Is Depression Unhappiness?


I noticed in my wanderings through social media, after the article by Giles Fraser in The Guardian titled Taking Pills for Unhappiness Reinforces the Idea That Being Sad is Not Human, that all sorts of people came out crying “foul.” How dare Giles, they said, minimize the horrors of depression by calling it “unhappiness.”  (Here is one such response.)

Well, perhaps they have point. Maybe he should not have called it “unhappiness,” though for me his argument remains cogent anyway. Depression is one variety of unhappiness in, my book. Sometimes it’s really, really severe unhappiness. It can, more aptly, perhaps, be called despair.

I, in fact, do not like the clinical term “depression” because as Giles suggests it takes us away from the very human experience of despair. Acute mental distress is no less human than unhappiness. In my mind there is no compelling reason to take drugs in most instances of acute despair, either. Despair is generally there for a reason. And if we are given the space to delve into it we can learn a lot from the experience. This, of course, is not welcome news to many who have no interest in doing that; and certainly no one should be made to do it if they don’t want to. Some of us, however, have a keen interest in learning about our minds and bodies and spirits and are interested in taking on this challenge.

So, for me, his argument holds. I took the psych drugs and ended up in a far far worse place for it. I’ve had to face ugliness most people don’t even know exists. I would have gratefully dealt with the issues I got drugged for by natural means when they came upon me had I had the opportunity. I was not given one. I actually looked very hard for one, but 30 years ago that sort of thing was truly not on offer for most people and given the amount of coercion that was applied by those offering “care” I succumbed to toxic and disabling treatments that after numbing me out for years ended up tossing me into hell regions of the body and mind that no one should have to ever face.

Now, with the internets, aid options are becoming more widely known since those of us who’ve learned to heal and thrive through natural means can communicate and share what we know.  It’s still very hard and often impossible to get information about healing naturally from our doctors, therapists and from social service agencies.

Anyway, back to the subject at hand: Is depression unhappiness? Of course it is and, as stated above, sometimes it’s glaring, painfully acute unhappiness which, to be precise, is also despair, anguish, despondency, misery, gloom, wretchedness…etc etc… I’d say calling all those states unhappy is pretty right on, no?

And they’re all pretty darn human feelings too. Otherwise they would not be part of our commonly shared language.

We have good reason to despair, to feel anguish, and pain. We have a planet that we are poisoning. We have people populating the planet who like to harm one another. We have families who, in their own pain and trauma, pass on that pain and trauma to their children. We face tragedies of all kinds just by being alive. Being human is DIFFICULT. It’s also the most amazing adventure and it can be very very painful to wake up to just how amazing and outrageous this life we’ve been given is. It’s no small task for any of us.

For some people, part of the process may require taking psych drugs at certain junctures. Okay, that’s fine, we all do what we need to do to get through the night, so to speak. But by the same token thinking about why it might not be a good idea is legitimate, too. Enter: Giles Fraser, who has a legitimate perspective, too. His perspective is especially worth considering since, by taking the drugs, one runs the risk of being made far far worse off.

Then there is a whole host of possible other — potentially serious — adverse effects that many people might not want to deal with if they understood that there are truly viable alternatives.  I’ve worked in the population of those gravely harmed by psych meds for a long time. It’s ugly. I’ve also worked in the mainstream mental health system for many years. A lot of people are harmed there, too, and don’t even realize it. I know that safer methods of healing are simply not on offer most of the time. I know that most psychiatrists, therapist and social workers are not even aware of how powerfully effective other means of healing can be. Not only are they not aware; they deny that these safer methods exist. This must change.

So the argument against Giles that depression is far worse than unhappiness makes little sense to me, given that I agree with him AND I have indeed felt great despair and devastation in my life. Indeed, I wasn’t happy at those times… just as Giles says. I now see it as having ripened and matured me. It is part of life. I celebrate the whole spectrum of emotions now.

In my case, however, the worst of these states were actually created by the very drugs intended to stop people from suffering. The promise that comes with these drugs is often simply a lie. Being that I’m not a masochist I would have opted out of those drug-induced iatrogenic hell realms had I known they really were not necessary. I could have skipped that part entirely had I realized there was an option.

And you know what, folks? There are lots of options. And I know lots of people who’ve had horrible pain and suffering in their lives who learned to live and thrive without the use of psychiatric drugs. See Drug free recovery from depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, etc…

Drug free healing and thriving is not the only way to go, but we deserve to know that it’s possible and be given meaningful options to accomplish such healing. Many people have learned to come through great amounts of despair and pain without choosing to take drugs that have gravely harmed thousands of others.

