Do Animals Get Depressed?

I re-read William Styron’s 1991 “tale of horror,” Darkness Visible about his deep depression in the 1980s. I could not help thinking, as I was reading, the big cats don’t get depressed… sharks don’t get depressed… elephants don’t get depressed. Dogs and cats, maybe, but then, they are around us all day. Enough to depress any animal. Depression or rather the possibility of depression, would seem linked to the circumstances of domestication. Animals who are part of our life normally do not get depressed. Depressed cats are rare. As for dogs, it would have to be something pretty obviously wrong with the arrangements of their lives with us that would account for serious unhappiness. It would seem, though, that no animal in nature ever feels anything remotely resembling depression. Mourning the loss of a partner is common in most animals. But I think most people would agree with me that this should not be considered a form of depression.

Doesn’t this suggest that depression is not a natural state? By this I mean it is not something we would feel if we were living in greater harmony with the natural world. Styron says that he could not even walk in nature when he was feeling depressed. Jonathan Franzen, writing in The New Yorker (April 18, 2011) says of his friend David Foster Wallace, the novelist, who was on the anti-depressant Nardil for 20 years and who recently killed himself: “I understood the difference between his unmanageable discontents to be that I could escape myself in the joy of birds and he could not.” Something weird has happened to our species that makes depression so depressingly familiar, something that has taken us off our natural path, or caused us to deviate in some way, from where we were meant to be. One way to find the right path again, then, surely is to look at animals for clues as to what is in their nature that protects them against depression. No, that is wrong. Rather, what is in our nature, human nature and the world we have built around ourselves, that makes us prone to depression?

To be able to take pleasure in the natural world, like just taking a walk on a very windy day, or admiring a rainstorm, is something most people cannot do when they are in the throes of depression. I would say, then, that depression takes us out of the external world, and into ourselves, which is often a very stifling place to be. People who are extremely narcissistic, or, to avoid jargon, just plain self-focused, are more prone to depression than people who are more oriented toward others. Depression, in fact, is a form of narcissism it’s all about me: “Look at me, see how depressed I am.” It is also to lose focus of the bigger picture. I remember when my father had bad headaches he would say: “Nobody suffers like me.” We smiled, not because we thought his headaches were unreal, but it was manifestly untrue that he was suffering more than most. In fact, my father suffered very little as an adult.

What goes unmentioned in Styron’s book, among other things, is something that his daughter has stressed in her recent memoir Reading My Father: his uncontrollable, unfathomable, and deep rages. I would suggest that anger, even rage, is a component of depression. Also unmentioned is his gigantic narcissism, which his daughter calls an almost terminal selfishness.

So if we put these all together, we find the following traits as part of depression: anger, or rather rage, selfishness, or rather narcissism, and a removal from the external world, or rather a kind of self-imposed solipsism. What strikes me as more than a coincidence is that none of these traits is found in animals. Going to war, as opposed to simply defending your territory (even as aggressively as some chimps and wolves do to the point of murdering fellow chimps and wolves), and certainly contemplating, planning, or engaging in genocide, follows from these exclusively human traits. And when aggressive wars and genocide do not succeed, the perpetrator often kills himself (Hitler, Goering, Sugiyama).

I also believe that depression is often caused by comparing ourselves to others. In fact, the very idea of searching for differences for no particular reason seems to me peculiarly human and of questionable benefit. We do this in all kinds of ways: we want to know how smart we are (so we administer IQ tests); how good-looking we are compared to somebody else; how fast; how strong and so on. We even do this with other animals: we like to compare animals to one another and even to animals from a different species: who is the biggest, the strongest, the fastest, the prettiest and so on. We look at dogs and compare how they look with other dogs. But do other animals do this? Not really. Dogs don’t compare other dogs in terms of how they look (maybe how they smell), and especially not how similar they look to them. If you think about it, animals in the wild pretty much resemble one another with only minor differences. So they have no reason to obsess about those small differences (Freud’s le narcissisme des petites différences): tall, short, thin, fat, dark, white. They eat the same foods; they behave in much the same way; they even have similar characters. Of course no two elephants are identical, any more than are two humans. But the kind of enormous differences you find in humans is not something found in nature.

Gangs are often obsessed with differences and will kill other gang members for minor ones. They have certain colors they wear, or patches, or certain clothes (shoes), and of course the gangs are usually ethnically separate: black gangs, Latino (the Southern Mexican and Northern Mexican gangs in some California prisons are enemies) gangs, white gangs.

If, as I maintain, we are so similar in our emotional nature to all other animals, it would follow that a feeling like sadness would be universal. Indeed it is. No animal, I would think, can avoid feelings of sadness. What is it then that makes unhappiness in humans tip over into a full-blown clinical depression, one for which we, as a species, look for strong remedies (e.g., drugs)?

