Should Depression Be Called Melancholia?

A good question: Should depression be called melancholia? Or perhaps something else? What’s wrong with the term depression?

I read William Styron’s Darkness VisibleIn it, he discusses his dealings with severe depression. He was able to recover after almost seven weeks in the hospital. It’s worth reading his story, as he has insights into the use of sleeping medications and anti-depressants.

What I found most interesting, was his comments on the term ‘depression.’ Page 36, he says:

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Depression, most people know, used to be termed “melancholia,” a word which appears in English as early as the year 1303 and crops up more than once in Chaucer, who in his usage seemed to be aware of its pathological nuances. “Melancholia” would still appear to be a far more apt and evocative word for the blacker forms of the disorder, but is was usurped by a noun with a bland tonality and lacking any magisterial presence, used indifferently to describe an economic decline or a rut in the ground, a true wimp of a word for such a major illness.

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I agree with Styron, a different word would be more appropriate. “Depression” sounds too mechanical. It minimizes the true nature of what a person experiences.

Styron touches on the two-sided battle between therapy and pills, on page 11.

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It has yielded its secrets to science far more reluctantly than many of the other major ills besetting us. The intense and sometimes comically strident factionalism that exists in present-day psychiatry — the schism between the believers in psychotherapy and the adherents of pharmacology — resembles the medical quarrels of the eighteenth century (to bleed or not to bleed) and almost defines in itself the inexplicable nature of depression and the difficulty of its treatment.

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While I don’t claim to have the answer to what will ‘cure’ depression, I think it speaks to our belief on miracles, in magical pills. We often look for quick fixes, where none exist. Through it all, we maintain that hope.

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