At the top of Beyond Meds is a drop-down navigation menu with many ideas about how to get started learning about natural means of care. It is by no means exhaustive. There are as many paths to wellness as there are human beings. I’ve personally found when it comes to well-being (mental and physical) and prevention of illness EVERYTHING matters. Our relationships with others and the planet, the food we eat, and the air we breath… how often we move our bodies and the thoughts we nurture in our minds and souls.

We’re holistic beings and we’re natural beings. Psych meds scrambled that up for me and made my issues far greater. I found out about how everything matters on my healing journey, when I freed myself from the drugs.

So the answer to “Is depression unhappiness?” is a resounding YES. And it’s so much more too. It’s also despair, anguish, despondency, misery, gloom, wretchedness… etc., etc. Some of us have found that facing that ugliness and getting to the other side is a valuable part of being human. Those of us who feel that way should be given the supports to do it without neurotoxic drugs.

We are, after all, simply being simply human. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do?


Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


  1. Thank you for this very thoughtful article, Monica. I think “depression” is pretty key in the Church of Psychiatry’s theology. Of course, as you say, being unhappy sometimes is part of life. But our culture has created this requirement that everyone HAS to be happy. And most people aren’t willing to do the work of figuring what to do about what is making them u8nhappy But I’m not saying anything that most readers of MIA don’t already know. What we need to do is try to figure out how to delegitimize this false religion that is doing tremendous damage to our society.

  2. Thank you. Monica for your insightful article. I agree with you … the psychotropic drugs made my condition of despair much, much worse, and yes, thirty years ago I was given no other option. Not many people understand the suffering experienced on these drugs. All I really needed was for someone to listen and help me sort out what was contributing to my despair, experience the pain of my past without drugs burying me in further pain. I believe I would have come out of the experience in far better condition. As things happened, years of my life were lost…

    Thank you for your blog…I feel less alone, and I pray that others will read your words and heal in ways other than psychiatry and drugs.

  3. I greatly enjoyed your article discussing the topic of depression and sadness, etc. It raises the issue of just how much the usual life is just suffering…do those without “mental illness” actually enjoy life any more than the depressives, the bi-polars and so on; is life suppossed to be enjoyable, can one really be happy when we are going to die; can we actually be blithe and carefree when we are in mortal fear…what kind of life is this when we are constantly under the threat of nuclear war, terrorism, every present crime, hurricanes, earthquakes, tsunamis and people who are just plain rude and mean. Perhaps depression is the appropriate response to this topsy-turvey world we live in where, as Alice In Wonderland would remark, “It gets curiouser and curiouser.”
    Some philosphies (like Buddhism) conclude that all of life is suffering: life is essentially disatisfactory because it is transitory and doesn’t last. So, get used to it, accept the limitations of the material world and prepare for death.
    So, what to do? I have found that perhaps one should, without being licentious and immoral, one should enjoy the present moment (the eternal moment) transcend the limitations of material existence and investigate the great thinkers and artists and masters and what they have given us through the centuries and learn the lesson that “To everything there is a season and purpose under heaven; a time for war, a time for peace.” In my darkest hours I have been buoyed by the great music, art and philosphies of the East and West. There are answers and there are treasures left by those who have gone before us and who have traveled similar paths as ourselves. Seek and ye shall find. We are not alone and we are guided and protected by the Divine wisdom and Love.

    • Well, what is happiness? Maybe the question of what is depression is not equal to the question of what is happiness.

      My first experience of “depression” was Christmas-time when I was about 4 years old. I was sent into the back bedroom, to be by myself, so nobody would “catch my blues”.

      What had depressed me? My family were merry, jovial and celebrating. I felt the more Christ-like feelings and expected something VERY different from the scene that was playing out. My feelings, I’d say they look and sound like this:

      But my family were all about this:

      We live in a culture that likes to party. I don’t. I’ve never liked the party scene.

      To me, happiness is a bunch of different things. In no exact order, my happiness is (or would be) Health. And Freedom (the opposite of OPPRESSION?). Justice (that which is good and right, while we’re forced to SUPPRESS and REPRESS so much that is bad and wrong, in order to survive). When things are RIGHT, there is natural Joy. I like Harmony and I don’t like Harm (puts my Mind in a bit of a whirl, that HARM is the first part of HARMONY – yikes).

      I’m unique and psychiatry CHARGED me, like it’s a crime to be unique (not allowed, really). I knew that, “punishment”, from the very early years of my life – sent to BE ALONE in a room by myself (where, all of these years later, I STILL AM).

      Sometimes, I’m “happy” to be alone.

