Jewish men have a higher than average incidence of depression — and don’t drink
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Melancholy, depression, misery - Jews have long been thought to be prone to the blues. An old story tells of a Jew who sighs: "We are born weeping. Tsores follows tsores. Body and mind fail. In the end, we die. Better not to have been born", to which his friend adds: "But who can be so lucky? One person in ten thousand…"
In the 19th- and early 20th-centuries, little was understood about mental illness. Psychiatrists, including the famous Krafft-Ebbing, believed Jews suffered from it more than most - for such reasons as excessive striving for riches, masturbation, incest, or that it had something to do with having long noses. Theodor Herzl's close colleague, Max Nordau, wrote in his now almost forgotten best-seller Entartung (degeneracy) that it was due to racial degeneration. Nordau's ideas on race were not unlike those of his contemporary, Houston Stewart Chamberlain, one of the founders of the Aryan myth.
Despite these beliefs, a recent survey by the American Psychiatric Association revealed that the frequency of psychiatric illness in general was similar in both Jews and non-Jews. However, when broken down into specific illnesses, the survey revealed that clinical depression - indicated mainly by repeated episodes of absence of pleasure in normally pleasurable situations - was more common in Jews, and alcoholism was less common.
An even larger American study showed that clinical depression was more than twice as common in women, whether Jewish or non-Jewish, as in non-Jewish men. Jewish men were an exception as it was as common in them as it was in Jewish women.
The earlier finding that clinical depression was more common in Jews than in non-Jews was explicable by this higher frequency in Jewish men - as confirmed for British Orthodox Jews by Professor Kate Loewenthal and her colleagues and also in a substantial Israeli study.
The reason for the high frequency of depression among Jewish men may be linked to their low frequency of alcoholism (confirmed in recent World Health Organisation statistics for Israel). A connection is suggested by the fact that depression is as common in both sexes in other abstemious societies such as Islam and the American Christian sect, the Pennsylvania Amish.
Why do Jewish men drink so little alcohol? The Loewenthal group found that, while most non-Jewish men see alcohol as a socially acceptable, relaxing and pleasant escape from stress, most Jewish men do not regard it in that way and drink as little as Jewish women.
Jews tend to be repelled by drunken behaviour. They fear alcohol will make them lose their self-control. Indeed, the philosopher Immanuel Kant noted long ago that three groups who placed great emphasis on the importance of self-control - women, ministers of religion and Jews - all avoided alcohol. This is surely more than coincidence.
The conclusion must be that Jewish men might be less depressed if they drank more. As the old song has it: "Another little drink wouldn't do us any harm" -- a sentiment that might be medically as well as musically effective.
Gerald Curzon is a retired professor of neuroscience at the Institute of Neurology, University of London