Depression is the most common form of mental illness. It can lead to suicide. It will affect from ten to twenty percent of us some time in our lives. Electroconvulsive Shock can work in extreme cases, but sometimes at a cost of memory loss. Antidepressants can work for some victims, but all drugs have side effects. Cognitive therapy can also work, but it takes time.
Research has provided insights that have led to a new approach to therapy.1 The psychologist Mark Williams read out a cue work to patients such as “happy” or “clumsy.” It was not surprising to find that depressed or suicidal people were quicker to respond with negative experiences instead of positive ones. However, what was interesting was that people who weren’t depressed tended to focus on specific events, whereas depressed patients were noticeably vaguer. For example, one depressed patient responded to the word “happy” with “the first years of marriage.” Another depressed patient responded to the word “safe” with “when I’m in bed.” Even when they were encouraged to be more specific they were less likely to recall a single incident such as a particular film or an insult that had upset them. It appeared that depressed patients were skimming the chapter titles of their autobiographies and ignoring the text that followed. Williams’ findings have been replicated by a host of studies emphasizing how important our memories are to our well-being.
The notion is that our memories provide a kind of ballast that support us during a time of stress. Our memories can suggest ways to solve problems and offer comfort when we are feeling wounded. However, when people find it difficult to recall specific events, this support is absent and they can feel overwhelmed by life’s challenges, which slowly pushes them into depression. This phenomenon is known as “over-general memory.” Over-general memory has been found to be present before the low mood developed. This supports the idea that it is the memory problem that led to the depression rather than the other way around. One study involved 74 women who had undergone in vitro fertilization and failed to get pregnant. Those who had the least specific recall before the treatment were most likely to develop symptoms of depression after the disappointment. Another study found that teenagers judged to have over-general memory were more likely to develop depression in the 12 months after they were tested. Research has also found that those with over-general memory were more likely to suffer from PTSD after a traumatic event.
Research is being conducted to see if a type of memory training can be used to improve the specificity of people’s recall and reduce their symptoms of depression. Tim DalGlesh at the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge, UK has investigated a technique called Memory Specificity Training (MeST). People practice delving into their memories over and over again recalling detailed specific incidents for different cue words. Fortunately, these events need not have anything to do with the person’s current anxieties. MeST can be taught in groups. Early results indicate that people might need only five weekly sessions to show improvement.
A former colleague of Dalgesh, Hamid Neshat-Doost at the University of Isfahan did a study with 23 depressed Afghani refugees living in a community with little access to any type of therapy. The 11 people who received the five group sessions of MeST improved significantly whereas the untreated did not show improvement. Moreover, those with the most improvement in their ability to recall specifics reported the greatest improvements in their moods.
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