Author of New York Times best seller Chasing the Scream The First and Last Days of the War on Drugs and award-winning journalist, Johann Hari started taking drugs for depression when he was still a teenager. He believed like many others that his problem was from a chemical imbalance in the brain. In his latest book Hari delivers a startling revelation.
What if it’s not? What if there is no medical evidence to support depression as a chemical imbalance?
What if depression is something more complex, something bigger, something more obvious. What if the epidemic of depression was a response to our modern world?
What if, as Hari puts it in his latest book Lost Connections: Uncovering the real causes of depression – and the unexpected solutions depression is in fact a form of grief – for our lives not being as they should? What if it is a form of grief for the connections we have lost, yet still need?’
Forty per cent of the world are suffering from depression; and one in five Americans, one in 10 people in Australia are taking anti-depressants at any given time. With so much reliance on anti-depressants as the magical serotonin increasing wonder drug, then why aren’t people getting better?
This basic question formed the underlying thesis for Johann Hari’s exhaustive and probing research that sees him travel across the world to investigate experiments in Baltimore, to an Amish community in Indiana, to an uprising in Berlin.
‘I am 39 and every year I have been alive depression and anxiety has increased and I wanted to understand why.
‘When I was a teenager I explained to my doctor that I had this pain that was leaking out of me and my doctor told me a story about why I felt this way. He told me that scientists have discovered my feeling was due to low seratoniin in my brain and all I needed to do was take this feel-good chemical. I did and I felt a lot better. But then the pain came back. So I went to the doctor and upped the dose. I felt better, but it returned. So I went to the doctor and upped the dose. This was how the cycle continues’ says Hari.
‘Part of the problem is that my doctor thought my depression was all in my head, that it was a chemical imbalance in my brain. What I discovered on this journey is that there are nine causes of anxiety and depression and most are factors around the way we live and what has happened to us: it’s not in our heads.’
While Hari did eventually step himself down off the 60mg daily dose of antidepressants he was on, he’s not objecting to the use of drugs to manage depression.
‘My objection is to the story that we have been told,’ he says. ‘What you say to a person when you say depression is a chemical imbalance in their minds is that their pain has no meaning, that it is a glitch in the program. But your pain does have meaning. You are responding to things in your life that make you feel that way. You are not a machine with broken parts.
‘Eveyrone knows you have physical needs like air, water and food, but there is equally strong evidence that we have psychological needs – like belonging, having a sense of a future that makes sense, feeling valued, feeling that we are good at something, feeling loved and connected and safe. As a culture we have become less good at meeting these needs’.
It is these nine causes of depression that Hari so carefully unpacks in his book. This is no new-age self-help text, not ‘depression porn’ as he calls it in his introductory chapter, this is a carefully researched book by a man that is not just a journalist and an author but a social scientist. All of Hari’s assertions are supported by research and data. What he does in Lost Connections is powerfully draw the lines between data and the outcomes to create a bigger picture of why so many people are experiencing depression.
Hari believes it’s no surprise we have increases in depression when you look at the alarming statistics around workplace satisfaction. Eighty seven per cent of people in Australia don’t like their work. ‘The key factor’ says Hari ‘is that you have no control. You just do what you are told’.
‘These people are more likely to get depressed or die of a stress-related heart attack. You need to feel your life has meaning.’
I misunderstood this: I thought he meant that 13 per cent got to have elite jobs and everyone else who didn’t wasn’t happy. That’s not it. It’s about being controlled at work. People who work in democratic cooperatives where they don’t have a boss and share tasks are happy with what their work.’
Hari also tracks the consumerist drives of capitalism for engineering deep dissatisfaction and depression inducing materialism.
‘The more you think life is about money and status and how you look to other people the more likely you are to be depressed and anxious.’
Lost Connections saw Hari spend three years travelling and researching, interviewing many of the subjects for his book face to face.
‘It was important to meet people and talk to them about the work they have done.’
One of the extraordinary places Hari went to was the first ever IT Rehab centre in the US.
‘The patients were disproportionally young men obsessed with World of Warcraft and multi-player gaming. You have to ask yourself what do these young men get from their games? They get a sense of identity, they get a sense of tribe, they get a sense they can roam around, they get a sense of status, and in a way I came to think what they get is like a parody of those things that give us meaning, more like a hologram of those things.’
Technology hasn’t caused depression, Hari believes, but simply added fuel to the fire.
‘The internet arrived in early 2000 – a lot of the 9 factors I talk about were already super charged by then. The internet arrives and it looks a lot like what we have lost. But it’s not. The relationship between social media and social life is like the relationship between porn and sex. I’m not anti porn, it meets an itch but it doesn’t meet the deeper needs.’
According to Hari the nine disconnections that cause depression and anxiety are: disconnection from meaningful work, disconnection from other people, from meaningful values, from childhood trauma, from status and respect, from the natural world, from a hopeful and secure future; and the role of genes and brain changes.
So what is the path back to wellness? Hari is optimistic, ‘I think the path out of depression and anxiety for the culture and society we live in lies with reconnection to meaningful values, the natural world, childhood trauma, it’ s deep forms of reconnection.
‘Depression is a signal – the fact one in five Americans and one in 10 Australians have to drug themselves to get through the day shows that we have stop pathologising the illness and see that its a signal that there is something wrong with the way we are living.’
It’s time to re-connect.
Johann Hari is one of the major speakers for the up coming Sydney Writers Festival. He will be in Byron Bay for the Byron Writers Festival on Friday 11 May at the Byron Community Centre at 6pm. Tickets are $20/25 on byroncentre.com.au