ILLUSTRATION BY DANIEL ZENDER
Some psychologists believe suicide and depression can be strategic.
It was a terrible time that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. But in a strange way, my self-destructive behavior may have had a benefit. I eventually dropped clues about my situation, leading to an intervention that put me on a better track. I was hospitalized. It scared me straight, highlighting a pathway of suffering I no longer wanted to indulge. I went back on medication and did what it took to stay at my school.
One in six Americans will suffer a major depressive disorder at some point in life.1 That word—disorder—characterizes how most of us see depression. It’s a breakdown, a flaw in the system, something to be remedied and moved past.
Some psychologists, however, have argued that depression is not a dysfunction at all, but an evolved mechanism designed to achieve a particular set of benefits. I’ve certainly considered whether it’s done that for me, both in high school and later in life. If they’re right, it means that our thinking about depression needs an intervention too.
Theories about the evolutionary function of depression are numerous.2 One of the most popular current ideas is the analytical rumination hypothesis. This idea was described most thoroughly in a long 2009 article by Paul Andrews, an evolutionary psychologist now at McMaster University, and J. Anderson Thomson, a psychiatrist at the University of Virginia Student Health Services.3 Andrews had noted that the physical and mental symptoms of depression appeared to form an organized system. There is anhedonia, the lack of pleasure or interest in most activities. There’s an increase in rumination, the obsessing over the source of one’s pain. There’s an increase in certain types of analytical ability. And there’s an uptick in REM sleep, a time when the brain consolidates memories.
Andrews sees these symptoms as a nonrandom assortment betraying evolutionary design. After all, why would a breakdown produce so synchronized a set of responses? And that design’s function, he argues, is to pull us away from the normal pursuits of life and focus us on understanding or solving the one underlying problem that triggered the depressive episode—say, a failed relationship. If something is broken in your life, you need to bear down and mend it. In this view, the disordered and extreme thinking that accompanies depression, which can leave you feeling worthless and make you catastrophize your circumstances, is needed to punch through everyday positive illusions and focus you on your problems. In a study of 61 depressed subjects, 4 out of 5 reported at least one upside to their rumination, including self-insight, problem solving, and the prevention of future mistakes.4
“It may be best to let depression work its miserable magic, under protective supervision.”
“Most episodes of depression end on their own—something known as spontaneous remission—and Paul may have an explanation for just how that happens,” says Steven Hollon, a professor of psychology at Vanderbilt University. Further, “cognitive behavioral and problem-solving therapies may work precisely because they tap into and accelerate—in a matter of weeks—the very processes that have evolved to occur over the space of months.”
Even suicidal behavior might serve a design function. A small minority of researchers believe that we may have evolved to, under the right conditions, try to kill ourselves. Edward Hagen, an anthropologist at Washington State University, is one of the most vocal supporters of this idea, and he presented fresh support for it in the May 2016 issue of Evolution and Human Behavior.5 He and two WSU collaborators, Kristen Syme and Zachary Garfield, set out to find evidence for two models of suicidal behavior, each of which cast suicide as a strategic behavior.
The first model is called inclusive fitness, and it relies on the notion of the “selfish gene”: The most basic unit of reproduction in natural selection is not the individual organism but the gene. Your genes don’t care if you survive to reproduce, as long as they do, and they exist in more people than just you. So they might lead you, their host organism, to sacrifice yourself if it sufficiently benefits your family members, who share many of your genes. Hence, people seek to maximize not only their own fitness but, inclusively, that of their kin too. Most parents would decide in an instant to jump in front of a bus to save their children. And in studies of suicidal thinking, people frequently speak about not wanting to be a burden…