Psychotherapy session with female mental health patient

I am a bit of a science junkie, and audiobooks were a Godsend on many long commutes. Instead of “I think I’ll go sit in traffic for about 45 minutes,” it would be “I think I’ll go read a book for about 45 minutes.” Science, biography, and history were my favorite subjects. So when I retired after a 31-year career, I decided to become a science-writer myself.

My first topic: Depression.

Major depression is so prevalent that most people have been affected by it in some way — a friend, family member, co-worker, or neighbor who you can see struggling just to get through the day. For me, I had seen depression and suicide in my fellow Airmen and Air Force civilians, especially as long deployments and combat fatigue took their toll. But it was the experience of a long-time friend that made it very immediate to me. Carolyn and I met as lieutenants in my first assignment and remained friends ever since. When she was hospitalized for suicidal ideation about 10 years ago, it was a shock. More shocks followed: suicide attempts, impacts on her work and family life, electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Through it all, as I would speak with her on the phone or on the trips we took together, I was always afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. I didn’t want to hurt her, and I didn’t know how to help.

So, on retirement with lots of time on my hands, I dove into the science of depression: what we know or think is happening to a depressed person, where it comes from, and how people get better. It’s been an incredibly interesting journey for me, and, in the end, empowering. There is a lot that science and medicine still don’t know about depression, but what they do know is becoming a stronger factor in healing and maintaining health. It’s a slow journey, but they are getting there. And Carolyn is getting there as well. As I write, she is thriving, but I have to put a “knock on wood” on that assessment for a while yet… Depression is a really vicious beast, and it takes a lot of time and work to break away from it.

What captured me from the beginning was the surprising way in which the science of depression progresses. An action or substance unexpectedly makes depression disappear, and doctors and scientists scramble to figure out why. Researchers testing an anti-tuberculosis drug found their subjects — though dying — were unexplainably happy. A depressed patient rode a bicycle through the night, returning without his depression. Upon these and other observations, scientists have worked for decades to tease out the hows, whys, and whats of depression. And their discoveries point to truly unexpected factors: sunlight and the body clock, the microbes in our gut and what we feed them, exercise, altitude, antioxidants, and so much more. Why learn about depression? Because the things that influence mental health are all around us, and it’s a pretty crazy — or at least, unexpected — set.

Sarah Zabel M.Sc. is a retired US Air Force Major General and former Vice Director of the US Defense Information Systems Agency. She was originally a computer scientist, and now is the author of Child of Chance: How Science Explores, Explains, and Leads the Fight Against Depression, soon to be published.