That is why I am re-reading Styron. I am looking for clues. It is at times a powerful book where Styron talks about his “mind dissolving” and how his thought processes “were being engulfed y a toxic and unnamable tide that obliterated any enjoyable response to the living world.” For Styron, the “hero” of the book is Albert Camus, whose most famous intellectual pronouncement comes at the beginning of The Myth of Sisyphus: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.” As Styron feels his mind continue in what he calls its insidious meltdown, he comes within minutes of killing himself. He believes his depression was due to a chemical imbalance (and, as a contributory factor, which it certainly was, taking three times the normal dose of the benzodiazepine Halcyon, a sedative used for severe insomnia) – I disagree, but I was impressed with his final comment that it was, nonetheless, “a simulacrum of all the evil of our world: of our everyday discord and chaos, our irrationality, warfare and crime, torture and violence, our impulse toward death and our flight from it.” By courageously pointing out the similarity of his own depression to the evils of the world, he alerted us to something important that often goes unsaid: how much unacknowledged anger is hidden inside depression.

Consider this list of writers who committed suicide: Virginia Woolf (1941), Ernest Hemingway (1961), Sylvia Plath (1963), John Berryman (1972), Anne Sexton (1974), Jean Amery (1978), Romain Gary (1980), Richard Brautigan (1984), Primo Levi (1987), Jerzy Kosinksi (1991), Michael Dorris (1997), Hunter Thompson (2005), and David Foster Wallace (2008). All of them, like Styron, experienced severe depression. I suppose that makes sense: why would you kill yourself if you were happy?

But it raises the question of mental illness in general in other species. True, I am prejudiced, because I cannot accept mental illness as a “disease” even in humans. “Do you mean to tell me you don’t believe people get depressed?” Of course they do. But while I know that people can be unhappy, even unbearably so, I would not call it an actual illness. I see it as a condition, a powerful emotional state, but nothing resembling an illness in the way that diabetes is an illness. The symptoms of diabetes are clear-cut. The course of the illness is equally known. So is treatment. You will not find a lot of disagreement on these issues (though some doctors believe, and I agree, that cardiovascular disease – from which two out of three people with diabetes die, is better treated with a vegan diet than the one recommended by the American Diabetic Association), whereas you can hardly find two therapists who can agree on just about anything connected with depression or for that matter any other so-called mental illness.

There are books, it is true, written about mental illness in animals, but when I consulted the most important book (actually I think it is the only one – I could not find the topic discussed in the comprehensive three volume Encyclopedia of Animal Behavior edited by Marc Bekoff in 2004, for example), Michael Fox’s Abnormal Behaviour in Animals (Philadelphia, W.B. Saunders, 1968), I found that a better title would have been Abnormal Behaviour in Domesticated Animals. There was nothing in the book about animals in their natural state in the wild. I found they were all about domesticated animals, not animals in their natural state. The most cited article is by Monica Meyer-Holzapfel from the Berne Zoo (you have to love her last name –“Woodapple”) who writes about “abnormal behaviour in zoo animals” (pp. 476-503). Of course zoo animals exhibit and display all kinds of behavior that remind us of mental illness in humans. But this is because they are behind bars. They are captive, and the response to captivity, in humans or animals, is going to be extreme. It is to be expected and it is natural, because taking these animals out of their natural environment and putting them in cages is unnatural, and is bound to lead to unnatural behavior. Consider the important work done recently by Georgia Mason, who famously observed that polar bears need approximately 1,000,000 times the space they receive in a zoo. She has raised the issue of stereotypic behavior to an exact science.

Do we talk about mental illness in concentration camps? No, and with good reason. Nobody knows what is the “proper” response to extreme situations of this kind. Nobody would suggest that somebody who died in a camp from the stress was mentally ill. Just as we would not say that those who survived ought to feel guilt even though many did. To be haunted by survivor guilt is not a mental illness.

It is true that Jane Goodall described how the young chimpanzee Flint became dependent on his very old mother Flo. When she died in 1972, he evidently was not able to cope without her. He stopped eating and interacting with other chimps. Goodall says that Flint showed signs of what we would call a clinical depression. Soon thereafter, his immune system became too weak to keep him alive. He died at the age of eight and a half, within one month of losing his mother. But was this mental illness? I would not call it that, though Jane Goodall might. Still, we are dealing here with “real” issues, that is, the loss of a parent. Elephants exhibit something similar. But I would hesitate to call this a mental illness whether in an elephant, a chimp, or a human child. Posttraumatic stress, which humans and animals share, is not, in my opinion, a mental illness. That some people and some animals cope better than others does not justify pathologizing it. It is just a response to a situation (and calling it “situational depression” does not make it a medical matter).

