Bo knows. If you are unfamiliar with this expression you weren't alive in the late 1980s, or if you were alive you were either comatose or still suckling your mother's teat. And if the super-athlete Bo Jackson knows a lot, then Buddha, the sage whose name means "Enlightened One" knows a lot more. Because six years performing austerities in the forest culminating in 49 days meditating on Ultimate Reality makes a person an expert on just about everything. Modern medicine, on the other hand, doesn't know diddly-squat. Not when it comes to mental illness. Researchers at UCLA have recently declared a war on depression. By throwing billions of dollars at what has become (globally, and in America especially) an epidemic, scientists hope to uncover the elusive cause and cure of the disorder (sadness) which, unbeknownst to them, Buddha figured out twenty-five centuries ago. There are nearly 500 million Buddhists who can attest to this. Few of them live in America. Which is sad, because if more people knew of Buddha's teachings, scientists especially, this war need not be waged, lots of money could be saved. And people would not be so sad. The search for a quick-fix wonder drug to cure an overmedicated America can only lead to a dead end. It is not some other (drug, doctor) that will save us. It is our selves. Just ask Buddha, who knows your pain.
It is easy to understand the desire to rid the world of what has become an epic malady. Depression affects more than 350 million people, making it the single most common cause of disability worldwide. Sadness, which frequently manifests during the college years, is implicated in more suicides than war, natural disasters and murder combined. Less than half of depressed individuals seek treatment. And only half of those who do get treated obtain any benefit. Globally, depression takes a devastating economic toll, in a recent year resulting in $116 billion in medical and long-term care costs in the U.S. alone.
UCLA should be applauded for trying to do something about this international crisis, but the approach leaves something to be desired. Yes, they have the requisite expert leader in psychiatrist Nelson B. Freimer, the professor leading the interdisciplinary team that over the next decade will attempt a greater understanding of the cause and cure for this disturbed mood state. Because, according to Freimer, "we don't understand depression well." Researchers believe that there is a strong genetic link to depression, which is often activated when a person experiences a stressful event. To test this hypothesis, genomes of 100,000 people will be sequenced; cutting-edge clinical and basic science research will be conducted; conversations will be had. Hormones will be studied. Neuromodulators levels will be assessed, as well as nerve cells and supporting networks in a coordinated effort involving science, engineering, economics, public health and policy, as well as business, arts and humanities. If this sounds fancy, it fits its fancy name, and has the price tag to boot.
Call me cynical, but I do not believe that throwing billions at a multi-billion dollar problem is the way to make it go away. Because we have done this before, and with little to show for the effort. In 1971 president Richard Nixon declared a war on cancer and announced his goal to cure the disease by the nation's bicentennial in 1976. Here we are nearly 40 years and more than 100 billion dollars later, and the National Institutes of Health reports that the cumulative adult death rate from cancer has improved by less than 5%. That's hardly a cure. And considering that the death rate for heart disease over this time period has improved by more than 60%, it's hardly even a step in the direction of a cure. This brings to mind Einstein's definition of insanity, which is doing something over and expecting a different result.
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