT and hospitalisations.

These treatments, whilst maybe having their place for a period of time depending on the severity of the depression, only suppress the underlying emotional distress which brought the person to the doctor in the first place.

Medication can find us “jumpstarted prematurely back into to interface again with the details of our life, but it is at a cost of awareness as the messenger is not afforded a listening space”.¹²

“...Instead of anesthetising us from our the end it leaves us feeling emptier and more uneasy........denying the soul a forum for expression”.¹³ 

So how does a person move from depression, hopelessness and fear, to open their heart, mind and soul to embrace a new life, a new Self?

Philip Martin suggests to us that “what may be crucial to our healing is, first, to do sit down and shut up”.¹⁴

If we sit down and listen, if we can allow ourselves be still, if we can begin to experience and trust our most painful emotions, we can discover for ourselves, that beyond any doubt they will point us to our inner conflict.

“Life will give you whatever experience is most helpful for the evolution of your consciousness. How do you know this is the experience you need? Because this is the experience you are having at this moment”.¹⁵

Although, maybe a very difficult thing to do when we feel our back is against the wall, Martin tells us that this place “is incredibly ripe, filled with possibility. It gives us the opportunity to really pay attention and just see what happens”.¹⁶ Facing our depression in this way can help us look more closely at the deepest problems and feelings in our life.

From the moment we are conceived we are in relationship. We are relational beings. All our experiences, including our pain and suffering happen in relationship. If we can acknowledge this, then we can believe that our healing also needs to happen in relationship, a relationship of trust and affection between the person suffering and another human being. The therapeutic relationship can help provide this healing space, as the burden of the traumatised individual may be too great for a partner, relative or friend to carry.

The therapist, on meeting an individual in this kind of pain can help facilitate healing and growth:

  • Initially the therapist will need to establish a good rapport with the client. They will also need to create a safe and loving environment, by being attentive, genuine, non-judgemental and empathic.
  • The therapist will need to check on the clients lifestyle patterns i.e sleep, appetite, exercise, workload etc.. and suggest changes if necessary.
  • Allowing the client room to tell their story and state their case against life in their own way is a very important part of the healing process.
  • The therapist can then help the client make contact with their deep suffering and all the emotions that go with it i.e rage, hatred, lust.
  • In time, the therapist can facilitate a deepening of the work so that the client can expand their own consciousness in order to hold more of themselves and re-own the disowned aspects of themselves. They are more than their pain.¹⁷


  1. Michael Corry & Áine Tubridy, (2001) Going Mad? Understanding Mental Illness, Newleaf, p77.
  4. Ello Frattaroll M.D, (2001) Healing The Soul In The Age Of The Brain, Viking, p3.
  7. Dante Alighieri, (1308-1321) La Divinia Commedia.
  8. Franklyn Sills, (2009) Being and Becoming, North Atlantic Books, chapters 15, 16, 17.
  10. Johnny Cash and Patrick Carr, (1997) Cash-The Autobiography of Johnny Cash, Harper, p184.
  11. Dr. M. Scott Peck, (1978) The Road Less Travelled, Century Hutchinson Ltd, p70.
  12. Michael Corry & Áine Tubridy, (2001) Going Mad? Understanding Mental Illness, Newleaf, p83.
  13. Ello Frattaroll M.D, (2001) Healing The Soul In The Age Of The Brain, Viking, chapter1.
  14. Philip Martin, (1999) The Zen Path Through Depression, Harper One, p1.
  15. Eckhart Tolle, (2005) A New Earth, Penguin, p41.
  16. Philip Martin, (1999) The Zen Path Through Depression, Harper One, p2.
  17. Dublin Counselling and Therapy Centre, Training Handouts, years 1&2.

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