Johann Hari: On Our Depression, Anxiety and Addiction Crisis
WORDS BY ALEXI BARNSTONE
Johann Hari is a New York Times best-selling author and Ted speaker best known for his book Chasing the Scream. At Sydney Writers Fest this year Johann stood on the podium representing his newest book Lost Connections took us through depression, anxiety and addiction. Here are some important takeaways from his talk.
The first point that Johann touched on was the importance in understanding how we frame the depression discussion. It is too easy for people to fall into the trap that there are chemical imbalances in the brain, that too often people allow someone to fall into the trap of thinking nothing outside of medication can be done. Mr. Hari’s perspective is that there are rational driving factors that play a part in people’s anxiety and depression. He argues that it is imperative for the health of our nation to develop better social help networks that look at the roots of problems, rather than prescribing. Australia is the second most prescribed country for anxiety and depression in the world just behind America and this is due to framing.
Johann goes on to posit that there are a few reasons as to why we have such high rates of anxiety and depression have to do with loneliness. The average number of people that individuals feel they can go to in a time of crises has been steadily declining for decades, and Mr. Hari believes this is a contributing factor. Without someone to confide in people in our society feel isolated and are left to brood in their own struggles.
Secondly, he talks about the level of autonomy that people feel in life. Studies have found that the degree to which one has control over their own lives has a huge impact of your degree of depression. People who feel as though they have a say in the operations at work and can make their own decisions feel far happier in general. Johann used this point to advocate for a socialist structural change, arguing that corporations were bad for the human psyche and democratic institutions were good.
Thirdly, Johann talked about the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic rewards as motivational factors. He argued that more people were depressed and anxious nowadays because they exist in a materialistic society where everything is socially comparable. Instead of doing things because they love those actions, people do it because there is some extrinsic motivational factor.
Johann Hari then moved on to talk about addiction in a similar light. He argued that whilst there were chemical components to addiction, at its core it was driven by a need to escape a present reality. He reminded us that heroin is used to reduce pain in patients with broken limbs in England, but that your grandma who tripped and fell won’t be scrounging the streets to dope after leaving the hospital. Addiction is also circumstantial, it is a coping mechanism.
Johann Hari gave a brilliant overview of the necessity for first world countries to reframe the discussion on depression, anxiety and addiction. He prods us to move toward a more accepting, less diagnosing society where we assist people in tackling their problems as a community, rather than prescribing them Xanax.