I recently attended a talk by Johann Hari, author of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.
It was a fascinating talk, not only for Johann’s charismatic delivery and ability to keep my millennial mind engaged, but also for some of the issues it raised surrounding traditional approaches to depression, in particular medication.
Having been on medication at various points myself, I can attest to the fact that the daily dose of Citalopram – the most common type of SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor) prescribed to those with depression or anxiety – is certainly not the best, or indeed the only, solution to tackling mental health problems. In fact, around 50% of people prescribed antidepressants stop taking them within the first six months due to side effects.
But don’t get me wrong, I’m not an “anti” antidepressant guy, and I don’t think Hari is either. There’s a variety of different types of depression and medication DOES seem to benefit those who’s depression comes as a result of lower levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain. This can be said in the case of Serotonin and Noradrenaline. I’m just saying that in my experience, doctors are a bit too quick to prescribe something that possesses the power to alter activity in the brain. When the brain itself might not necessarily be the root cause. Especially when one of the side effects to playing alchemist with one’s emotions, is suicide. And is the risk even worth the reward? I was surprised to learn that antidepressants only altered someone’s mood on the Hamilton Scale (a questionnaire designed to assess the extent to which someone is depressed) by 1 point. Whereas changing sleep cycles altered it by as much as 6!
So technically, wouldn’t that classify sleep as an antidepressant? In fact, isn’t anything that reduces depression an antidepressant? Things like how much control you have over your work, how materialistic your desires are, how connected to and valued by your community you feel. These all have the capacity to alter someone’s mood on the Hamilton Scale. However, we rarely hear doctors talking about them. Instead, it’s left to charities like Action For Happiness or Heads Together to help educate our young people.
There’s still a lot we don’t know about depression. However, with so much research going on, what’s becoming clear is that depression is not simply a misfiring of chemicals in the brain. In fact, of the 9 causes of depression that Hari outlines in his book, only 2 were biological. This leads me to believe that it’s a multifaceted problem. It’s more concerned with what goes on outside of our brains, than what goes on inside.
If you would like to know more about Johann Hari and the real causes of depression, check out his book, Lost Connections. I also highly recommend his appearance on Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast where he talks in detail about depression, both from a personal perspective and from the perspective of those he spent time with during his research.