Several years ago Dr. Henry Emmons spotted a bumper sticker while driving his teenage son to a soccer game.

"Surely," it read, "joy is the condition of life."

At the time, Emmons, a psychiatrist, was preparing a talk on depression. But the quote -- from Henry David Thoreau -- got him thinking.

In psychiatry, "we focus almost entirely on what's wrong," said Emmons. "I began thinking about joy." And about how he might help patients in the midst of life's setbacks get it back.

Today, Emmons, who lives in Northfield, Minn., is doing his best to do just that -- and to change the way people think about mental illness. In the past four years, he's written two national books of self-help therapies for anxiety and depression and created a "resilience training" program that's gaining national attention.

"Henry takes the perspective that depression is a holistic disease," said Lori Knutson, executive director of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing in Minneapolis, where Emmons works two days a week. "It's not about mental illness. It's about mental health."

In 2006, Emmons made a splash with his first book, "The Chemistry of Joy," a guide to overcoming depression. The book explores how diet and lifestyle affect people's moods and offers a road map to healing through a mixture of science ("Understand Your Brain") and spiritual beliefs ("Buddhist Wisdom, Which Type are You?").

His second book, "The Chemistry of Calm," debuted last month, billed as a "powerful, drug-free plan" for overcoming fear and anxiety.

Emmons is quick to say that he's no anti-medication zealot. He does prescribe antidepressants and other medications if he thinks they're needed.

But he believes patients are desperate for other solutions. "When people come to see us," he said, "they've tried the usual methods. They've been on medication, maybe they've even been in therapy." Yet they're frustrated. "They say, 'I just want to know what I can do for myself.'"

Shifting gears

Emmons, 52, calls himself a "holistic psychiatrist," and in some ways, he has never felt completely at home in the medical mainstream. In the 1990s, he worked at two large Twin Cities clinics where the emphasis was on prescribing medication rather than talk therapy. "It felt too limiting," he said.

In 1998, he quit his primary practice and took a fellowship to study natural therapies -- herbs, diet, meditation. "That was my graceful way to shift gears," he explained.

Emmons began writing and teaching workshops on mind-body medicine. Then, out of the blue, a literary agent called from New York and suggested he write a book. "I thought it was a joke," he said.

Not long after that first book came out, Emmons was in yoga class when a classmate recognized him. It was Lori Knutson from the Penny George Institute. She asked if he'd like to join the clinic, which specializes in complementary medicine.

"He looked at me in his dead bug pose, and said, 'I would love to.'"

At the clinic, Emmons and his colleagues created an eight-week program known as "resilience training." For $900, patients get a series of individual appointments -- with him, a nutritionist and an exercise specialist -- and eight weeks of group sessions to learn what he calls "healthy emotional and mental skills."

The group sessions, he said, are key, because they teach people how to help control their moods, through meditation and other means, and avoid falling into the same emotional spirals over and over. "It is really a skill that you can learn, just like any other skill," Emmons said.

Andrea Een, who took part last summer, said the training was a lifesaver for her.

"I think what I was looking for was a way to manage depression for the rest of my life," said Een, a music professor at St. Olaf College in Northfield. "And I love the concept of resilience."

Scientific evidence?

Some of Emmons' strategies -- such as exercise and coping skills -- fit right into modern psychiatry, says Dr. Barry Rittberg, an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Minnesota, who studies depression.

At the same time, he said, there's little scientific evidence that vitamins or resilience training, for example, really make much of a difference. Sometimes, he said, "what seems to be just common sense really may not be true."

Rittberg worries, too, that the self-help message can backfire on patients if they try it and don't succeed. "It just makes them feel like they're a failure, that they didn't try hard enough, that there's no hope for them," he said.

So far, the Penny George Institute has published just one study on 38 patients --all employees of its parent company, Allina -- showing that those who went through resilience training had lasting improvement. But Emmons said they hope to do larger studies, and may get a federal grant to transplant the program to other parts of the country.

And Emmons' newest book continues to draw interest. Last month, fans lined up at a book signing in Minneapolis, eager to tell Emmons how much his first book meant to them -- how they passed it around, like a shared secret, among friends. One, philanthropist Penny George, the benefactor of his clinic, carried six copies of the new book, planning to give them as gifts. "I've been waiting for this," she said. "I just know him by reputation -- and by the number of people who come to me who tell me 'He changed our lives.'"

Maura Lerner • 612-673-7384