The best science says depression is a social ill, not an individual flaw
Contrary to what we've been told for decades, depression isn't coming from inside our heads. This author and big thinker tells us that it's coming much more from the society we live in.
Johann Hari is the New York Times bestselling author of Chasing the Scream, which is being adapted into a feature film. He was twice named Newspaper Journalist of the Year by Amnesty International UK. He has written for many of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, Le Monde, the Guardian, the Los Angeles Times, the New Republic, the Nation, Slate, El Mundo, and the Sydney Morning Herald. He was a lead op-ed columnist for the Independent, one of Britain’s leading newspapers, for nine years. He is a regular panelist on HBO's Real Time with Bill Maher. His TED talk, “Everything You Think You Know About Addiction Is Wrong,” has more than 20 million views.
Johann Hari: I kept learning intellectually about what causes depression and anxiety.
And that it’s much deeper than the story I’d been told by my doctor—that it’s just a missing chemical in your brain.
But I think it really emotionally fell into place when I went and met an incredible South African psychiatrist called Derek Summerfield. So Derek was in Cambodia when chemical antidepressants were first introduced there. And the Cambodian doctors didn’t know what they were, right? They’d never heard of it. So he explained it to them and they said, “Oh, we don’t need them. We’ve already got antidepressants.”
And Derek said what do you mean?
He thought they were going to talk about some kind of herbal remedy or something.
Instead they told him a story. There was a farmer in their community who one day, a rice farmer, who one day had stood on a landmine and had his leg blown off. And so they gave him an artificial limb and he went back to work in the fields. But it’s apparently very painful to work in water when you’ve got an artificial limb. And I imagine it was quite traumatic—He’s going back to the fields where he was blown up.
And he started crying all day. He didn’t want to get out of bed. Classic depression, right? And so they said to Derek, “Well we gave him an antidepressant.” Derek said what did you do? They explained that they sat with him, they listened to his problems, they realized that his pain made sense. He was depressed for perfectly good reasons. They figured if we bought him a cow he could become a dairy farmer then he wouldn’t be so depressed. They bought him a cow. Within a few weeks his crying stopped, he felt fine.
They said to Derek, “You see, Doctor, that cow was an antidepressant.” Now if you’ve been raised to think about depression the way that we’ve been indoctrinated to, that it’s just the result of – there are real biological factors but it’s just the result of a chemical imbalance in your brain—that sounds like a joke, a bad joke. They gave the guy a cow as an antidepressant and he stopped being depressed?
But what those Cambodian doctors knew intuitively is what the World Health Organization has been trying to tell us for years. Depression is a response to things going wrong deep in our lives and our environments. Our pain makes sense.
As the World Health Organization put it, mental health is produced socially. It’s a social indicator. It requires social as well as individual solutions. It requires social change, right?
Now that is a very different way of thinking about depression and anxiety but it happens to fit with the best scientific evidence.
And it really required me to reassess how I’d felt about my own pain and how I tried to deal it unsuccessfully and open up a whole different way of responding to my depression and anxiety that worked for me.
And I think as the World Health Organization says and the UN says, if we talk less about chemical imbalances and more about power imbalances we will get more at the heart of depression and anxiety and we’ll find better solutions.
This was a—this was such a personal and difficult journey for me. There were these two mysteries that were really kind of haunting me, and it’s a sign of how afraid I was to look into them. I wanted to start doing this seven years ago and I figured it would actually be easier to do a book that required me to go and spend time with the hitmen for the Mexican drug cartels instead, which I then did.
And the first was: why was I still depressed? I’d gone to my doctor when I was a teenager and I’d explained I had this feeling like pain was kind of leaking out of me. I didn’t understand it. I couldn’t regulate it. I was very afraid of it. I was very ashamed of it.
And my doctor said, “We know why you feel this way. There’s a chemical called serotonin in people’s brains and it makes people feel good. Some people naturally lack it. You’re clearly one of them. We’ll give you these drugs. They’ll boost you back to a normal serotonin level.”
And I felt such relief when I was give that story and even more relief when I was given the drug. And for a few months I felt radically better.
