The Empire of DepressionA New History
The Empire of Depression
A New History

Depression has colonized the world. Today, more than 300 million of us have been diagnosed as depressed. But 150 years ago, “depression” referred to a mood, not a sickness.

Does that mean people weren’t sick before, only sad? Of course not. Mental illness is a complex thing, part biological, part social, its definition dependent on time and place. But in the mid twentieth century, even as the great European empires were crumbling, new Western clinical models and treatments for mental health spread across the world. In so doing, “depression” began to displace older ideas like “melancholia”, the Japanese “utsushõ”, or the Punjabi “sinking heart” syndrome.

Award-winning historian Jonathan Sadowsky tells this story from both east and west, chronicling the path-breaking work of psychiatrists and pharmacists, and the intimate sufferings of patients. Sadowsky shows us the continuity of human distress, helping us to understand how different cultures have experienced intense mental anguish, and how they have tried to alleviate it.

He reaches an unflinching conclusion: the devastating effects of depression are real. A number of treatments do reduce suffering, but a permanent cure remains elusive. Throughout the history of depression, there have been overzealous promoters of particular approaches, but history shows us that there is no single way to get better that works for everyone. Like successful psychotherapy, history can liberate us from the negative patterns of the past.

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  • December 2020
  • 224 pages
  • 152 x 229 mm / 6 x 9 in
Available Formats
  • Hardback $35.00
  • 9781509531646
  • Open eBook $35.00
  • 9781509531660
Table of Contents



1 Depression is a Thing

2 Too Dry and too Cold

3 Turned Inward

4 A Diagnosis in Ascent

5 “Just Chemical”

6 Darkness Legible

Epilogue: Depression’s Past and Future


Partial Bibliography


About the Author
Jonathan Sadowsky is Theodore J. Castele Professor of Medical History at Case Western Reserve University.
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“Drawing from medicine, psychology, anthropology and memoir, Jonathan Sadowsky shows how much the history of depression can inform how we understand it in the present day. A scholarly but immensely readable book which challenges dogmatic opinions about a complex condition which is ‘hard to manualise’ but sadly too often politicised.”
Linda Gask, writer and psychiatrist

"Drawing on materials and lessons from psychiatry, biomedicine, psychology, literature, art, music, anthropology, and memoirs, Sadowsky deftly guides the reader across history and continents in search of depression’s past, present, and future. Engagingly written, measured in tone, and nuanced in its conclusions, The Empire of Depression never loses sight of the human suffering at the heart of its subject."
Greg Eghigian, Penn State University

"This book is well argued, easy to follow, colloquial in style, and truly accessible to the general reader, introducing them to the central questions in the history of mental health. The narrative covers an impressive historical scope … The author not only makes but also performs an excellent argument for the uses of history."
José Brunner, Professor Emeritus at the Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas

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