BY ASSISI JACKSON
When we talk about depression we are often told that it is simply caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. 11.5 million adults in the U.K. were prescribed medication for their mental health in 2017 (PHE). Antidepressants made up over half of those. Nearly 20% of all adult’s experience mental health problems at some point. Interestingly, Johann hari, the author of ‘lost connections’ was on medication for depression for 15 years. He kept increasing the dose, with not much luck, and many people have similar stories. In the book he looks into the way society perceives depression, and what human connection can do to help. Much of the research into mental health looks into the chemicals and neurotransmitters in the brain. This is obviously very interesting. But we are also social beings. We need company, and to play necessary roles within our communities. A group of studies on rats highlights this beautifully. For years it was accepted that if rats were given cocaine in their water, they would become addicted and put the drug before their family or their wellbeing. A new study looked instead at the cage the rats were put in. He replaced it with a rat park, full of toys, games, challenges and other rats. The rats rarely chose the cocaine. They didn’t need to. They were happy.
Most people believe that mental illness is a personal illness which needs to be sorted out by yourself. In the west we have a culture where keeping calm, keeping your head down and working stuff out yourself is the easiest and best way to work through problems. Hari totally throws this idea, speaking to hundreds of people all over the world, some of whom are isolated. Like a man who is crying in a hotel room with a broken jaw and no one to help him, and contrasts this conversation he has with a man with an Amish community (where they rely on each other for food, entertainment etc. and reject all modern commodities, like cars, music, television and supermarkets). The general jist of the book is to ask the question, are we happier living in close communities, where we know our neighbours? And also, has modern life brought us further and further away from close connections with those around us?
He basically says that depression is a feeling of isolation, a disconnect from the world and lack of a reason for existence. I don’t know how many people reading this will relate, but i think it’s an interesting way to perceive the symptoms of depression. That our bodies and minds are trying to tell us something. That we need to reconnect and find a reason to live, and belong where we live.
I wonder whether many people know their neighbours on a personal level. Or know how to help somebody in distress. Or spend time regularly working on community projects, or garden in a group. It’s a really tricky one, because community work does seem to be saved for the elderly and those in developing countries. When travelling I have often looked at houses all bunched together, made out of odd bits of metal and wood, women together breaking up coconuts and children playing in the field nearby. Men often smoking on plastic chairs, and generations all hanging out together. Feminists, I know this is not the perfect picture. But it definitely is an interesting one. One that I feel a little bit sad not to be a part of. My family all live in different parts of England and the world. I wonder whether we are all trying to escape one another.
It’s quite a strange concept community, and not one that is talked about often. For me it means working together towards a common cause. I don’t think that going back to some age old idea like the Amish or even the scenes I saw in India, but I do think there may be hope in small communities working together in a way that benefits everyone. It’s about creating an identity, and a homely feeling that extends beyond our homes and gardens. I think it is important to ask yourself if you are feeling depressed, what’s missing? What’s the most important thing? ‘Social prescriptions’, as opposed to anti-depressants are something Hari looks into. They are hard to imagine initially, but he tells some compelling stories of doctors in east London prescribing community projects, like turning unused land into gardens, which transform the lives of the groups of people who initially came to the clinic with depression. I love the idea of working together with people, who aren’t the same age, or from the same social background or who even have the same interests. It’s a sort of social broadening, where there is space to talk about feeing, but only if the time is right, and you feel comfortable. It takes away the pressure (and financial burden) often associated with talking therapies.
This idea of ‘social prescribing’ could mean working with your hands, get messy or creative at the same time within a group where there is an understanding and support. And if we could create these we as individuals have an opportunity to link up disconnected communities and encourage action and build relationships. One story describes an old Turkish lady who posts a letter outside her door saying she is going to kill herself because she can’t afford rent. She lives in a housing block which is dangerous and everyone is constantly on edge.
The community responds with incredible kindness which transforms not only her life but the lives of many others. Through togetherness there is so much strength. It doesn’t solve everything but it shows that many of us have more to give.
I once read an article titled ‘borrow some sugar’. It’s a euphemism for how little we depend on others in this day and age. Instead of group projects, it simply said, go and ask your neighbour for some help. Who knows what might happen. You might make a friend for life! As a society we are so afraid of asking for help, but giving and taking is what life is about!
These are the things that feel pressing once lock down is over. To open our eyes to the people in the communities around us. The people won’t be perfect, or have the same political views – that is not the point. The point is to discover a new pattern of helping and healing people. I’m sure we all have more to give! We so strongly believe we should be relying on ourselves but the research shows again and again that social interactions with community members builds trust, counteracts loneliness and helps create a connection that is necessary for humans to thrive. Even though it makes us feel vulnerable, creating a culture of sharing just makes sense.
When we help others, it brings a sense of purpose into our lives. And I would never claim borrowing some sugar or doing a bit of gardening with a neighbour will solve the worldwide problem of depression. But I want to plant a seed by saying, what if we all decided today to work on our communities. To do something to reach out, from borrowing the sugar to organising the restoration of a neglected patch of land, community tree planting projects, local support groups or even life drawing classes. Things that can involve people of any age, class, background or political view. Of course these things are impossible right now, as the best way for keeping ourselves and others safe is to stay inside. But it’s a bit of inspiration for planning what to do when lockdown is over! By working together, we could learn that we are not alone in our feelings. That working together for something can keep you feeing alive more than you imagined it would.