      Sometimes, I’m full of misery for EXPRESSING myself.

      What is Happiness?

  4. Monica,
    In ACA, they say that depression is unexpressed grief and sadness. It is the best layman expression I have heard and I have focussed my recovery on expressing that grief and sadness I have carried my whole life.
    Thanks for the wonder full article.

  5. My unhappiness was diagnosed as depression, aka a biochemical balance. I reacted very badly to the “treatment,” became manic and was thus upgraded to “bipolar.” It was ten years of hell: in and out of the hospital, often via Mental Health Act warrants, various diagnoses based on my pill reactions: schizoaffective, borderline personality, and probably others I don’t remember. I lost my job, my home, my marriage, my soul. Not one “care” provider ever asked me why I became depressed. Was I happy at home? Was life fulfilling? Was I taking care of myself? Did I have unresolved issues? Oh, no, we went straight to the brain chemicals. I will never forgive them for what they did to me. They owe me ten years.

  6. Hi Monica –

    You really brought up some great points, many of which I have considered and with which I agree. I especially liked how you described what it is to be human, and how despair is part of it. I have also been through treatment with psychotropic drugs, and am now recovering from the effects of that, which are definitely worse than the original problems.

    I do have one concern about your post, based on this statement:

    “I know that most psychiatrists, therapist and social workers are not even aware of how powerfully effective other means of healing can be. Not only are they not aware; they deny that these safer methods exist. This must change.”

    As a mental health counselor who works with and knows many other therapists – including social workers – I would say that most of us are very aware of alternative ways of healing. In fact, I would even say that in my vast experience working with therapists (as a client, a volunteer, and a therapist), our job is centered around finding alternative ways to healing – going way beyond what medication could offer. While I have encountered some therapists/social workers within the system who seem to be entrenched in the medical model, it has been mostly limited to agencies who are restricted by state funding and their ties to the pharmaceutical industry. Medication is usually the last resort for most therapists I have worked with, and it is truly the exception for medication to be encouraged during our work with clients. I have noticed on this website particularly, that all mental health professionals frequently get lumped into the horrid system of treatment, when there are many who are trying to change the system for the better and think way, way beyond medication.

    Thanks again for your great thoughts.
    –Mary Anne

    • Mary Anne

      I think that you are in a very small minority. I think that traditional settings, such as the state hospital where I work, do not lend themselves to alternative treatments. You’ve pointed out that organizations that receive state and federal monies are less apt to encourage people to find their own paths to wellness and health. There is only one thing mentioned to patients where I work and it’s the mantra of “take your meds because you need them for life.” If you talk about dealing with peoples’ voices or teaching people ways of dealing with their so-called “delusions” (rather than squashing them and forcing people into consensus reality) the psychologists and psychiatrist attack you as promoting something that’s not “theuraputic.” You can’t discuss this at all. The one psychologist who did deal with peoples’ voices was fired and shown the front door of the hospital.

      Granted, there is no doubt that there are good therapists like you and Monica out there, but I don’t think that many of them, if any at all, are found in traditional settings. Frankly, it’s like being part of the French Underground to work as a peer worker in such settings. In fact, we can’t do true peer work since real peer workers are required to support and defend freedom of choice for alternative treatments. “Alternative” is a dirty word in the state hopsital where I work.

  7. Great blog entry Monica.

    Regarding whether depression is unhappiness or something worse, the argument I have had with people who think it is a mental illness is they claim they get depressed for no reason at all. Of course, in my opinion, there is a reason if they look for it but if you try to point that out to them, you are seen as “blaming the victim”. So I have learned not to waste my time in further discussing the issue.

  8. I agree, great article.
    I too struggled both with emotional distress and the bizarre mental health system that, looking back, was my greatest enemy in that it was devoted to addicting me to drugs that would shrink my brain and shorten my life, not to mention simply break my heart.
    I learned that I had been trained to be dysfunctional and needed to learn how to be happy.
    I read about Harry Harlow’s work on “depression” in that he locked up primates and found that even healthy ones came out seriously “depressed”. I can recommend his book “Love at Goon Park” in that it shows we human primates don’t need drugs, we need affection and freedom from our painful enclosures.

    Thanks for writing the article.