And then this sense of pain started to kind of bleed back in. So I went back to the doctor and he said, “We didn’t give you a high enough dose.” I took a higher dose. Again—got relief again, and the pain came back. And I was really in that cycle until I was taking the maximum possible dose for 13 years. And at the end of it I still felt terrible.
The second mystery, and to me the much more important one, is: why are so many other people in our culture feeling such profound despair and anxiety? One in five Americans will take a psychiatric drug. One in four middle-aged women in the United States is taking a chemical antidepressant in any given year.
And I thought, I began to think, “Could it really be that just so many people are just mysteriously lacking a specific chemical in their brain? Why does it seem to be rising so much if that’s the cause?”
So I forced myself to go on this journey over 40,000 miles for my book Lost Connections.
I met the leading scientists in the world who studied the causes of depression and anxiety and the solutions. The first thing I learned is that story my doctor told me is not true.
Professor Andrew Scull at Princeton University says it is deeply misleading and unscientific to say that depression is just caused by low serotonin.
Dr. David Healy in Britain says you can’t even say that idea has been discredited because it was never credited.
There was never a time when half of the scientists in the field believed that. It doesn’t mean there’s no value to chemical antidepressants. There’s some value, but what I learned is actually I had been wrong about depression all my life.
Until I went to my doctor when I was a teenager I thought it was “all in my head,” meaning you’re weak, you’re just not tough enough.
And then for the next 13 years I thought it was “all in my head,” meaning it’s a chemical imbalance.
What I learned is: it’s largely not in our heads. There are real biological factors that can make it worse, but the main causes of depression and anxiety are in the way we’re living today.
For almost the past 100 years, some mental health professionals have told us that depression is purely caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. However, there's a much more realistic theory that depression happens due to an imbalance happening outside of your cranium. Journalist and author Johann Hari believes that while for some people it is a chemical imbalance, for many people suffering from depression, the cause stems from societal issues. Hari offers some staggering statistics showing that antidepressants seem to be doing much more harm than good — among them, that one out of every four middle-aged women in the United States is taking a chemical antidepressant in any given year. If we want to get rid of modern-day depression, he says, we have to change society. Johann Hari's new book is Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
As patients approached death, many had dreams and visions of deceased loved ones.
One of the most devastating elements of the coronavirus pandemic has been the inability to personally care for loved ones who have fallen ill.
Research reveals a new evolutionary feature that separates humans from other primates.
- Researchers find a new feature of human evolution.
- Humans have evolved to use less water per day than other primates.
- The nose is one of the factors that allows humans to be water efficient.
A model of water turnover for humans and chimpanzees who have similar fat free mass and body water pools.
Credit: Current Biology
A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.
- A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
- The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
- An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
Foul play?<p>A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during a high speed rail excavation.</p><p>The positioning of the remains have led archaeologists to suspect that the man may have been a victim of an ancient murder or execution. Though any bindings have since decomposed, his hands were positioned together and pinned under his pelvis. There was also no sign of a grave or coffin. </p><p>"He seems to have had his hands tied, and he was face-down in the bottom of the ditch," <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">said archaeologist Rachel Wood</a>, who led the excavation. "There are not many ways that you end up that way."</p><p>Currently, archaeologists are examining the skeleton to uncover more information about the circumstances of the man's death. Fragments of pottery found in the ditch may offer some clues as to exactly when the man died. </p><p>"If he was struck across the head with a heavy object, you could find a mark of that on the back of the skull," Wood said to <a href="https://www.livescience.com/iron-age-murder-victim-england.html" target="_blank">Live Science</a>. "If he was stabbed, you could find blade marks on the ribs. So we're hoping to find something like that, to tell us how he died."</p>
