Getting to the Inner Meaning of Midlife Depression
Midlife depression is a reality for many. By “midlife depression” I’m referring to forms of depression which specifically have their onset in the midlife years.
Today I’m focusing on midlife depression that is rooted in psychological issues associated with the middle part of life. So, this blog doesn’t focus on the more specifically physical issues that can result in depression, such as: low Vitamin B12 levels; thyroid disorders; chronic pain due to arthritis; diabetes; menopause; or, heart health issues. We’re going to look more at the range of psychological changes that result from being in the middle part of life.
The types of midlife depression we’re examining in this blog are the types that are associated with midlife transition. A 2008 study of 2 million individuals found that midlife depression is a worldwide reality. This is the period, occurring sometime around the middle of life, when very many people begin to really reflect on the lives that they have lived, and may even find themselves moving toward new values or a new perspective. Jungian analyst Robert Johnson vividly describes this process:
With aging we all face threats to our ability to control outcomes. Perhaps it is the painful onset of physical limitations… the death of parents and even friends, or disillusionment of youthful dreams—all these may contribute to a mental shift at midlife from “time since birth” to “time left until death” and we begin to feel that time is running out while something essential is still missing….
Researchers argue over whether the midlife crisis is a universal phenomenon of modern life, but we do know that so often by middle age the cultural process has become very dry for us, as if we have wrung all the energy out of our character. This is true not only when life has disappointed you and achievements have fallen short of expectations, but also if you have accomplished a good measure of success. Meanwhile the energy in your unlived life becomes more urgent [italics mine]
Robert A. Johnson and Jerry M. Ruhl Living Your Unlived Life
Midlife Depression: the Psychological Impact
Midlife depression can manifest in many different forms, often related to our limited ability to control outcomes. For instance, depression may be related to a sense of overload: in midlife, it can be very easy to feel suffocated by the combined demands of children, aging parents, marriage and your job. This is particularly the experience of many women—but men can certainly experience it, as well.
Another factor in midlife depression can be the empty nest. When a child or children leaves home, it can profoundly affect our mood. The investment of emotional energy that previously went toward children may now seem like it has nowhere to go, and we can feel empty. Again, we tend to stereotypically assume that this is the experience of mothers, but years of clinical experience have taught me that fathers can have just as profound a reaction!
Another factor with a profound relationship to midlife depression is retirement. This is particularly true for people who retire young, or who are forced into retirement. However, retirement can be psychologically difficult whenever and however it occurs. As Carl Jung famously said, “it’s good to retire—but not into nothing”.
Loneliness can be another key factor in midlife depression. It can be very easy for us to lose connection in midlife with people who are truly significant to us. Establishing meaningful connection with others may be one of the key challenges of midlife.
Grief also has a very significant connection with midlife depression, and may be associated with the loss of parents, significant relatives and friends. Grief is not the same thing as depression, but grief that is traumatic or unshared or unexpressed can lead to serious depression.
There are other factors in midlife that also lead to depression. A lot depends on the particular experience of the individual.
There was a time—not so long ago as we’d like to think—when the conventional wisdom on how to deal with depression was “suck it up and keep going”. We’ve come a long way since then, and we’ve learned that denying the existence of depression doesn’t make it go away. We’ve also learned that another, related idea is not true: hard work doesn’t beat depression.
It’s very easy to be in a place of denial about depression. It’s not uncommon for individuals to deny or fail to recognize their depression for years. Yet the danger is that depression can have a dramatic effect on our physical or mental health. It has been demonstrated that unacknowledged and untreated depression can lead to serious heart-related health issues.
Finding the Sunken Life in Midlife Depression
A Jungian depth psychotherapeutic approach to depression emphasizes getting in touch with the unconscious component of the depression, and finding a way to release its emotional energy into our lives. in the words of Jung,
Depression should be regarded as an unconscious compensation whose content must be made conscious if it is to be fully effective.
C. G. Jung, CW5
The most healing thing we can do with our midlife depression is to get to the unconscious feeling and other content that is at the heart of it. We need to find ways to express and live out the unlived life contained there, in a way that enables us to be more creative, engaged and alive. This is a key part of Jungian analysis or case studies for midlife depression, and it can make an enormous contribution to our journey towards wholeness.
With every good wish for your personal journey,
© 2022 Brian Collinson, 2238 Constance Drive Oakville, Ontario (near Mississauga)