What I Learned About Depression from Johann Hari

You may not know his name.

I didn’t, until I saw his youtube video about addiction, “Everything you think you knew about addiction is wrong.” If you have not watched it, it is worth the 15 minutes. Johann Hari describes addiction and how relationships and feeling like you matter to other people will support and motivate recovery. He discourages judgment, tough love and other things like “hitting bottom.” It makes a lot of sense to me.

Hari has a new book out called “Lost Connections.” This book is about depression. He is not an expert on depression in any way, nor does he possess any credentials as a mental health professional. He shares his story of depression and how he sought help but medication didn’t seem to help in the way it was supposed to. I have not read the book yet, but if you are interested you can read about Hari and his book in an article by the UK newspaper, The Guardian.

Depression is my drug dealer

Depression is like a drug dealer offering me crack in the form of emotional darkness.

Depression is something that any of us can face. I have faced seasons of depression for most of my life and it continues to be part of my emotional landscape. For me, when things become overwhelming or if I feel that situations are hopeless, depression lurks nearby. In those situations, depression is like a drug dealer offering me crack in the form of emotional darkness.

Hari was a writer for the Guardian. He was internationally famous and did a Ted Talk watched by nearly 4 million people. But he is no different than you or I.  He was also caught lying about the sources for some of his articles and using false (online) identities to make himself appear more important.

In a way, I think that his flaws add credibility to his work on understanding addiction and depression. He is not a lecturer who knows a great deal about science, nor is he a celebrity talking about the topic because it happens to be popular. I imagine that Hari has faced many of his own demons as he was publicly held accountable and his mistakes are easily judged.

No matter what we conclude about Hari’s personal life, I think a little healthy skepticism is advised.

What I learned from Hari about depression was a few questions that we can ask of ourselves, or those we love.

Are the only people who can speak with authority in mental health those who are professionals?

First, it is important to know that if you or someone you love is living with depression and they question the value of their life, they need to see a caring and compassionate mental health support. Medication may offer a lifeline and therapy may be another. Nothing that I or any other author can write, will substitute for talking with a therapist and medical specialist.

If you have a family member who is living with depression, one of the most important things you can do is offer a listening ear. This can be very difficult if all that they talk about is their sadness and pain. It can be difficult to hold back judgment if they are overwhelmed with their depression but do nothing to help themselves. Families can learn a great deal about how to help someone with a mental illness.

We know that meaningful activity can change how a person feels. Depression can make effort and action feel impossible or worthless even if talking and action are the way forward.

Three questions that can help someone who is facing depression

As someone who lives with depression, I find his three questions helpful:

  • What is your life like right now?
  • What is making you feel sad?
  • What changes could you make to help your life feel more tolerable?
The questions illustrate for me both acceptance of my mood or what is happening in my mind, and finding small ways to make life more tolerable, right now. When I can identify that getting out of the house and going for a walk can make me feel better, or talking, or listening to some music, or drawing it seems to lift my mood sometimes.

The single cause theory of mental illness is overly simplistic and it can be dangerous

Depression is dense and heavy. It has many forms for and will not look the same for each person. Questions like these are not quick fixes or any form of guarantee or path to “just feeling good.”

As a therapist, you need the books, but what you learn from the books comes alive in our stories. 

Uncovering the causes of our depression can be challenging. For some of us, our depression is a reaction from our life experience or from our environment (family, work, friendships). They call this “reactive” depression. For others, our depression is more of what happens inside of our heads and our brains, or “endogenous” depression. This second type of depression often lingers and returns in spite of how well our lives are working.

Dean Burnett, Neuroscientist critiqued Hari’s book and offered his perspective on what science knows about depression right now:

  • Depression is not simply a chemical imbalance, nor is it caused by any one issue. Any mental health experience is caused by multiple factors and treatment will need to address these factors. Medication may be important but will not work for everyone and even with medication, a person will still need things like exercise, healthy self care, healthy and supportive relationships, healthy hobbies, time outside, or volunteering.
  • Even when we take medications and follow medical advice, our depression may come back and at times worse than before.
  • It is unwise to discourage medications because they can be life-saving for many people. However, medication will not fix or resolve any depression. Counselling or therapy and a variety of other treatments, as noted above may be recommended.
  • Diagnoses are not a quick process. While some professionals may make a cursory assessment, most consider multiple factors in a person’s life when they suffer from a mental illness.

Are the only people who can speak with authority in mental health those who are professionals? I don’t think so. I think the key is being educated and mindful that we all can be biased or have judgments that make us want to prove we are right and that others are wrong. Scientists call this confirmation bias – where we look for more of what we know, which ‘proves’ what we knew in the first place.

What do you think?

If you or someone you care about is facing, or has faced, a mental illness or addiction – what did you do that seemed to truly help? What did you learn from this? I tell my clients all of the time that I have learned more from them than all of the books that I can read. As a therapist, you need the books, but what you learn from the books comes alive in our stories. 

Keep it Real

Photos: Kathrin Baumbach

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