Recognized since ancient times, depression is now a common enough psychological disorder to be called the "common cold" of psychiatry. Every year, many books about clinical depression are published, and articles about the disorder are published every week. For students, mental health professionals, and even researchers, keeping up with this literature is daunting. Texts such as Gotlib and Hammen's Handbook of Depression help with this task by summarizing and integrating research on many different aspects of depression in a single volume. This second edition has a structure similar to the first, and at 29 chapters and 700 pages, the handbook manages to be fairly comprehensive without being overwhelming.
The text is divided into four parts; the first part covers descriptive and epidemiological information, such as how common the symptoms are and the personality features of individuals with depression. The second part covers possible causes of depression, ranging from biological models (e.g., genetics) to psychological and social models. The third part reviews literature on depression in specific populations, such as children and adolescents, and the final part of the text concerns the prevention and treatment of depression. Despite this inclusion of chapters on assessment and treatment, the handbook is not a clinical manual in any way, and does not provide much practical, concrete advice for assessing or treating depression.
The handbook has many strengths, the most conspicuous one being the inclusion of information not found in standard textbooks on mood disorders. For instance, a chapter by Kenneth Freedland and Robert Carney reviews the complex relationship between general medical problems and clinical depression. Research suggests that each of these predicts the presence of the other, but the mechanisms by which medical problems could cause depression and vice versa remain poorly understood. Freedland and Carney discuss the many difficulties in studying this relationship as well as what research remains to be done. Another highlight is the chapter by Thomas Joiner and Katherine Timmons on social aspects of depression. Joiner and Timmons review research suggesting that individuals with depression exhibit poorer social skills, including nonverbal behavior in social situations, negative speech patterns, and frequently seeking out reassurance only to distrust the feedback once it is offered. These authors also discuss research on the "contagiousness" of depression, and how it is that individuals with depression lower the moods of those around them. These social features of depression are the source of many anecdotes from clinicians, but it is difficult to find a discussion of the systematic research on these issues. Finally, there is an excellent chapter by Ricardo Muñoz and his colleagues on the prevention of depression. Although the research on prevention programs for adults has not yet shown any to have substantial efficacy, there are several studies showing surprisingly large effects of prevention programs in adolescence. Muñoz and his colleagues review these results, and find them sufficiently encouraging to suggest that one day depression will be a disorder of the past.
In addition to the coverage of innovative and nonstandard material on depression, several other strengths of the Handbook of Depression merit mention. The chapters are generally very well written, and so even fairly technical information is quite accessible to readers of varying backgrounds. There is very little overlap between chapters, making the text efficient in its use of space, a challenge when editing a multi-author volume. Also, although classic work is cited and discussed, the chapters are generally quite up-to-date, containing many citations with 2007 and 2008 publication dates. These features make the text useful for instructors teaching a graduate level course on depression or mood disorders, as well as researchers looking for an accessible summary of depression research.
It is difficult to criticize a well-written and organized reference work, but I did find certain things to be missing in the Handbook of Depression. For instance, little attention is paid to the meaning of the current "depression epidemic" and whether depression has actually risen in prevalence over the past several decades. More generally, there is no consideration of critical perspectives on the diagnosis of depression. For instance, certain scholars have argued that depression should not be diagnosed when someone's symptoms are short-lasting and due to a recent life event; other scholars have noted that less and less severe symptoms are now being diagnosed as depression, which may lead to inappropriate prescription of antidepressant medications. I was surprised that the handbook did not consider these perspectives. However, these omissions reflect the scientific literature on depression as seen in mainstream psychiatry and clinical psychology journals. As such, the handbook remains a fair-minded, representative synopsis of mainstream depression research, eminently useful for students and their professors alike.
© 2009 Benjamin J. Lovett
Benjamin J. Lovett, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of psychology at Elmira College, where he teaches classes on a variety of topics in applied psychology, and conducts research on the conceptual and psychometric foundations of psychoeducational assessment and psychiatric diagnosis.