A Book Review by Molly Keeton Parnell, Ph.D.
I am pleased to have found a book that I can recommend to clients, family, and friends who are dealing with depression and wanting to better understand their treatment options. While the title of the book indicates the subject matter is that of antidepressants, Dr. Banov does a thorough job of discussing various alternatives to traditional medication therapy, including psychotherapy, supplements, exercise, healthy eating, light exposure, yoga, meditation, and more. The fact that the discussion is not limited only to antidepressant medication makes this book much more worthwhile, in my opinion.
Over the years of providing therapy, I have talked with many clients about antidepressant medication. I have found that it is very, very rare that clients feel immediately open to this option. Many come around and try antidepressants and many do not. I am always amazed by what strong opinions exist about medication therapy. People feel that it is “not natural” (neither is cataracts surgery, but most don’t object to this), that they “shouldn’t need it,” or that they should somehow be able to overcome a chemical imbalance through sheer will. It is not the fact that a person has a negative reaction that bothers me – perhaps we should all be more cautious about our medical care. It is this strange phenomenon that average people suddenly seem to fancy themselves a medical expert when it comes to mental health medications. For example, when I was pregnant, I had to be on blood thinner medication. This involved giving myself injections once or twice a day for the entirety of my pregnancies. I certainly received many reactions from people who knew about this (mostly sympathy and some shock at the thought of taking shots everyday), but I never once had someone tell me that I probably didn’t need the medication, that my doctors didn’t know what they were talking about, that blood clotting disorders don’t really exist, or that I could fix my clotting issue by adjusting my attitude. People almost never question treatment or medication for heart disease, Alzheimer’s, or high blood pressure, but when it comes to mental health issues everyone is suddenly an expert. And most likely they haven’t read the first word about depression or its various treatments.
Mental health disorders and their treatment still carry an enormous stigma in our society, despite the fact that an “estimated one quarter of the population will suffer from depression at some point in their lives” (p. 10) and antidepressants are “the most commonly prescribed class of medications” (p. 7). Because of this stigma, depression is more often hidden and dealt with privately. The downside of this is that many, many people do not comprehend the realness of depression, how it differs from the regular sadness and stress we all face in life, and the serious consequences that can result.
When I think about depression, a funny story comes to mind about my sister. She was living in Oregon with some mountain biking enthusiasts who invited her to join an on-road trek one day. Although she had not done much biking, she was a lover of exercise who was in great health and very good physical condition. She figured she was up for the challenge. From almost the very beginning she had great trouble keeping up. She felt discouraged with herself, first frustrated by her poor performance and then questioning if she had been crazy to think she could do this. She felt embarrassed for others to see her struggling and felt badly for slowing them down. She began doubting everything she knew to be true of her fitness, wondering if maybe she wasn’t in great shape, if her daily runs were not really all that impressive, if she wasn’t a real athlete at all. Finally, one friend who knew she could do better took a quick look at her bike. Guess what they found? Her tires were not properly inflated. She was literally doing twice the work to get half as far. Imagine her relief to discover this – not only was she not the utter failure she was beginning to feel like, but also the rest of the day was sure to go much better. As she set out again, looking forward to the ride ahead, she found that she was still struggling to keep up. The same feelings of embarrassment, self-doubt and inadequacy followed. After more time and more struggle and more slowing down of the other bikers, someone took a second look at her bike. This time they discovered that her brakes were functioning improperly and were actually partially applied. For every push of her pedals, the brakes were working against her by trying to stop her in her tracks. Once this problem was resolved, the day went much more as she had envisioned. She was not at the head of the pack, but she was certainly capable of an afternoon ride with some friends.
I promise that this story is true, and although I am sorry that my sister had to suffer through it, I am so grateful to have this excellent analogy of how depression can feel. It is not necessarily that a person with depression can’t function, that they lay on the sofa all day crying or feeling like dying, that they don’t leave the house, feed the cat, go to work, etc. Though depression can look this way at its extremes, many people with depression can continue to function in their lives to the point that others may not even know they are suffering. It is just that the effort it takes to get through normal daily tasks can feel overwhelming. For many, depression comes on quite gradually so that they might not fully notice its presence in their lives. Like my sister on her mountain bike, they may simply think they are lazy, unmotivated, and incapable of achieving their goals. They may chastise themselves for not being able to get their lives together, get things done, or function as well as other people seem to. Not recognizing that depression plays a part can have devastating consequences. Their goals, dreams, relationships, productivity may be slipping away while all the while self-loathing and hopelessness is growing. Depression leads to a great deal of suffering, and not recognizing and getting help for depression leads to worsened depression and therefore greater suffering. It affects not only the person who has it, but their loved ones as well.