When you read, meanwhile, that more than half of all Iraq and Afghanistan veterans treated in Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals since 2002 have been diagnosed with mental health problems (some 300,000), our first response is: Well, obviously, they have been in a war! What do you expect them to come back with, terminal cheerfulness? Why is this labeled a mental health problem? The problem is they were at war! Why are these called psychological problems, when the problem is that they were sent to war? I know I am repeating myself.

Well, what about suicide among animals then? It’s an intriguing topic, but I find that the remarks I make about depression in animals apply here as well. The suicide we know most about (actually, anything about) is found almost exclusively in cats and dogs. I have written about suicide in cats, and I believe it happens, although rarely. The case I described was heart breaking: an old man who lived alone in Hong Kong with his old cat was terminally ill and in great pain. Not able to stand it any longer, he threw himself out of the window of his high-rise apartment. A few moments later, his beloved cat threw herself out of the same window, and only survived by a miracle. She was badly hurt, and the vet who treated her had no doubt that she was attempting to follow her human companion. But did she know she was courting death? Was that her intent? It is impossible to know. Probably she was just following her companion, even though she must have known how dangerous it was to do so. Obsessive thinking about killing oneself, very common in deeply depressed humans is not a trait we can attribute to any animal. Dogs, we know, are capable of similar devotion. (Conversely, I know of humans who have killed themselves when their favorite companion animal died – are we going to label this too a “mental illness?”). In the film The Cove which won the 2010 Academy Award for best documentary, Rick O’Barry tells of Flipper, the dolphin he had trained who was so distraught by captivity and so miserable at being out of his natural environment, that he simply stopped breathing and committed suicide in his arms. It was like having your best friend tell you that you were slowly killing him. That experience turned O’Barry into an activist for the rights of dolphins, primarily the right to be left alone and not put in tanks for our amusement.

But we should not close the door on the possibility of altruistic acts in the wild ending in suicide. What about, for example, mother whales who beach themselves with their young? Or mother whales who refuse to leave their young when whalers mortally wounded them? We know too little about the mind of large mammals like whales to say for certain that they are not capable of committing suicide. But note that in the example I give, the situation may call for suicide, but not for depression. It is not a mental illness or even abnormal behavior, unless we insist that loving too much is abnormal.

It is almost a cliché of studies of suicide, that killing one’s self is a disguised homicide. Certainly it is a violent act. People who are happy are not thinking of how to commit genocide. Is it a mental illness to wish to annihilate an entire people? There probably is no good word for what it is, but we can be sure it is not “natural” in the way that we ascribe natural behaviors to other animals. That, surely, is why we have never heard of anything remotely similar in the natural world.

About jeffreymasson

My new book BEASTS is out this March from Bloomsbury or the eBook
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8 Responses to Do Animals Get Depressed?

  1. Richard deJohn says:

    Nice analysis!

  2. Surely we are confused and we can not distinguish between depression and sadness.
    I think, animals no human feel sadness, but never depression. Animals human feel sadness, an emotion, but also depression as a symptom of a disease. Is this right?

    I don’t know what I enjoy more, what you write about psychology or animals no human.

  3. Blacklisted Dictator says:

    You should write a book about this! I don’t know whether anyone has tackled it.
    I assume that you have read Herman Hesse’s “Treatise on the Steppenwolf”. He writes about “suicides” and I would be interested to hear your views.

  4. Rosa says:

    I think animals in captivity express deep despair and sadness. Monkeys that had been tortured in so called research on the nature of love and attachment simply died of trauma, and savage lonliness. A broken heart is a far more logical real and accurate term that a DSM label for any creature experiencing distress.

  5. ‘Depression, in fact, is a form of narcissism it’s all about me: “Look at me, see how depressed I am.”’

    This is the paranoia of normals who have no personal experience of depression.

  6. A says:

    DSM labels are just helpful for assessing the problem and insurance agencies. So “depression” may be a man-made category, but the state of being lethargic, hopeless and having depleted levels of certain neurotransmitters is biological and abnormal. I would submit that there are no depressed lions because any lion that “gives up” will quickly die or be killed. Wild animals don’t suffer a lot of observable illnesses like that because they wouldn’t last long.

    There is no shame in illness so I don’t see why the label of illness, to mean something biologically abnormal, should be controversial. in that sense, yes, dying of stress in a concentration camp would be an illness.

  7. Katy says:

    This is not about depression per se but about animals crying when they are sad.

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