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Recovering backpacker, Cornwallite at heart, political enthusiast, catalyst, writer, husband, father, community volunteer, unabashedly proud Canadian. Every hyperlink connects to something related directly or thematically to that which is highlighted.

Monday 22 July 2013

The Untouchable Evolutionary Value of Depression (UPDATED)

A few years ago, my wife brought home a couple of red-eared slider turtles for pets.  They were about the size of a toonie each when we got them.  They would snuggle together, side-by-side or one on top of the other - very cute.
One turtle was a bit of a pig.  It would eat all the food put into the tank, leaving none for its partner who wasn't as quick off the platform when it came to eating time.  It was behaviour that continued over time; the piggy turtle grew bigger than its partner, swam more actively, was generally more mobile.  The second one, however, began to move less and less and very noticeably lagged in terms of growth.
Then, we noticed that the turtles stopped snuggling.
We tried removing turtle #2 and feeding it separately; we tried removing turtle #1 from the tank so that its weaker cousin could get some nourishment.  It got to a point, though, that turtle #2 simply seemed to decide to stop eating, like it was sick, or perhaps resigned to its fate.  At only a few months of age, turtle #2 died.
Thinking that perhaps the turtle had been weak or ill from the get-go, we got a replacement.  At the pet store, all the red-eared sliders in the tank looked so happy, snuggling up to each other; our son picked the one he liked the best. 
For a time, it looked like turtle #1 was happy to have a healthy replacement and snuggling continued.  But so did the eating dominance.  It wasn't very long before the cycle repeated itself; turtle #1, growing big and healthy, ate all the food; turtle #2 became lethargic; the two turtles stopped snuggling.  Eventually, turtle #1 was alone again.  Five years on, the piggy turtle is alive, well and massive - but also alone, the last turtle standing.
Something about this repeated behaviour triggered something in me; a memory or an instinct, I'm not sure, but the concept of animals going off to die alone kept coming back to me.  Eventually, I decided to do some research.

Animals will go off to die alone; dogs do it, cats do it, even ants do it

This is where depression comes in.

Here are some recognized symptoms of depression, italics mine:

  • Talking about killing or harming one’s self
  • Expressing strong feelings of hopelessness or being trapped
  • An unusual preoccupation with death or dying
  • Acting recklessly, as if they have a death wish (e.g. speeding through red lights)
  • Calling or visiting people to say goodbye
  • Getting affairs in order (giving away prized possessions, tying up loose ends)
  • Saying things like “Everyone would be better off without me” or “I want out”
  • A sudden switch from being extremely depressed to acting calm and happy

Not eating is pretty reckless.  Wanting to remove oneself from the crowd is pretty symptomatic of depression as well.  Could depression in humans be similar to this animal instinct of removing oneself from the crowd for their protection, a genetic predisposition that pushes us to isolate and shut down to preserve the well-being and resource access of our peers?

We do live in a dog-eat-dog world; despite what we tell ourselves, success in many careers or relationships is still largely predicated on "how tough" or "how hungry" you are - a willingness to do whatever it takes to make the sale, soothe the boss, beat the competitor.  If you can't "make the cut" - and many don't - you could find yourself bullied either actively or passively; you might also find yourself suffering from symptoms of depression.  In fact, there's a high correlation between stressful work and depression
The rise of precarious employment (contract labour and internships with little pay, no benefits and no stability) has exacerbated the social increase - and social cost - of mental illness in national and global economies, sparking an unheralded business crisis in CanadaWhile this concept has been recognized by the key players in one of the most precarious employment structures there is - politics - it has not been internalized.  Parties have no formal exit-strategy for their employees/Members, partially due to the very real concerns of political interference and nepotism.
Of course, politics is a notoriously cut-throat industry, one of those that encourages the "hungry" employee to get ahead and serves to excluded the rest as not man enough for the gameIf you're not tough, the logic seems to go, you're untouchable.  From having lived in that world, I can tell you there are countless walking wounded informing the policy decisions that impact your lives.  On the other hand, it's hard to imagine Stephen Harper's PMO taking occupational mental health that seriously - after all, they practise survival of the fittest social selection every day.
The problem is that with a few exceptions we have decided, as a society, that we want everyone to live healthy, happy, productive lives - hence, medicine, social infrastructure and the like.  Those who in the past would have been deemed untouchable - lepers, suffers of plagues, etc, - can now be treated or at least, cared for. 
That doesn't mean that genetic predispositions developed before the advent of medicine don't still exist; social evolution has a habit of moving faster than genetic evolution does.  Despite the infrastructure we humans have developed, the medicines and prosthetics and accommodation tools for persons with visible and psychological disabilities, we still rely on cognitive hardware not that dissimilar from other animals.
If human depression is the manifestation of a genetic predisposition towards protecting the group and if the people most likely to be in positions of power are those most likely to be the overindulgent turtle, we have a bigger hurdle to leap than we've imagined.
It's good that the federal government has created a National Standard of Canada for Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace; with as ingrained an issue as this one, we're going to need solid leadership that sets the example. 
This isn't an issue employers and employees are going to be able to resolve on their own; it's one we're going to have to face together.

