On depression and anxiety by Johann Hari

Someone shared this TED talk on depression and anxiety by Johann Hari a few weeks ago.

I finally got to reading the transcript yesterday (I prefer reading transcripts to watching TED videos for some reason) and I thought his content was the kind that was both common sense and insightful.

There’s a lovely anecdote about a cow that explains his thesis.

There was a farmer in their community who worked in the rice fields. And one day, he stood on a land mine left over from the war with the United States, and he got his leg blown off. So they him an artificial leg, and after a while, he went back to work in the rice fields.

But apparently, it’s super painful to work under water when you’ve got an artificial limb, and I’m guessing it was pretty traumatic to go back and work in the field where he got blown up. The guy started to cry all day, he refused to get out of bed, he developed all the symptoms of classic depression. The Cambodian doctor said, “This is when we gave him an antidepressant.”

And Dr. Summerfield said, “What was it?” They explained that they went and sat with him. They listened to him. They realized that his pain made sense — it was hard for him to see it in the throes of his depression, but actually, it had perfectly understandable causes in his life. One of the doctors, talking to the people in the community, figured, “You know, if we bought this guy a cow, he could become a dairy farmer, he wouldn’t be in this position that was screwing him up so much, he wouldn’t have to go and work in the rice fields.”

So they bought him a cow.

Within a couple of weeks, his crying stopped, within a month, his depression was gone. They said to doctor Summerfield, “So you see, doctor, that cow, that was an antidepressant, that’s what you mean, right?”

If you’d been raised to think about depression the way I was, and most of the people here were, that sounds like a bad joke, right? “I went to my doctor for an antidepressant, she gave me a cow.” But what those Cambodian doctors knew intuitively, based on this individual, unscientific anecdote, is what the leading medical body in the world, the World Health Organization, has been trying to tell us for years, based on the best scientific evidence.

If you’re depressed, if you’re anxious, you’re not weak, you’re not crazy, you’re not, in the main, a machine with broken parts. You’re a human being with unmet needs. And it’s just as important to think here about what those Cambodian doctors and the World Health Organization are not saying. They did not say to this farmer, “Hey, buddy, you need to pull yourself together. It’s your job to figure out and fix this problem on your own.” On the contrary, what they said is, “We’re here as a group to pull together with you, so together, we can figure out and fix this problem.” This is what every depressed person needs, and it’s what every depressed person deserves.

He then goes on to discuss two key causes of depression and the solutions that emerge from them. They were loneliness and consumerism.

The solutions that emerge are investing time to find a group that exists for a purpose that is bigger than ourselves and figure out how we can find ways to focus more on things that enable us to move toward love, meaning, and connection.

Most importantly, he explains that depression and anxiety are signals. Their presence tells us something.

And, in his words – “We need to start listening to these signals, because they’re telling us something we really need to hear. It’s only when we truly listen to these signals, and we honor these signals and respect these signals, that we’re going to begin to see the liberating, nourishing, deeper solutions. The cows that are waiting all around us.”