Getting Real About Depression: Johann Hari’s Lost Connections

Contrary to the dominant view, Johann Hari’s important new book Lost Connections argues that depression is caused largely by social factors. University of Portsmouth Senior Lecturer and author of Madness, Power and the Media, Dr Stephen Harper, assesses the many strengths and some of the weaknesses of Hari’s thesis. 

Johann Hari’s career in journalism has not exactly been covered in glory. Back in the noughties, Hari supported the devastating war in Iraq, plagiarised parts of an interview with Toni Negri, and maliciously edited Wikipedia pages about his critics. But he did at least publicly apologise for his misjudgements and misdemeanours and in recent years he seems to have turned over a new leaf. His latest book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, is the outcome of another of his turnarounds, this time on the subject of mental health.

Several years ago, Hari was a user of – and staunch advocate for – anti-depressant medications; but he gradually became aware of the limited efficacy and disagreeable side effects of these drugs. And as he learned more about the science of mental health, he came to realise the inadequacy of the ‘chemical imbalance’ theory of depression and became increasingly concerned that the psychological and social underpinnings of the condition are being largely ignored in Western culture. Indeed, Hari’s book is a powerful indictment of the highly circumscribed nature of our public discourse about depression, which has for many years been pressed into a biomedical straitjacket.

Depression, according to today’s standard medical narrative, is caused by a faulty brain and best treated with pharmaceuticals. Hari rejects this script. Mental health, he proposes, depends largely on our ability to connect with other people and with nature, to have meaningful work and values and to understand the part played by childhood trauma in conditioning adult thoughts and behaviours. Yet these connections and understandings are largely frustrated in our society, which, even for those of us living in the ‘developed’ world, is characterised by an endless cycle of overwork and ruthless, individualistic competition that leaves us with little time to care for others or ourselves. These social stresses, Hari points out, play an enormous role in generating illness. As Hari puts it, ‘the primary cause of all this rising depression and anxiety is not in our heads. It is, I discovered, largely in the world, and the way we are living in it’ (p.14).

Of course, this emphasis on the psychological and social influences on mental distress is hardly new and – contrary to the allegations of some of his critics – Hari does not claim that it is. In fact, he acknowledges that his argument rests on an existing body of research, albeit one that is well-known to anybody familiar with the sociology of mental health. What makes Hari’s book so valuable is the elegance with which it synthesises that research for the lay reader and the power of its journalistic reportage and personal reflections on depression. Drawing on interviews with researchers as well as sufferers, Hari intersperses passages explaining academic findings with moving accounts of the depressive experience. Crucially, too, he details how some sufferers have managed to ‘re-connect’ to themselves and others through self-analysis and involvement in collective, community-based projects.

This book is a tonic, since we so seldom reflect on either the psychological or socio-political determinants of mental distress. Scientific research has established that depression has biological, psychological and social causes and the so-called ‘bio-psychosocial model’ of mental health is now unassailable; yet contemporary medical practice focuses almost exclusively on depression’s biological correlates. The same is true, in fact, of popular culture: as I argued in my own book Madness, Power and the Media, the biomedical model of depression prevails in the contemporary media, from soap operas to high-profile television documentaries like Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. In our society, the understanding and treatment of mental distress, as the late Mark Fisher argued, have been privatised and many of us have come to regard depression, as Hari once did, as an idiopathic brain disease.

This view is not only hopelessly reductive, but socially damaging: a substantial body of research suggests that people who subscribe to it are more inclined to stigmatise sufferers. But challenging the biomedical paradigm requires us to adopt a radically different perspective on health and illness – one that acknowledges that individuals are inseparable from their environments. Here it is worth pondering the words of Gabor Maté, whose ideas underpin many of Hari’s own reflections.

Lost Connections has garnered numerous stellar endorsements from celebrities, culture-makers and politicians. Some of the book’s supporters are broadly leftists (Russell Brand, Glenn Greenwald, Brian Eno), while others are avowed capitalists (Hillary Clinton, Alastair Campbell). That the book is endorsed by the latter indicates the political limitation of its argument: while Hari makes a convincing case that we live in a sick and disconnected society, he cannot bring himself to identify capitalism as the source of our lost connections, let alone endorse the socialist project to abolish it. And because of this, some of Hari’s suggested remedies are equally limited. While he sagaciously recommends collective social or political activity as potential paths to re-connection, other proposals are less convincing: at one point, for example, he tentatively advocates Universal Basic Income as a means of providing working-class people with some relief from the pressures of wage labour; but it is far from clear that UBI would work in this way – one of its most likely effects, in fact, would be to lower wages and thus serve as a subsidy to employers.

We should, I think, be more radical. Our task today must be to eliminate wage labour and the exploitation and suffering it entails. In the nineteenth century, Marx recognised that capitalism alienated human beings from nature, from themselves, from work and from others (more or less the same set of disconnections that Hari discusses). Even then, Marx saw that this system would have to be overthrown after a certain point in its development. In the twenty-first century, capitalism has gone global and, having made possible a world of plenty, now shows the morbid symptoms of a system in terminal decline, with devastating consequences for human health. The people of the Global South are in a desperate struggle for survival, facing poverty, starvation, war and environmental chaos. But even in the relatively affluent West, depression, anxiety and addiction are rife; the proliferation of disorders such as ADHD, meanwhile, seems too rapid to be attributable to ‘genetics’ or improved methods of diagnosis. All of these conditions are best seen not as diseases, but as adaptations to the manifold social and political pressures of contemporary capitalism.

As William Morris put it in his 1884 lecture How We Live and How We Might Live, the socialist society of the future will be one of ‘combination, not competition’. We have now developed the productive capacity to do away with capitalism, along with the massive stress, neglect and abuse it engenders, and to create a truly human society of material abundance and mutual aid. In a world without wage labour and money, human beings will need to work for perhaps just a few hours a week; we will then have time to develop our connections with others and to explore our innate creative potential. But until we come together to create this new kind of society, our miseries will only multiply.

Photography by Moshe Tasky.