Other discoveries at Wellwick Farm<p>The grim discovery was made at Wellwick Farm near Wendover. That is about 15 miles north-west of the outskirts of London, where <a href="https://www.hs2.org.uk/building-hs2/hs2-green-corridor/" target="_blank">a tunnel</a> is going to be built as part of a HS2 high-speed rail project due to open between London and several northern cities sometime after 2028. The infrastructure project has been something of a bonanza for archaeology as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route that are now being excavated before construction begins. </p><p>The farm sits less than a mile away from the ancient highway <a href="http://web.stanford.edu/group/texttechnologies/cgi-bin/stanfordnottingham/places/?icknield" target="_blank">Icknield Way</a> that runs along the tops of the Chiltern Hills. The route (now mostly trails) has been used since prehistoric times. Evidence at Wellwick Farm indicates that from the Neolithic to the Medieval eras, humans have occupied the region for more than 4,000 years, making it a rich area for archaeological finds. </p><p>Wood and her colleagues found some evidence of an ancient village occupied from the late Bronze Age (more than 3,000 years ago) until the Roman Empire's invasion of southern England about 2,000 years ago. At the site were the remains of animal pens, pits for disposing food, and a roundhouse — a standard British dwelling during the Bronze Age constructed with a circular plan made of stone or wood topped with a conical thatched roof.</p>
Ceremonial burial site<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NDgwNTIyMX0.I49n1-j8WVhKjIZS_wVWZissnk3W1583yYXB7qaGtN8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C82%2C0%2C83&height=700" id="44da7" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="46cfc8ca1c64fc404b32014542221275" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="top down view of coffin" data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
A high status burial in a lead-lined coffin dating back to Roman times.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>While these ancient people moved away from Wellwick Farm before the Romans invaded, a large portion of the area was still used for ritual burials for high-status members of society, Wood told Live Science. The ceremonial burial site included a circular ditch (about 60 feet across) at the center, and was a bit of a distance away from the ditch where the (suspected) murder victim was uncovered. Additionally, archaeologists found an ornately detailed grave near the sacred burial site that dates back to the Roman period, hundreds of years later when the original Bronze Age burial site would have been overgrown.</p><p>The newer grave from the Roman period encapsulated an adult skeleton contained in a lead-lined coffin. It's likely that the outer coffin had been made of wood that rotted away. Since it was clearly an ornate burial, the occupant of the grave was probably a person of high status who could afford such a lavish burial. However, according to Wood, no treasures or tokens had been discovered. </p>
Sacred timber circle<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzMTk0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY2MDAwOTQ4Mn0.eVJAUcD0uBUkVMFuMOPSgH8EssGkfLf_MjwUv0zGCI8/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C149%2C0%2C149&height=700" id="9de6a" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee66520d470b26f5c055eaef0b95ec06" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="An aerial view of the sacred circular monument." data-width="1245" data-height="700" />
An aerial view of the sacred circular monument.
Photo Credit: HS2<p>One of the most compelling archaeological discoveries at Wellwick Farm are the indications of a huge ceremonial circle once circumscribed by timber posts lying south of the Bronze Age burial site. Though the wooden posts have rotted away, signs of the post holes remain. It's thought to date from the Neolithic period to 5,000 years ago, according to Wood.</p><p>This circle would have had a diameter stretching 210 feet across and consisted of two rings of hundreds of posts. There would have been an entry gap to the south-west. Five posts in the very center of the circle aligned with that same gap, which, according to Wood, appeared to have been in the direction of the rising sun on the day of the midwinter solstice. </p><p>Similar Neolithic timber circles have been discovered around Great Britain, such as one near <a href="https://bigthink.com/culture-religion/stonehenge-sarsens" target="_blank">Stonehenge</a> that is considered to date back to around the same time. </p>
Being skeptical isn't just about being contrarian. It's about asking the right questions of ourselves and others to gain understanding.
- It's not always easy to tell the difference between objective truth and what we believe to be true. Separating facts from opinions, according to skeptic Michael Shermer, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss, and others, requires research, self-reflection, and time.
- Recognizing your own biases and those of others, avoiding echo chambers, actively seeking out opposing voices, and asking smart, testable questions are a few of the ways that skepticism can be a useful tool for learning and growth.
- As Derren Brown points out, being "skeptical of skepticism" can also lead to interesting revelations and teach us new things about ourselves and our psychology.