Jonathan Flint is a UCLA behavioral geneticist and expert in the genetic causes of depression. Before taking part in a Zócalo/UCLA event titled “How Can We Reverse the Depression Epidemic?” at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in downtown Los Angeles, he spoke in the green room about his mother’s work on a suicide hotline, and why not everyone loves the winter holidays.
Is it true that people with depression often struggle during the winter holiday season?
It’s a good question. I’ve heard that, but I can’t for the life of me think of a good epidemiological study which would back it up. What is true is that we get a lot more cries for help around this time of year. People are at home, supposedly enjoying themselves with their families, and things don’t quite work out. People get lonely, realize their lives aren’t quite what they should be. So calls for help, suicide attempts, they will be a little higher this time of year.
You’ve done a lot of work on the hereditary basis of mental health. What’s the most significant recent finding?
The most significant finding is we actually have a path forward whereby we know we can take a molecular approach. The idea that depression has a hereditary basis has been around for a while. There can be a propensity, an increase in risk, but it’s not like you’re pre-determined. There’s a contribution from the environment and there’s a contribution from the genes, and the two interact in complicated ways.
A number of people who get involved in the mental health community have had some personal experience with it. How about yourself?
Yes, that was a reason I got involved in this. I have a close relative who tried to commit suicide. I was brought up in a family that dealt with these issues. So my mother ran a program for suicide help lines. So she’d go in and man a telephone, and people would ring up. And she took me in, once, to do this.
And that inspired you to do this kind of work?
Well, the thing about having an experience of someone close to you try to kill themselves, especially at that age, is it makes you realize how totally helpless we are.
How old were you?
This would’ve been late teens. University time.
Where in England did you grow up?
How much variation in depression levels do we see across different cultures?
There’s definitely some variation, but I think we have to be careful how we explain this. If we look at very severe illness, at people who have stopped eating and whose sleep is very disturbed, and maybe think of killing themselves pretty frequently, the prevalence of that is pretty constant. But if we’re talking about a single episode, that shows much bigger variation. This taps into something really fundamental about depression: It’s probably not good to think about it being a disease; it’s probably more like looking at a high temperature, a fever, a symptom for which there are many different pathways by which you could get there.
In this country, lately, we’ve had more public figures acknowledging their own mental health battles, and speaking out. Has that happened in England?
There’s Ruby Wax, but maybe she’s not so English. I mean, yes, there’s certainly been some movement on that front. There’s quite a famous television personality, Stephen Fry, who’s been pretty public about this. He has bipolar disorder.
When you were growing up, in England at that time, I imagine it was very hard for people to acknowledge or talk about depression.
I think it still is the case, for a lot of people. One of the problems about depression is that people lose self-confidence. So they don’t even want to admit that they’ve got it themselves. You don’t want anything to do with the world, and ‘I feel really bad that I’ve let everyone down,’ and so on. The disease itself makes it difficult for people to discuss it.