We in the UK are among the most depressed people in the Western world, according to new data released last month from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
It ranks the UK in joint seventh place for adults reporting they have depression out of 25 countries across Europe and Scandinavia. It also shows our rates of depression to be more than double those of the Slovak Republic, Poland, Greece and Italy.
Yet, we have some of the highest rates of prescriptions for anti depressant medication in the world. In the last 10 years, the number of prescriptions issued has doubled. Still, our rates of depression are rising even faster.
Something’s not making make sense because the anti-depressants are expected to reduce depression yet more of us are taking more pills and our depression rates are rapidly increasing. So, what’s going on?
Part of the problem is that depression has been sold to us as – simply – a random imbalance of our brain chemicals. Big Pharma has propelled this idea by developing Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI's) which are a widely used type of antidepressant medication and include Prozac. This has promoted the idea that all you need to ‘cure’ depression is to take a ‘happy pill’.
However if depression was simply an imbalance of brain chemicals, then with the higher rates of SSRI’s being prescribed, the UK depression rates should be going down, not up. And we should be getting happier, not more depressed.
I’ve no doubt that brain chemicals do play a part in depression because there are studies[i], which suggest that it’s the depressive state that changes brain chemistry, NOT the other way around where the brain chemistry causes depression.
For those people who suffer a dark depressive episode with no rhyme nor reason to it, SSRI’s maybe a good stop gap especially when everything else has been tried and nothing is helping lift the dark mood.
However, when it’s clear that the sufferer has had some life trauma or an event that had adversely affected them, perhaps there’s a different story here.
For example, I worked with a man who had been suffering from chronic depression for some time. He told me about the current difficulty he was having with a recently ended one in which his ex-girlfriend was demanding a financial settlement and had also taken his children abroad. The loss of his children together with the barrage of abuse from their mother had sent him spiralling into a state of trauma and depression.
Another person I worked with was a woman raised by an alcoholic mother and, by way of escape, at 16 years old had run away into a religious cult where she became a preacher. But, aged 40, she recognised she wanted her freedom and extricated her way out. It was only after she left that she allowed herself to look back and determine how she’d gone from one abusive environment into another that she was diagnosed with severe posttraumatic stress.
In both cases it seems to me that the depression they suffered wasn’t as a result of brain chemicals. It was, in fact, a normal response that any of us may have had if we’d experienced those same life events.
Day in, day out, when I talk to people who’ve lost their homes, are struggling to make ends meet, stuck
in a relationship, are critically lonely or have lost someone close to them, I have to ask myself, is their depression a brain chemical imbalance or are they simply struggling with life?
It seems to be that the reason the depression rates are increasing rapidly isn’t because of the biology of the brain for no other reason than fundamental human biology doesn’t evolve at the relative quick timescale of these depression figures.
From talking to thousands of people who suffer from depression, my conclusions for why the rates are so high are a combination of social isolation, a pressure to be perfect, past traumas and lifestyle factors. I explain a bit further here:
In spite of being more ‘social media connected’ some studies show that people are happier with others than when alone. So in one study[ii] by Daniel Kahneman (a notable American psychologist) he found that people generally feel more positive when with others than when alone for 14 out of 15 daily activities, like exercising, resting, commuting, and working around the house. It seems that where as social support buffers against depression, a lack of it increases our vulnerability.
On the outside it looks like the internet keeps us company but the reality is that more internet use the less we stay in real touch with the family and this leads to smaller social circles, which then increases depressive symptoms and greater feelings of loneliness.
Pressure To Be Perfect
The pressure to be perfect has been derived from what’s known as the Instagram factor. A new report has suggested that Instagram has been ranked as having the most detrimental effect on people’s well being (and particularly young people)
The Royal Society for Public Health and the charity Young Health Movement conducted a survey in 2017 of 1,500 young people (aged between 14 and 24) in Britain about using social media. They were asked to score how each social media site impacted a list of 14 health and wellbeing issues
including anxiety, depression, loneliness, sleep, bullying and ‘FoMo’ (Fear of Missing Out).
Based on the ratings, Instagram was listed as having the most negative effect and was found to harm perceptions of body image, increase the fear of missing out and have a detrimental effect on sleep.
For me, depression was attributed to past traumas. I’d been raised in a dysfunctional family and whether or not they knew what they were doing to create those early traumas, the effect lasted well into my twenties when I realised I needed some help to work through it and resolve the past pain.
In spite of having the best medical care in history, our brain chemistry isn't functioning as well due to our modern diets, chronic inflammation, autoimmune disorders, and insufficient sunshine, physical activity, and sleep.
However, I’m not saying that we should ditch the anti-depressants because for some people, where the depression comes inexplicably out of the blue, descends like a black cloud and won’t shift no matter what lifestyle changes are made, taking the pills may be wholly appropriate.
But, they are not always the answer and we have to take into account what has happened in people’s lives, loneliness and lifestyle.