On Sunday, Johann Hari’s new book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression — and the Unexpected Solutions, was quoted at great length in the Guardian, in an article titled “Is Everything You Think You Know About Depression Wrong?” It’s been making the rounds on my feed and in my email inbox.
First off, a useful rule of writing/reading titles for the internet: if the title is a question that seems controversial, the answer is probably no. “Are Mosquitos Going Extinct?” No. “Will There Ever Be Another Elvis?” No. “Is There Life on Mars?” No, no, no, even if you want it to be true so badly you’re willing to write an entire book about it.
Second, it’s important to note that this article/book was written by a man fired from the Independent in 2011 for plagiarism. Look it up, it’s true. He even edited Wikipedia to make journalists who criticized him look bad. That smells like agenda, and self-aggrandizement, to me.
Third — now that the side issues are on the table— here’s a real, considered rebuttal to the points of the article.
For those of us who have struggled with intractable depression, and who have tried a variety of drugs in order to function on a daily basis, this article is problematic to the point of insult. Antidepressants are certainly overprescribed, and the pharmaceutical industry is certainly guilty of profitmongering at the expense of people seeking an easy solution to their difficult lives, but that is not to say that there is no such thing as a chemical imbalance in the brain.
If the problem of depression boils down to quality of life, or control over that life, why would Robin Williams have killed himself? Or David Foster Wallace? Or Anne Sexton? Or Ian MacDonald? Or George Sanders? Or… the list goes on.
I am allergic to amoxicillin. Antibiotics are overprescribed, especially to people who don’t know the difference between a virus and a bacterium. These two sentences together — my experience plus a problematic truth of the pharmaceutical/medical complex — do not mean that antibiotics are fraudulent, and all people who have bacterial infections need to do to heal is go to a part of town with less air pollution.
My doctor and my therapist and I have conferred multiple times about the medicine I take, and we are all satisfied with my dosage and its effects on me. Not every person on a psychiatric med is so well cared for, nor so well-informed, but that is not the fault of “big pharma.”
Everyone I’ve spoken to with even a modicum of experience coping with a mental illness has raised an eyebrow about Hari increasing his dosage to 80mg per day without even attempting a different regimen. That’s a product of poor doctoring, not a misdiagnosis.
It’s articles, and mindsets, like this that keep people from getting help. They promote shame among people with legitimate, untreated mental illnesses and send them into a cycle of what’s wrong with me and why can’t I just feel better. For informed people with well-examined perspectives about mental illness, who have been through a few medication regimens, who have consulted with doctors and done independent research, this might be an interesting set of opinions to explore…but those people have already overcome the stigma around medication and seeking help.
This is shaming, and a failure of empathy, dressed up as research.