A Different Kind of Antidepression

In the early days of the 21st century, a South African psychiatrist named Derek Summerfeld went to Cambodia, at a time when antidepressants were first being introduced there. He began to explain the concept to the doctors he met. They listened patiently and then told him they didn’t need these new antidepressants, because they already had antidepressants that work. He assumed they were talking about some kind of herbal remedy.

He asked them to explain, and they told him about a rice farmer they knew whose left leg was blown off by a landmine. He was fitted with a new limb, but he felt constantly anxious about the future, and was filled with despair. The doctors sat with him, and talked through his troubles. They realised that even with his new artificial limb, his old job—working in the rice paddies—was leaving him constantly stressed and in physical pain, and that was making him want to just stop living. So they had an idea. They believed that if he became a dairy farmer, he could live differently. So they bought him a cow. In the months and years that followed, his life changed. His depression—which had been profound—went away. “You see, doctor,” they told him, the cow was an “antidepressant”.

To them, finding an antidepressant didn’t mean finding a way to change your brain chemistry. It meant finding a way to solve the problem that was causing the depression in the first place. We can do the same. Some of these solutions are things we can do as individuals, in our private lives. Some require bigger social shifts, which we can only achieve together, as citizens. But all of them require us to change our understanding of what depression and anxiety really are.

This is radical, but it is not, I discovered, a maverick position. In its official statement for World Health Day in 2017, the United Nations reviewed the best evidence and concluded that “the dominant biomedical narrative of depression” is based on “biased and selective use of research outcomes” that “must be abandoned”. We need to move from “focusing on ‘chemical imbalances”, they said, to focusing more on “power imbalances”.

— Johann Hari, in an edited extract from his book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, courtesy of the Guardian.

(Please note that this is not intended to disparage or cast doubt on other treatments such as therapies or medications; rather it is meant to present an alternative, if not complementary, approach to helping those who struggle with depression in all its forms and degrees. Given that this malady affects diverse people for diverse reasons, it is sensible to consider every possible approach or treatment paradigm to address it.)


Lessons From Zimbabwe on Mental Health Treatment

Zimbabwe rarely makes it into the news, except in regards to its venal autocratic regime and sensational rate of hyperinflation. But for all its woes — and perhaps because of them — the country’s citizens have proven to be creative, resilient, and resourceful, as evidenced in part by their fascinating idea of “friendship benches” –nondescript park benches located throughout major cities that help facilitate therapy and mental health services. Continue reading

Reassessing Milgram’s Infamous Psychology Experiment

During the 1960s, American social psychologist Stanley Milgram conducted an experiment that would become one of the most infamous and influential in the history of psychology. Taking place within the recent memory of the Holocaust — indeed, Adolf Eichmann’s high-profile war crimes trial took place at the same time — Milgram’s study purportedly led to the disturbing conclusion that humans could be made to do evil things when commanded by an authority figure. Continue reading

Lessons From The Arctic Circle On Handling Depression

Though it has been documented since ancient times, clinical depression is viewed as an increasingly problematic affliction of the modern world — as of 2010, close to 300 million people, or 4 percent of all humans, were diagnosed with clinical depression, including 17 percent of Americans. (As this number obviously does not include undiagnosed, this already sizeable sum of sufferers is likely much larger.) Needless to say, this is a major public health problem warranting more understanding and treatment.

But who would guess that Tromsø, a small Norwegian town of around 70,000 located 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle, might hold the key to deciphering the causes of depression and its solution?

As year-long resident of Tromsø, Kari Leibowitz, observes in The Atlantic, the town hardly seems like the sort of place that would accommodate a stress-free life, for while it is well governed and features all the modern amenities of a developed-world community, its location makes it subject to extreme variations in light. Continue reading

The Psychosocial Roots of Religion

An international study published in Nature aims to explore religion’s role in expanding and refining beneficial social values such as cooperation, mutual trust, and fairness. The study’s premise alone is of tremendous interest to me as both a secular humanist and a science buff, but the abstract is even more intriguing. Continue reading

Fifty Terms in Psychological and Psychiatric You Should Not Use

If like me you take an active interest in the mental health field — whether in the context of advocacy, academia, or casual curiosity — this article from Frontiersan open-source science publisher, is an excellent place to start. It lays out fifty common psychological and psychiatric terms that are, unbeknownst to most people, confusing, archaic, misapplied, or just plain wrong.

