Depression, like other mental illnesses, is rarely seen as a good thing. While many can articulate positive things about having a mental illness (or knowing someone who does), the illness itself is almost never looked upon as providing an advantage. In The Depression Advantage, Tom Wootton attempts to do just that—to show that depression, despite the challenges and distress it can bring, can also be helpful.
Drawing on personal experience with bipolar disorder, the lives of the saints, and feedback received through workshops he has led, Wootton suggests a new paradigm for understanding and coping with mood disorders.
The book is directed primarily at mental health consumers, while professionals may become frustrated with the easygoing style and lack of conclusive evidence to support Wootton’s theories. It was worth a read, but I can’t see myself recommending it to any of the clients I work with as a counselor.
Tom Wootton is the author of Bipolar Advantage as well as the founder of Bipolar Advantage, a consumer-run organization working to change the paradigm for mood disorders for both professionals and consumers.
Wootton traces the start of his unstable and fluctuating moods to when he was nine years old; however, it was not until his forties that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Much of Wootton’s life was spent seeking spiritual fulfillment and he spent many years in a monastery seeking growth and guidance.
After a brief introduction to himself and his journey, Wootton begins to explain how he understands depression, which is not simply as an emotional illness:
“For me, and so many others I have met in talks and workshops, depression has four components: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual” (p. 33).
He then outlines each of these areas and describes how the combination creates what is referred to as clinical depression.
Next, Wootton discusses the concept of “functionality.” After discussing specifics of functioning while both manic and depressed, he proposes a new definition of functionality—that it should be looked at in terms of personal growth and insight.
“Every great change in my life was precipitated by insights gained during depression. Depression has served the function of changing my life for the better” (p. 47).
After wrapping up his discussion of functionality, Wootton moves on to discuss the scale people use to evaluate mood disorders. Without pictures it’s a little hard to explain, but basically he shows that we generally use a linear, one-dimensional scale to try to understand a very nonlinear illness. A frequently used scale goes from one to ten, with one being practically dead and ten being amazing.
Of course, people with bipolar disorder must be evaluated on both depression and mania scales; however, a linear scale is still often used. Wootton proposes a new, three-dimensional scale, consisting of two pyramids, point to point, which cover physical, mental, emotional and spiritual components.
In the next, and largest section of the book, Wootton presents the lives of five saints (four Christian, one Buddhist) and their journeys with depression. Using the examples of Teresa of Avila, Anthony, Milarepa, John of the Cross and Francis of Assisi, he shows how some of the largest influences in spirituality and monasticism grappled with mental illness. He then discusses the advantages that today’s mental health consumers have over the saints, reminding readers that they have shown the way by going before us. Those dealing with depression have advantages such as therapy, medication, research and advocacy that the saints did not have.
Finally, drawing on workshops he has led, Wootton discusses how a person can come to see depression as an advantage:
- creating a business plan for success
- your own hard work
He places great emphasis on looking inward, learning about yourself and coming to terms with your illness. He is also a vocal proponent of medication and meditation. It is important to note the author’s understanding and acceptance of the fact that this is a process that takes time. When creating a business plan for success, Wootton encourages people to set both short- and long-term goals, acknowledging that change does not completely happen overnight.
I was not convinced of Wootton’s hypothesis that depression is an advantage. While I agreed with his holistic emphasis, he almost made it sound too easy. Proponents of Wootton’s work might argue that he was in fact very realistic in his thinking, but I just didn’t see it.
The book’s biggest strength is its emphasis on depression as a multifaceted illness. Though consumer groups and social workers seem to have begun to embrace this, many physicians still work from a medical model of mental illness. This comes across both directly and indirectly throughout the book as Wootton discusses his new ideas for measuring mental illness.
The part of the book I found most frustrating was the section on the lives of saints. This portion took up the largest percentage of the book, but did not seem entirely relevant. While Wootton’s purpose in including it was clear, to help people understand that the saints came before us and grew through their journeys with mental illness, less detail into their lives might have been more effective. Further, in describing their lives, Wootton uses websites such as Wikipedia to gather his facts, which makes his retelling far less credible.
As a person who has struggled with anxiety and depression for quite some time, as well as a mental health social worker, I really didn’t find this book presented anything radically new and different.
The Depression Advantage
By Tom Wootton
Bipolar Advantage, 2007