But when the melancholy fit shall fall
Sudden from heaven like a weeping cloud,
That fosters the droop-headed flowers all,
And hides the green hill in an April shroud…
—John Keats, Ode on Melancholy, 1819
This evocative image painted by Keats reminds us that, in another time, romantic poets found great beauty in the suffering experienced while in the throes of “melancholy,” a state we now refer to as “major depression.”
Today, we have become much more aware of the fact that depression is an illness and occurs at epidemic proportions in the United States and elsewhere. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that 20 percent of the U.S. population experiences symptoms of depression at any one time. The cost to the country in terms of time lost from work, visits to doctors’ offices with physical complaints that reflect emotional concerns, and the abuse of drugs and alcohol in an attempt to self-medicate is significant.
More important, the cost in human suffering as a result of depression will never be fully tallied. Depression leads to loss of sleep, irritability, the tendency to quarrel, and even divorce and alienated relationships with children. The symptoms have been described as despair, despondency, profound sadness, and hopelessness. There really is nothing romantic or appealing about this illness.
In addition, no one is exempt from the possibility of suffering depression at some point in his or her lifetime. For some, there may be a single experience of depressive symptoms, but for others it can and often does become a chronic problem, with no relief in sight. At worst, the cost of depression can be life itself. Suicide is always a possibility when an individual is in the clutches of depression.