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As I finished a busy four-hour shift at the local distress centre I volunteer at, the last conversation I had kept replaying in my mind.
Inconsolable and crying throughout, my client said some words that stayed with me on the drive back home:
“I have nobody in this world who truly cares about me. I am struggling financially. I’m out of a job and unable to pay for my college tuition. With no place to turn to, I keep asking myself why was I even born? What is the point of my life? What difference will it make to anyone if I am alive or not?”
Sadly, conversations such as these are consistently on the rise, with an ever-growing number of people feeling overwhelmed and unable to cope with life around them.
The global pandemic has only made things worse. The living proof are the increasing number of phone calls we receive on the distress line, with people of all ages calling in due to feelings of isolation, loneliness, anxiety, and depression, and many a time on the verge of contemplating suicide.
According to the World Health Organisation, approximately 280 million people worldwide—roughly about five percent of the global population—suffer from depression. Meanwhile, an estimated 275 million—approximately four percent of the global population—suffer from anxiety disorders.
Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health condition in the United States and also happen to be the fastest growing diagnosis in youth.
And yet, despite these staggering figures, not enough is being done to unearth the underlying causes of these disorders.
The common misconception—holding our biology largely responsible—continues to persist; it is still a popularly held belief that our genes make us susceptible to these mental disorders, or a chemical imbalance in our brain is to blame.
The truth, however, is that most of the factors contributing to depression and anxiety are not found in our biology but in our environment and how we live. It is a response to life experience and not simply the result of an imbalance.
Why is it that, in today’s fast-paced society, there has been an alarming increase in cases of depression and anxiety?
What is wrong with the world that we have created for ourselves? Johann Hari, challenging conventional views, offers us answers to these questions in his insightful book, Lost Connections.
With a highly personal account, he begins by talking about his own experiences with antidepressants. It took him years, but he eventually came to the realisation that, while medication provides some short-term relief, it induces a dependency and, most importantly, merely treats the symptoms and not the underlying deep-rooted issues.
We are acutely aware of all our natural, physical needs, such as food, shelter, water, and the air we breathe, but our deep-rooted, innate needs—to feel valued, to feel secure, to feel a sense of purpose, to feel connected—often get sidelined.
Viewing the brain as a separate entity, removed from the rest of the body and the environment and having no interactions at all, is making a mockery of the pain and anguish that is experienced by so many.
It is no wonder that many still erroneously assume clinical antidepressants are the panacea for these ills, and they become the first thing they turn to in a bid to overcome their mental health issues.
Hari mentions several causes contributing to the rising levels of depression and anxiety, and I will be delving into the others in a follow-up article, but here I start with the two that stood out to me and which I will be elaborating on:
1. Our growing disconnection from other people.
Since time immemorial, humans survived as part of a community, dependent on each other and maintaining social cooperation to meet their basic needs. Man is a social animal, according to Aristotle, and it has been an intrinsic part of human nature to bond and connect with others.
Functioning as a community is what Hari refers to as our “superpower” as a species. It made us feel good, safe, and secure. In today’s fast-paced world, however, we have sadly disbanded our communities, and rather than thinking of ourselves as a collective group, we operate as isolated individuals.
Constantly being told to become self-sufficient, try not to depend on anyone, and take care of ourselves, our focus has shifted to meeting our own individual needs. We connect with tons of people on a superficial level, with hundreds of friends and followers on social media, but we hardly have any meaningful connections anymore, people with whom we share our problems, joys, and sorrows.
The result is that “loneliness hangs over our culture like a thick smog.”
In the 1970s, Professor John Cacioppo, a leading researcher on the causes and effects of loneliness for over 20 years, felt the brain needed to be studied not in isolation but in conjunction with the environment one lived in.
Since then, various other scientists, including Sheldon Cohen and Lisa Berkman, have also been studying the effects of loneliness. The results of their research clearly showed that isolated people were three times more likely to catch a cold virus when deliberately exposed to it, compared to people who had lots of close social connections.
Similarly, isolated and lonely individuals were two to three times more likely to die than people with a strong support network of family and friends. There is scientific evidence that feeling lonely elevates stress, causing levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, to soar. Chronic loneliness increases the chances of an early death by 20 percent. In fact, isolation makes cancer, heart disease, respiratory problems much more fatal.
2. Disconnection from meaningful values.
Hari rightly states how decaying values are also responsible for many of our mental health problems.
More and more, we are being trained to look for happiness in all the wrong places; the more we believe we can buy and display our way into happiness, the more likely we are to become anxious and depressed.
Numerous studies conducted across the globe from Europe to Asia, North America and Australia, confirm this finding: the more materialistic and reward-driven our motivation, the more anxious and depressed we will be.
We need to realise that the latest model of our favorite phone brand, the brand-new designer home, or the increasing number of retweets or likes on Instagram are not going to result in more fulfilling lives.
Unfortunately, as a society, we are continuously driven by these beliefs, which Hari likens to fast food for the soul. Just as junk food does not meet our nutritional needs, these “junk” values are not meeting our psychological needs as we spiral our way down to being the loneliest, unhappiest society in history.
The prevalent mindset pushes us to strive for those high grades, the best paying job, the salary raise, enabling us to display that wealth through material possessions, designer clothes and cars, all of which in no way bring us any long-lasting happiness.
As cliché as it may sound, we need to sit back and reflect, thinking about what gives our lives true meaning and purpose.
A sense of belonging and connection and being valued by others are some of our basic psychological needs, but as a society, we are becoming more and more inefficient at meeting them. Therein lies the problem which greatly contributes to the rising levels of depression and anxiety in our society.
One of the solutions presented by Hari is what is now referred to as “social prescribing,” which is gaining popularity in Europe. The concept is simple, and it has met with some success, resulting in meaningful falls in depression and anxiety levels.
The idea is to create a group, your “community” so to speak, and work toward achieving something meaningful together. The “me, myself, and I” mindset needs to be replaced by “us,” using our resources collectively instead of functioning as an isolated individual.
We all suffer from varying levels of anxiety and stress. It is part of our existence. The sooner we realise the damage we are doing to ourselves, the greater the chances of us doing something collectively for our own good and bringing about real change in the way we live.
Acknowledging our mental struggles is not a sign of weakness; it’s what makes us human.
In the words of Johann Hari, “If you are depressed or anxious, you are not weak. You are not a machine with broken parts; you are a human being with unmet needs.”