BOOK REVIEW: Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions by Johann Hari

Lost Connections is the culmination of Johann Hari’s ideas about the origins of depression and anxiety. His search for answers was inspired by his own experience of having been diagnosed at 18 years old and immediately being given the explanation that Western medicine offers; that his illness was caused by a chemical imbalance in his brain (a lack of serotonin) and that the cure would be to take antidepressants immediately. He remained on them for the next thirteen years and yet also remained depressed and anxious. Certain encounters with peers and professionals led him to begin exploring if it was possible that there were otherreasons (besides biological ones) for an increasing number of people suffering in this way, with medical cures being largely ineffective.

At the beginning of his search he meets Joanne, a woman who suffered the loss of her daughter in childbirth. Joanne went on to train as a clinical psychologist specialising in traumatic bereavement and subsequently encountered many patients who were displaying the signs of deep grief and as a result were diagnosed by their GP with depression (as per the protocol of Western medicine). She began researching the possibility that actually, her patients weren’t suffering from a chemical deficit in their brains but were simply living with the consequential pain and sadness that comes after having lost a loved one. So, if grief is an understandable reaction to a traumatic event, what other social or psychological circumstances could lead to someone feeling depressed or anxious, as a direct and rational result? What follows are Hari’s findings as he attempts to answer this question, which he has categorized into nine possible causes (of depression and anxiety) and seven potential cures.

Each cause and subsequent cure is based on the disconnections we experience in modern society such as that from the natural world, childhood trauma, meaningful work or with the people around us. Hari explains that in an ever-connected world, we are feeling more isolated and disconnected than ever. By speaking with doctors, therapists and everyday people from all over the world, he has come to believe that much of our mental and emotional suffering is a direct result of our unmet social and emotional needs.

In his conclusion, he quotes the World Health Organisation’s 2011 summary of the causes of depression and anxiety: “Mental health is produced socially: the presence or absence of mental health is above all a social indicator and therefore requires social, as well as individual, solutions”. Hari implores us to read between the lines of the story we are fed by large pharmaceutical companies (and those who benefit from their success) that there is an easy explanation for why so many of us are struggling with our mental health; a broken bit of brain that can be fixed by buying some pills. The alternative, that the causes (and cures) lie within a fractured society which places little value on what really matters (altruism, for instance) and so much value on the things that don’t (owning stuff and making money) is far more complex and quite frankly, exhausting to think about. But Hari does meet people along the way who are examples of how it is possible to live differently, to have values which go against the grain of society and who have chosen to make small changes in the way they run business or live side-by-side with their neighbours. These stories bring about hope that it is the little things that count. It is the small choices we make on an individual level that can change society as a whole and in turn, the individual benefits from the wellness of a more altruistic and community-driven society.

There is so much to be said about this book, not least because it brings to light topics about which I am incredibly passionate and could, given the opportunity, talk about until somebody physically restrained me. In brief, Hari has put to paper so much of what I have personally concluded regarding the origins of depression and anxiety since suffering with both from a young age and having found along the way many complex and multi-layered causes of each, the least of which I believe to be biological (and I speak as someone who is still taking anti-depressants). I have been a firm believer in all the things that Hari writes about in Lost Connections for so long and yet have done so as a layman with only my own musings and no formal position from which to investigate them. On a personal level therefore, it has been incredibly empowering to read these things and to be able to see that these theories are being taken seriously by the medical community, as I believe they should.

There are, no doubt, numerous other books addressing this topic (and I hope to read some of them) but I would hesitate to suggest that any of them could be written in such an accessible way. Hari has approached his investigations with sensitivity and humility, making it clear throughout that he is nothing but a curious mind, personally invested in this emotive and highly-complex subject; he does not pretend to have all the answers but merely invites the reader to look at depression and anxiety in new ways. For this, I am grateful to Hari. To read this book has not only confirmed so much of what I already believe but has also reinforced my passion for promoting psychological, emotional and social well-being as a way of healing so many of the wounds we each carry.

Please read this book. It is so important. Even if you have no personal experience of anxiety and depression, the chances are you know someone who has, or will in the near future. We cannot begin to understand these conditions without first understanding their origins and Lost Connections will go a long way to help with that.

Lost Connections is published by Bloomsbury Books and is available here.

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Johann Hari

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Johann Hari is the author of two New York Times best-selling books. His first, ‘Chasing the Scream: the First and Last Days of the War on Drugs’, is currently being adapted into a major Hollywood feature film, and into a non-fiction documentary series. His most recent book, ‘Lost Connections: Uncovering The Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions’ is being translated into 17 languages and has been praised by a very broad range of people, from Hillary Clinton to Tucker Carlson, from Elton John to Naomi Klein.

He gave one of the most-viewed TED talks of all time: his talk, ‘Everything You Think You Know About Addiction is Wrong’,  has (along with the animation based on it) been viewed more than 25 million times.

He has written over the past seven years for some of the world’s leading newspapers and magazines, including the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the Spectator, Le Monde Diplomatique, the Melbourne Age, and Politico. He is a regular panellist on HBO’s Realtime With Bill Maher.

Johann was twice named ‘National Newspaper Journalist of the Year’ by Amnesty International. He has also been named ‘Cultural Commentator of the Year’ and ‘Environmental Commentator of the Year’ at the Comment Awards. He lives half the year in London, and spends the other half of the year traveling to research his books.

Reviewed by Anna Jeffery

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