A hard-working taxpayer suggesting suicidal people should just be left to kill themselves?  Objectivist thinking, of course; individuals are separate, don't impact each other and the only thing that connects us is economic activity.  What if the depressed person is a soldier who has fought to save our country?  Too bad, sucks to be them.  

What if average citizens see stats that more soldiers commit suicide, end up in jail and otherwise have miserable lives than everyone else?  Well, then they shouldn't sign up, should they?  And if they don't, and war comes to our soil, what then?

What if the depressed person is your wife, your son or daughter?  Still think no one else should be involved?  What about you?  What if your boss won't let you take time off to be with your sick relative, and they commit suicide in your absence?  What then?

Every man for himself doesn't work; not unless we are prepared to give up all the things that come with society, like specialized labour, healthcare and quality-of life.  

There's only one path available.

Typical Liberal; tug at our heart strings, then dig into our wallets. Sorry Bob, but taxpayer money doesn’t solve every problem. Besides, depression being such a debilitating disease, shouldn’t people have the “right to die”.
Typical Liberal; tug at our heart strings, then dig into our wallets. Sorry Bob, but taxpayer money doesn’t solve every problem. Besides, depression being such a debilitating disease, shouldn’t people have the “right to die”.


  1. I'm a turtle lover so I found the turtle story interesting; I couldn't help but wonder about the gender of the turtles. Male red-eared sliders have short front claws and females have long; is the tyrant turtle male or female? Did you place the tyrant with partners of the opposite gender? How big is the aquarium/pond you have the turtles in? Turtles require both UV-A and UV-B radiation in order to synthesize the proper vitamins; if they don't have this comprehensive radiation their shell itches constantly and they become very irritated. If in an aquarium do the turtles have these lighting requirements?

    The turtle is my animal-totem. I had a friend who had a pool in his back yard. One day he found a little red-eared slider in his pool filter. He took it down to the local bayou and set it loose and a couple of days later he found an identical looking turtle in his pool filter. He put a mark on the turtle's shell with fingernail polish and set it loose in the bayou again. Sure enough, a couple of days later the same little turtle was back in his pool filter. He put it in an aquarium and started to feed it.

    He eventually sold his house and moved and when he moved I inherited the turtle; it was a little male. I installed a 250 gallon pond in my backyard with lilies, watercress, and a type of grass which I stocked with 250 go-shrimp. I put the little fellow in the pond and then went to Petco and purchased a female playmate for him. Of course the go-shrimp reproduce faster than the turtles can eat them and turtles eat vegetable matter as well so food was plentiful. They lived in Edenic bliss for a few months when Tropical Storm Allison came circling through. I had 18" of water across my whole yard and the turtles found true Edenic bliss - freedom; I didn't hold a grudge. About a month after Allison, my neighbor, who had a pool in his backyard, came over and says to me, "I see you have a nice pond in your backyard. We found a little turtle in our pool filter, would you like to have it for your pond?" I think that's when I realized the turtle was my animal-totem; certainly they can teach us humans a great deal . . . if we pay attention - mindfulness.

    You know, in many cultures, especially those with an intimate relationship with nature, men and women go off alone to die as well!

  2. Pretty sure the tyrant turtle is female, based on the claws. Honestly not sure about the gender of the former cohabitants. We're not planning to run experiments, either, for obvious reasons! The tank is more than big enough and we do have both types of lights.

    I'm not over-fond of having a pet that's cooped up like that, but she has become a bit of a fixture in the house!