Harvard professor explains the surprising cause of depression, and why most doctors get it wrong

Millions of people in our society are on antidepressants, yet we never hear of the condition getting better.

America has a mental health crisis and depression is a very big part of that problem.

Why is that? We have been treated for depression for decades now and the situation only worsens.

Most people initially feel better when they take their antidepressants, but after a while they start feeling miserable again. There is a reason for that.

Writing in the Guardian, Johann Hari shared his research into depression, finding that what most people think is completely wrong.

Depression isn’t caused by a lack of serotonin, and anti-depressants are unlikely to solve it for you. Instead, you’re probably living a life without deep human connection devoid of a sense of purpose and meaning.

Credit: Shutterstock

It begins with the serotonin myth

Doctors tell us that there is a chemical called serotonin that makes people feel good and some people are naturally lacking it in their brains. Fortunately, there are drugs that will restore your serotonin levels to that of a normal person. If you take them, you’ll feel better.

So, relieved that you now know what is wrong with you, you take the drugs and for a while you actually feel better. But soon you start feeling depressed again. You go back to the doctor and you are prescribed a higher doses of serotonin and initially you feel better. Then, after a while…. You get the picture.

Struggling with this very problem for years, Johann Hari traveled 40,000 miles across the world, talking to leading social scientists and to people who beat depression in unexpected ways and he ended up writing the book Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions.

He learned that depression is not what we have been told it is up to now.

“I found there is evidence that seven specific factors in the way we are living today are causing depression and anxiety to rise – alongside two real biological factors (such as your genes) that can combine with these forces to make it worse,” he writes.

One of the people Hari spoke to is Professor Irving Kirsch at Harvard University who he calls the Sherlock Holmes of chemical antidepressants. Kirsch has thoroughly analyzed the evidence about drugs for depressed and anxious people.

Kirsch explained that Hari’s situation was typical: between 65% and 80% of people on antidepressants are depressed again within a year.

Professor Kirsch told Hari that he started wondering whether depression is even caused by low serotonin and when he started to dig, he found out that the actual evidence was rather shaky.

Credit: Shutterstock

Depression is not caused by low serotonin levels in the brain after all

Says Hari: “Professor Andrew Scull of Princeton, writing in the Lancet, explained that attributing depression to spontaneously low serotonin is deeply misleading and unscientific”.

It gets worse:

Another scientist, Dr David Healy, told Hari: “There was never any basis for it, ever. It was just marketing copy.” Dr Heal is a renowned psychiatrist, psycho-pharmacologist and scientist.

If low serotonin levels are not making us depressed, what is?

Hari interviewed social scientists all over the world and realized what is driving the high levels of depression: human beings have basic psychological needs and those needs are not being met by our current culture.

“We need to feel we belong. We need to feel valued. We need to feel we’re good at something. We need to feel we have a secure future. And there is growing evidence that our culture isn’t meeting those psychological needs for many – perhaps most – people.

“I kept learning that, in very different ways, we have become disconnected from things we really need, and this deep disconnection is driving this epidemic of depression and anxiety all around us,” says Hari.

Let’s look at one of those factors and see if there can be a solution other than a chemical to feelings of alienation.

One of our basic psychological needs is the need to feel that our lives are meaningful, that we are making a meaningful contribution and that there is a purpose to our lives.

Fact is, most people feel that work, the thing they spend most of their time on, is meaningless.

Credit: Shutterstock

Between 2011 and 2012, the polling company Gallup found that 13% of people say they are “engaged” in their work – they find it meaningful and look forward to it. Some 63% say they are “not engaged”, which is defined as “sleepwalking through their workday”. And 24% are “actively disengaged”: they hate it.

Why do so many of us feel so disengaged?

Lack of control over one’s work is one factor that eats away at the conviction that what you are doing is meaningful and have a purpose.

Studies found that if you have no control over your work, you are far more likely to become stressed and depressed.

Hari references Australian scientist Michael Marmot, who found something amazing: the lower an employee ranked in the hierarchy, the higher their stress levels and likelihood of having a heart attack.

“Humans have an innate need to feel that what we are doing, day-to-day, is meaningful. When you are controlled, you can’t create meaning out of your work,” says Hari.

We all hate to be told what to do. So many workplaces treat their employees no better than children that should be watched and controlled all the time in case they misbehave.

So for this one factor, lack of personal control, which contributes to depression, what can be done? People have been able to turn their lives around and in the process get rid of their depression by getting rid of the hierarchy in a company and adopting a more egalitarian approach to running a business.

Our current culture is not meeting our psychological needs. That’s what needs to be addressed, not some mythical chemical lack in our brains.


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