These range from pop culture concepts like “brainwashing” to seeming innocuous expressions like “genetically determined”. Continue reading

How Morality Shapes Personal Identity

What makes us who we are? Is it the experiences we have, the memories we hold, or the behaviors we display? Is it a combination of these factors? These fundamental questions of identity and self have concerned humans across all cultures for millennia. Psychologist Nina Strohminger at Aeon offers an intriguing answer: moral character. Continue reading

The Meditative Quality of Art

From early childhood up until my early twenties, I was an artist. Not in any particularly prolific or professional sense; just someone who liked to sketch, doodle, and draw fairly regularly. I cannot recall when or why I stopped exactly, but I have been meaning to get back into it, and on occasion I do manage to pull of a crude sketch or two.

A recent article in the Washington Post is giving me yet another reason to get back into the habit. As so many artists throughout history have attested, there is evidence that creative activity is good for the mind, as well as the body, being utilized to great effect in therapy. Everything from depression to post traumatic stress disorder and even cancer (namely symptoms like fatigue and pain) is mitigated through the creative process.

Whatever the exact mechanics of it, there is just something about making art that helps us feel better, both emotionally and physically. Here are four evidence-backed reasons, courtesy of WaPo  and Fulfillment Daily,  why letting loose with one’s inner creativity, regardless of skill level, is well worth trying. Continue reading

When An Online Friend Dies

As Cracked writer  observes is his brilliant piece, Five Things You Learn When A Facebook Friend Dies, “We’re the first era of humanity that has had to deal with death and the Internet, and grief for the passing of someone you only knew online.”

I recently lost a good Facebook some weeks ago, and it was not my first experience. This article is on point, and I highly recommend you read it. As social media and the Internet as a whole become integrated into our everyday and emotional lives, the issues and feelings described in this piece will be increasingly common. It is important to reflect upon the implications of connecting with someone so distant in some respects, yet so close in many others.

As always, feel free to share your own thoughts and reactions to the article or the topic as a whole. I will have to dedicate another post with my own reflections on the subject later.

The Different Notions of Self

Over at Quartz, Tim Urban offers a fairly fun and comprehensive rundown of all the theories of self — what makes you, you. It is an often maddening topic that has been reflected upon and debated by philosophers and average folks alike for about as long as we’ve been capable of higher thought.

Though it is a long read, it is well worth your time if you want to understand, in an often humorous and digestible way, the different arguments for what makes our identity and how. I am especially fond of this excerpt.

It’s like having an old wooden boat. You may have repaired it hundreds of times over the years, replacing wood chip after wood chip, until one day, you realize that not one piece of material from the original boat is still part of it. So is that still your boat? If you named your boat Polly the day you bought it, would you change the name now? It would still be Polly, right?

In this way, what you are is not really a thing as much as a story, or a progression, or one particular theme of person. You’re a bit like a room with a bunch of things in it—some old, some new, some you’re aware of, some you aren’t—but the room is always changing, never exactly the same from week to week.

Likewise, you’re not a set of brain data, you’re a particular database whose contents are constantly changing, growing, and being updated. And you’re not a physical body of atoms, you’re a set of instructions on how to deal with and organize the atoms that bump into you.

People always say the word soul and I never really know what they’re talking about. To me, the word soul has always seemed like a poetic euphemism for a part of the brain that feels very inner to us; or an attempt to give humans more dignity than just being primal biological organisms; or a way to declare that we’re eternal. But maybe when people say the word soul what they’re talking about is whatever it is that connects my 90-year-old grandfather to the boy in the picture. As his cells and memories come and go, as every wood chip in his canoe changes again and again, maybe the single common thread that ties it all together is his soul. After examining a human from every physical and mental angle throughout the post, maybe the answer this whole time has been the much less tangible Soul Theory.

For my part, I think the self is an amalgamation of different elements, namely continuity of narrative combined with data. Of course, no concept is without its shortcomings and gaps, which is what makes the discussion about self so timeless. As the author alludes towards the end of that snippet, there is just something fundamentally intangible about the self, something many of us just know without any explanation.

What do you think?