Depression: it’s not about what’s wrong with you …

… but about what’s wrong with your life

Key points:

  • Depression can take root when essential needs—such as security, connection, and meaning—are unmet or innate resources are misused.
  • Learning skills that can help people meet their essential needs can help alleviate depression.
  • Good therapy will show how to prevent depressive episodes in the future.

I had a new client yesterday, who told me that he had depression and that life felt meaningless.

‘When did it start?’ I asked.

‘Oh, I’ve always had it,’ said Clive, misery seeping from every pore.

‘Really?’ I said. ‘Then what is making you seek help now?

Clive was taken aback. And then he said that his girlfriend had recently broken up with him. It was a shock because he had thought their relationship was fine and she was everything to him – she was what made his life worth living, and he had spent all his time with her since they met, giving up all outside interests.

‘Ah!’ I thought. So, in one fell swoop, he had lost his sense of security, control, intimate connection and meaning and purpose, and was catastrophising an unbearable future. Now I knew how to focus the therapy.

Developed over 20 years ago, the human givens approach derives from the understanding that, when essential emotional needs are met and our innate mental resources are used correctly, we will be emotionally and mentally healthy.

Essential psychological needs, identified over decades by health and social psychologists, include those that I mentioned above. Innate mental resources include our abilities to learn from experience, to plan, judge, remember things, imagine, relate one thing to another, empathise, develop a moral sense, etc.

It is only when emotional needs are not adequately met or met in unhealthy ways, or when innate resources are damaged for any reason, or are unintentionally misused, that conditions such as anxiety, anger, depression, addiction and psychosis develop. For instance, misuse of the imagination – to conjure up worst possible or threatening scenarios – is a feature common to all these states.

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