Dr. Banov points out that the “emotion of depression” must be distinguished from “the illness of depression” (p. 38). While we all have feelings of sadness or despair at times, the illness of depression (sometimes referred to as a chemical or clinical depression) is a medical condition that causes changes in the physical body and brain. Brain scans of people with depression have shown decreased activity and even atrophy in the hippocampus (plays a role in mood and memory), prefrontal cortex (responsible for planning and attention), the amygdala (generates emotional response during emotionally charged events), and the thalamus (serves as the “communication hub” between our thinking and feeling areas in the brain) (p. 76-77). Depression also can cause or exacerbate other health problems, by affecting insulin levels and blood sugar, compromising the immune system, and leading to elevated blood pressure as well as reduced muscle tissue and bone thickness (p. 79).
Dr. Banov’s book is so packed full of information, any attempt to summarize would be futile. He covers the types of depression, the brain mechanisms that are involved, the various medications used to treat depression, how these medications are believed to work, research studies that both support and do not support their use, typical side effects and how to manage them, generics versus brand names, what to do if your anti-depressant begins to lose effectiveness or causes a numbing of your emotion (not its intended effect), if antidepressants are addictive (they are not), the when and how of discontinuing an antidepressant, and how to deal with special circumstances such as drug interactions, travel, surgery, or pregnancy. Dr. Banov also covers in depth the importance of having a check up for your physical health and the many physical disorders with symptoms that can mimic depression (i.e. thyroid disorders or diabetes).
If you suspect that you or someone you care about is dealing with depression, I highly recommend this book. It contains so much useful information, it could actually be overwhelming for a person with depression to try to decipher all at once. My personal recommendation would be to read the first few chapters to determine if you might be experiencing depression and what your treatment options are. If you do decide to take antidepressant medication, I would suggest that you wait until that time to read more about side effects or long term use. Having read the book myself in just a few days, I can honestly say it is a lot to absorb. Some topics are covered in incredible detail, such as the functioning of neurotransmitters in the brain, and other topics could have used slightly more attention, such as the types of psychotherapy and how alcohol and illicit drug use can worsen depression. To his credit, I appreciate Dr. Banov providing an incredibly comprehensive look at all issues relevant to the topic of depression, even if the reader may want more information on the few areas of special interest to them.
In reading this article and possibly reading this book, I hope that the first message you will take away is that depression is real, and it is serious. It is also quite treatable. Antidepressant medication has been in use since the 1950’s and is improving every year. While most people do not like the idea of taking medication, I can tell you that the vast majority of clients I have known who have taken it have found it to be effective and quite easy to tolerate. While they might initially worry that it is not natural or will change their personality in some way, I have heard many a client say “I finally feel like myself” again once the medication kicked in.
As I stated in my introductory paragraph, one of the best things about this book is its emphasis on treatment strategies other than antidepressant medication. If you want a truly unbiased look at the pro and cons, research support and lack of support, you will find it all in this book. If you want tips on how changing your diet can help and specific foods or supplements that might alleviate depression, you will find that information. I think the best piece of wisdom in the entire book is Dr. Banov’s early recommendation to assess your “depression and antidepressant attitude” (p. 15). Take a moment to evaluate any automatic thoughts or assumptions you have about depression and its treatment. Know that this is your bias and that you are likely to be influenced by it now and in the future. Be on the lookout for when this bias starts to creep in and do your homework to get a fair and balanced perspective.
Here is my bias: I believe that Western medicine has many drawbacks, including a quick-fix mentality and too often a focus on symptoms rather than the cause. When I think about what we ask our bodies to do, given what we put into them nutritionally, I am sometimes surprised that we function at all. I know that my car runs on gasoline, and I never attempt to make it run on water, sugar, sand, or olive oil. Yet, because we can get by eating a diet of processed foods, we often do. I do not know what percentage of depression might be caused by our diets, lack of exercise, spiritual disconnect, etc., but I am guessing a certain number of people could improve their depression by focusing on these aspects of their lives. Some people, however, will also need medication plus these other things to make their lives rich and fulfilling.
I do not suggest that all of my clients consider antidepressants – not by a long shot. I have seen some clients for years before this type of discussion has ever come up. With other clients, it might be mentioned in our first session. It all depends on how much a person is suffering. In many cases, I think it makes sense to try other things first – healthier foods, sunshine, exercise, yoga, social contact, etc. But if your life feels like it is unraveling and the damage is starting to mount up, an antidepressant may very well be the best choice. There is no rule that you can’t do all those other things too. Most importantly, do something to treat your depression. You deserve to feel better.