  9. The word was used before it became a clinical term:
    I’d agree all feelings are part of a continuum of human experience of which we are all on at different points which are not fixed. I wouldn’t however agree that depression is unhappiness. I’m not suggesting that the state/feelings is a biochemical condition, but I do believe there are short and long term states that run deeper than unhappiness and that we can acknowledge that without calling it a disease. Just as I believe the same for hearing voices, any other expression of distress.
    We need to inform of the grave dangers of psychoactive drugs, the difficulty in coming off them, the lasting damage they can cause, and how they can obstruct surviving. I want everyone to have full trial data, survivors testimonies and real choice, not just drug X and/or CBT. Equally I don’t want my peers who do actively chose to take drugs to feel shamed for doing so, there is a degree of judgement within survivor movements about managing with or without medication, I know not everyone, but it exists and needs acknowledging.
    I worry that mental distress, human distress, however you want to name it is in danger of being ‘over normalised’ to the point where everything and anything is just a mere aberration like colour of hair. Now I can see the point of ‘normalising’ in an attempt to get society to accept, change and support so that mental health services could become practically irrelevant, where people in distress would not end up ostracised, unemployed etc. Not everyone experiences depths of certain feelings or perceptual differences/restrictions, but if we don’t acknowledge that there are deeper levels of feelings than how are we going to justify the need for alternatives (Open Dialogue/Soteria/non-psych crisis/respite)? Not everyone feels celebratory about their experiences. Depression can mean losing large chunks of living and with permanent reminders of that fact.
    What psychiatry does is bloody terrible. What we can experience with or without psychiatry is bloody awful too.
    We don’t have to view it as a ‘disease’, or anyone as a ‘victim’, but we can acknowledge different states can make people feel ill, half alive, or not want to be here at all and not everyone wants to embrace it.

  10. I want to put a thought to you that is very familiar to me but frustratingly is still not well understood. I am a Human Givens therapist which is UK based and I see depressed patients (as well as addicted, anxious and angry) all the time. And I know from my studies and by helping so many depression people that depression does not have to be seen in such existential terms. That it can be understood simply as REM sleep disorder. And the reasons why depressions arise is because of exhausting over dreaming in an attempt to clear rumination and worrying. Perhaps the readers of your very interesting article can investigate this idea. A good place to start is my depression help blog and from there to visit official human givens sites. This is the url

  11. I suppose what I have discovered is that sleep and over dreaming is common to pretty well all depressions. Now to relieve depressions can sometimes not be straightforward, but I have found most cures will have an understanding of what is going on which is rooted in practicalities and understanding human psychology (ie appreciating the HG insights), fire fighting to get worry levels down and so improving sleep and a focus on what needs to change so that the depression sufferer can be more in control of their emotions and the life that they need to live.

  12. Thanks for this wonderful post! I agree with you 100%, the message from the psych community is “there’s nothing to be depressed about!” The idea that we can somehow differentiate “depression” from “simple unhappiness” is a delusion that has been promoted for many years, and is stated with such fervor and passion by many, despite the complete lack of any scientific or factual basis to make such a distinction. The author’s description of the difference appears to be more in terms of how a person is reacting to his/her sadness/despair, rather than what is driving it. In other words, some people are sad, and some people are REALLY sad and driven to do things that sad people do, like sleeping a long time or thinking about suicide. But obviously, there is a continuum from being sad to being REALLY sad, and no clear or easy way to draw a line between them.

    I also agree with “feelbettercounseling” that there can be a lot of factors that come into play, some of which are purely physiological. For me, losing sleep almost always leads to a more depressed outlook, and if combined with a negative incident, can throw me into a full-fledged episode of self-hatred. Fortunately, I can recognize this now and pull myself out of it by reminding myself, “You’re tired. This will look very different once you’ve gotten some rest.” Food, exercise, physical pain/health, fresh air, sunshine, hugs, all of these have an effect on mood. But I think the most important point is to understand that depression is a human reaction that is part of our biological repertoire of survival tools. To re-define it as a disease, and to distance it completely from the experience of sadness and loss, is to diminish the experience of the sufferer and to communicate that there is something wrong with them for feeling the way that they do. Simply acknowledging that a person’s emotional response is a normal reaction to whatever difficult circumstances they are experiencing seem in my experience to be the first and most important tool in helping them come to terms with how they might move in a new direction. And yet psychiatry’s message is exactly the opposite of what I know to be helpful.

    It’s SO depressing to think about it…

    —- Steve

  13. This has been such an interesting thread that I am moved to contribute again and set out as clearly as I can a fairly comprehensive explanation of depression – to see how it may resonate with those who are following the thread. It is based on the Human Givens approach. Please excuse the length of this – and I hope that it is of interest and I am doing these ideas justice.

    One needs to begin with an organising idea about what it is to be human. And how about this – that humans have innate emotional needs that they must get met for emotional health (around control, safety, work and meaning and relationships and community) and resources or a guidance system (in practice much of it around how we use emotions) that we use to get these needs met. And so, what we do every minute of the day (you could say) is to use our resources as best we can to get our essential emotional needs met. Further, if needs are not well met, then emotional and mental difficulties will inevitably arise? A corollary is that mental and emotional problems will be impossible for anyone who is living a life of balance where resources are working well enough such that needs are reasonably or very well met.

