Department of Anthropology

Depression and other mental health issues in evolutionary perspective

WSUV Faculty participants

Mental illness currently accounts for 11.5% of global disease burden, more than all cancers combined. Depression alone is now the fourth-leading cause of the global disease burden and the leading cause of disability worldwide. Suicide accounts for about the same number of deaths as all wars and homicides combined. My primary research explores, in evolutionary-ecological perspective, mental health problems including depression, suicidality, deliberate self-harm, and addiction.

Minor depression—low mood often accompanied by a loss of motivation—is almost certainly the psychic equivalent of physical pain. Major depression, however, is characterized by additional symptoms—such as loss of interest in virtually all activities and suicidality—that have no obvious utility. Given that the principle cause of major unipolar depression is a significant negative life event, and that its characteristic symptom is a loss of interest in virtually all activities, it is possible that this syndrome has two related functions. First, it could be a costly and therefore honest signal of need to social partners with whom one has severe conflicts. Second, it could function somewhat like a labor strike. When powerful others are benefiting from an individual’s efforts, but the individual herself is not benefiting, she can, by reducing her productivity, put her value to them at risk in order to compel their consent and assistance in renegotiating the social contract so that it will yield net fitness benefits for her. In partial support of this hypothesis, depression is associated with the receipt of considerable social benefits despite the negative reaction it causes in others. This framework also works well for suicidality and deliberate self-harm.

Articles and Chapters

PDF Hagen EH and Thornhill R 2017. Testing the psychological pain hypothesis for postnatal depression: Reproductive success versus evidence of design. Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health, 1, 17-23.
PDF Hagen EH and Rosenström T 2016. Explaining the sex difference in depression with a unified bargaining model of anger and depression. Evolution, Medicine, and Public Health.
PDF Syme KL, Garfield ZH, Hagen EH 2015. Testing the bargaining vs. inclusive fitness models of suicidal behavior against the ethnographic record. Evolution and Human Behavior.
PDF Hagen EH 2011. Evolutionary Theories of Depression: A Critical Review. Canadian Journal of Psychiatry, 56, 716–726.
PDF Hagen EH 2008. Non-bizarre delusions as strategic deception. In: Medicine and Evolution: Current Applications, Future prospects, Sarah Elton and Paul O'Higgins (eds.). Taylor and Francis.
PDF Hagen EH, Watson PJ and Hammerstein P 2008. Gestures of Despair and Hope: A View on deliberate self-harm from economics and evolutionary biology. Biological Theory, 3, 123-138.
PDF Hagen EH and Barrett HC 2007. Perinatal sadness among Shuar women: support for an evolutionary theory of psychic pain. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, 21, 22-40.
PDF Hagen EH 2003. The Bargaining Model of Depression, In: Genetic and Cultural Evolution of Cooperation, P. Hammerstein (ed.). MIT Press, 95-123.
PDF Hagen EH 2002. Depression as bargaining: The case postpartum. Evolution and Human Behavior, 23, 323-336.
PDF Hagen EH 1999. The Functions of Postpartum Depression. Evolution and Human Behavior, 20, 325-359.
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