Sick mind or sick society?


This is a review of Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and The Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari, 2018.

Whether we have ever experienced depression and anxiety or not, we have all likely heard the diagnosis of these experiences as a lack of serotonin in the brain or, more recently, that one’s brain is not generating enough dopamine, which is supposed to be the substance that regulates your mental states.

Depression is thus reduced to a chemical deficiency in the brain. At least that is what I heard from sufferers of mental depression throughout my lifetime, until I read Johann Hari’s powerful book.

Hari himself suffered from depression for many years and is very familiar with the psychiatric establishment and its diagnostic model. It would still be rare to meet a psychiatrist who told a sufferer anything other than that he had a chemical imbalance in his brain and the solution was some of the slew of drugs that Big Pharma has rolled out to restore the balance.

Setting the balance right has been a phenomenally lucrative source of revenue for the big pharmaceutical companies and they have the entire psychiatric establishment in thrall.

Hari attacks head-on the diagnosis that depression and anxiety are the result of a default in the brain or a chemical imbalance in it.

He explores the origins of this diagnosis, which go back to 1952 when in a British hospital a drug called Marsilid was given to TB patients. It made them dance down the corridors but did not help their TB. The medical profession latched onto the idea that this may be the silver bullet to cure depression.

Tipper Gore, a sufferer from depression, popularized the myth that clinical depression was due to a deficiency of serotonin. In pretty great detail, Hari lays out how the myth of a serotonin deficiency got currency in the medical profession.

Above all, chemical deficiency theory proved to be a blockbuster for the pharmaceutical companies, as they pushed it into every psychiatric office and department, first in the US and then in the world.

The greater part of Hari’s book is taken up with exploring the real causes of the widespread phenomena of depression and anxiety in contemporary society. In considerable detail, he outlines eight causes of the phenomena of depression and anxiety.

These causes are of a psycho-social nature and have little to do with chemical imbalances or brain function. He calls them “disconnections.”

The first cause is disconnection from meaningful work. It is the phenomenon which Marx spoke of in the 19th century as alienation.

Ever since the industrial revolution and the invention of the assembly line, most work is routine, boring and unfulfilling. The worker is not in charge of his work but is a cog in a machine.

The second cause which he investigates is disconnection from other people. In contemporary society it takes the form people in a restaurant all glued to their cell phones, with no communication even with intimates at a table.

The third cause he identifies is disconnection from meaningful values. Our situation can be described, he says, as a move from the Golden Rule to the “I-want-golden-things-rule.” Modern society is obsessed by materialism and status. The unfulfilled wants it creates depress us.

The other disconnections, which space does not allow us to explore, are: disconnections from childhood trauma, from status and respect, from the natural world, from a hopeful and secure future and from understanding the real role of genes in brain changes.

In the latter part of the book, Hari explores the reconnections that are necessary for overcoming depression. A very engaging part of the book is how he explores these reconnections. He does it mostly through stories and experiences that he personally investigated.

One arresting example is that of a depressed farmer in Cambodia. The farmer became depressed after his leg was blown off in a rice paddy by a mine left over from the Vietnam War.

He became depressed because, as well as the pain, he could no longer work in the rice paddies. The community came together and bought him a cow so that he became a dairy farmer. A cow became his anti-depressant.

Hari concludes that depression and anxiety have three kinds of causes: biological, psychological and social. This has been known to scientists for decades but one would scarcely believe it from the form psychiatric practice takes. He insists that the social dislocations of modern society are the primary reason for the widespread phenomenon of depression.

The society we live in is highly disordered and one could say depression inducing. We live in a society which metaphorically we could describe as sick. Most of those who are identified as suffering from depression are in fact exhibiting healthy reactions to a sick society.

If there is one defect in Hari’s book, it seems to me to be that in addition to the disconnections he could have given more emphasis to the sickness that living under capitalism induces.

Michael Drohan is a member of the Editorial Collective and of the Board of the Merton Center.

 (TMC newspaper VOL. 48 No.8 October 2018. All rights reserved)


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