    And so it is clear – if resources are not working properly or the environment is hard such that needs are not well met, then this will cause emotional distress. And depression is one consequence of such stress and on my blog I have summarised it thus:

    Depression is the mental and physical exhaustion caused by the body’s need to dream more than it is capable of. And why is there the need to engage in high energy dreaming? It is the failing attempt to clear excessive levels of arousal, worrying and mental exhaustion. Depression is a self feeding vicious circle where symptoms and signs of depression multiply. To understand dreaming is the key to this way to understand depression. Thus we all dream every night as a form of essential mind maintenance to keep our emotional template healthy and able to work for us. But dreaming takes up energy and if you are worrying a lot, then you cannot dream as much as you need. And this is why the best symptom of depression is to wake up exhausted. And clearly if that is the case, then a vicious circle develops where ones capacity get ones needs met is more and more difficult, which in turn leads to more worrying and dreaming and so on.

    In my professional experience, the way many describe this is that they feel trapped in their minds, trapped in useless rumination, which is fed by terror and fear. It is as if being trapped in a burning room with no means of escape. Truly terrifying indeed and where suicide can appear the only means of escape.

    I will stop there and thanks to all those who read to the end and hope that I have expressed these ideas sufficiently clearly that you can evaluate them properly.

  14. I had to register because I am compelled to comment. People like you with these antiquated ideas influenced me and kept me sick for years. I was influenced into fearing doctors and scientific evidence based medical treatments for an illness that I have had for a long time. I would not have ever described myself as depressed, sad, and certainly not in despair. Clinical depression the illness has little to do with sadness. Working with the mentally ill now I know few with thus disease consider themselves sad. More often they feel empty or irritable if anything. If only I had not let conspiracy theories and fear mongering prevent me from feeling better sooner. I truly hope your readers read my comments as well. I’ve watched too many families destroyed and lives list by people who were doing so well while under treatment. I’ve seen families beg their lived ones to go back on because they were themselves, they were able to function. I spend far too much time talking down suicidal people afraid of medicine.

    I’m all for therapy. I do it myself. And I also have found the medical community esp psychiatrists and psychologists to be very insistent on trying other things beyond meds.

    Even now if I stop my medication as I used to try to do my acid reflux will return full force. My IBS will get much much worse again and the bladder inflammation and chronic insomnia will return. I know because I’ve tried.

    Antidepressants are beneficial medications being used to treat many conditions including dyspepsia, fibromyalgia, diabetic neuropathy, sleep disorders, and much more.

    But because of their label “psychotropic” and the stigma that is getting worse instead of better people are afraid to take these tried and true non-addictive medications.

  15. misty lane,
    Feeling empty or dead inside, insomnia , ,colitis , descending into feeling suicidal , yes I struggled with these for decades . Thorazine,stelazine, haldol . Diagnoised schizophrenia , psychosis, then manic depressive, then bipolar depression.Plus I couldn’t stand what “meds” did to me.
    By the time I was 18 years old my father told me the money he and my mother saved for me to go to college had all been spent on private mental hospitals and psychiatrists . When I was 16 my mother took me to the best psychiatrist she could find . He had grown up and studied in Austria . His name was Dr. Pachovich and we went to Little City in Palatine Illinois for an appointment.That was in 1963. I remember my mother begging him to” help my son. ” I still remember hearing from behind the partially open door in an Austrian accent.” Mrs.Abbe we don’t know what to do about this.” “Your son will have to figure it out for himself.” I heard it but at the time did not know what to do with a statement like that. Years later after much suffering I remembered the statement became very fortunate in meeting some helpful people, reading some accurate information and came to understand I had mercury poisoning from so call silver-mercury amalgam dental filings. Years later again I finally had them removed plus root canals removed and checked for cavitations. This was all done according to Hal Huggins protocols by advanced trained dentists . (2 extra years of schooling). Regularly trained ADA dentists can not do this properly. 1 in 6 people have trouble excreting mercury from their body.
    The transformation was astounding and I was able to feel improvement as the procedures were being done. When finished I was reborn. Soon (2years) I was able to wean off the 2mg of Haldol I was still taking . Now med free , sleep like a baby, no more voices all symptoms gone and am grateful to have come out the other end of a decades long nitemare.
    Do you have mercury poisoning and don’t know it ?
    Sincerely, Fred Abbe