The Silent Battle and the Self

While the deadly pandemic of COVID-19 forced everyone into their homes for protection, another devastating illness also rapidly spread: depression. Comparing pre-pandemic times to current day, depression rates jumped from 1 in 10 people to 1 in 3.[i] Most likely all of us know people struggling with depression, whether we know about it or not. In the most serious cases, depression can lead to suicide.

As I’ve talked to friends struggling with depression and their families, I hear a common idea ring throughout the different conversations: “they are not themselves” their concerned families will say. As someone who has studied the philosophy of agency and the self, I agree. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not here to “mansplain” depression to anyone. What I want is to show how depression (or any mental illness or disorder) can affect the deepest part of the self.

Let’s talk about this mysterious “self.” What is it? I’m inclined to agree with Agnes Callard, who says “When I speak of a person’s ethical self, I am really talking about her values.”[ii] What are a person’s values? It is what they care about. But what does it mean to care about something? David Shoemaker proposed that to care is to form an emotional connection with someone or something in such a way that the well-being of that thing or person affects our own emotional state.[iii] Take your family as an example. You have an emotional attachment to them, and if something bad were to happen to them you would worry, while if something good happened you would be happy. You care about them, you value them. This is, at the core of all of us, what the “self” is: all our cares and our values.

An important thing to note, however, is that our self is susceptible to changes in our bodies, particularly the brain. The most dramatic example of this is the case of Phineas Gage, a railroad worker in the 1800’s. As he was packing explosives into the ground to clear the way for the rails, one of the explosives backfired on him, sending a metal rod over 3-foot long through his cheek, up his brain, and out the back of his skull. Surprisingly, Gage made a complete physical recovery, but something inside him changed. According to those closest to him, he was “no longer Gage.” Whereas he had been a proper gentleman before, after the accident he became rude, profane, flippant, and could no longer stick to plans.[iv] The brain damage sustained had changed what Gage valued and cared about, and so it is correct to say that he was someone else afterwards.

Depression may not be as obvious as a 3-foot long rod through someone’s skull, but the effect to that person’s self can truly be just as drastic (same with any other mental disorder or illness). By its nature, depression dampens our emotional connection to those closest to us, it makes us lose interest in activities we enjoyed, essentially, it makes us not care. These emotional attachments, cares, and values are central to our self.

To those without this challenge, remember these words of a hymn: “in the quiet heart is hidden sorrow that the eye can’t see.”[v] Be aware and give a helping hand to all because you never know who needs it most right now. To those with this challenge, you are seen and you are loved.

This post was written by Pavel Bermudez, Humanities Center Undergraduate Fellow.


[ii] Aspiration, Agnes Callard

[iii] “Caring, Identification, and Agency,” David W. Shoemaker


[v] Hymns 220 “Lord, I would Follow Thee”

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