As the 21st century was beginning, a South African psychiatrist named Derek Summerfield happened to be in Cambodia conducting some research on the psychological effects of unexploded land mines — at a time when chemical antidepressants were first being marketed in the country.
The local doctors didn't know much about these drugs, so they asked Summerfield to explain them. When he finished, they explained that they didn't need these new chemicals — because they already had antidepressants. Puzzled, Summerfield asked them to explain, expecting that they were going to tell him about some local herbal remedy. Instead, they told him about something quite different.
The doctors told Summerfield a story about a farmer they had treated. He worked in the water-logged rice fields, and one day he stepped on a land mine and his leg was blasted off. He was fitted with an artificial limb, and in time he went back to work. But it's very painful to work when your artificial limb is underwater, and returning to the scene of his trauma must have made him highly anxious. The farmer became deeply depressed.
So the doctors and his neighbors sat with this man and talked through his life and his troubles. They realized that even with his new artificial limb, his old job — working in the paddies — was just too difficult, that he was constantly stressed and in physical pain, and that these things combined to make him want to just stop living. His interlocutors had an idea.
They suggested that he work as a dairy farmer, a job that would place less painful stress on his false leg and produce fewer disturbing memories. They believed he was perfectly capable of making the switch. So they bought him a cow. In the months and years that followed, his life changed. His depression, once profound, lifted. The Cambodian doctors told Summerfield: "You see, doctor, the cow was an analgesic, and antidepressant."
In time, I came to believe that this little scene in Southeast Asia, which at first sounds just idiosyncratic, deeply "foreign," in fact represents in a distilled form a shift in perspective that many of us need to make if we are going to make progress in tackling the epidemic of depression, anxiety, and despair spreading like a thick tar across our culture.