Review: Lost Connections: Why You’re Depressed and How to Find Hope by Johann Hari

Johann Hari is a British-Swiss writer and journalist who has written a very important book here, or at least extremely thought provoking. Hari himself has been diagnosed with depression and anxiety since his teenage years.

First let me say that you may not agree with the conclusions Hari comes to in this book, particularly if you are of a conservative leaning. However, you can disagree with the conclusions, but you can’t disagree with the research he quotes. Research doesn’t have a political slant, it just is what it is. So I would actually love to have a conservative type person read the actual research and then come up with some other, different conclusions so that we might have a variety of ideas.

Ok, on to the book itself. Hari starts the book by talking about how we think about depression itself. I think we have all heard (and maybe said?) the story about how if you are depressed, something has gone wrong with the neurotransmitters in your brain and you just need more seratonin. The problem is, this isn’t really proven. Many honorable experts Hari interviewed said this just isn’t true for the most part. That’s not to say that SSRI’s don’t help some people, but the numbers are frustratingly low. Remember that pharmaceutical companies have spent $100 billion dollars making sure we all believe this.

In addition, even in the DSM, we’ve seen in the past exceptions for the depression diagnosis for things like bereavement. And if you’re a therapist, I think we all agree that there’s no timeline for grief, and that it’s ridiculous that it’s not depression up to a point, and then it suddenly is! And Hari’s point is, why is grief an exception, but – say – your spouse of 20 years cheating on you and leaving isn’t? Isn’t that a form of grief too? Why do we then label it depression? So, some very interesting thoughts to start.

Hari’s main point is that for the most part, when people are depressed, it kind of makes sense based on what is happening in their lives. In other words, it’s a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances. Hari talks about the 9 causes of depression that he has come across in the hundreds of interviews he has done (he acknowledges that there may be more; these are just what he has come across). Two of those are about genetics and biology, but seven of them are forms of disconnection. Disconnection from: meaningful work, other people, meaningful values, childhood trauma, status and respect, the natural world, and a hopeful and secure future. Increasingly, our world is actually designed to force these connections, and that is why Hari’s solutions are about changing society and the world to provide more of these connections for people.

Therefore, his solutions are forms of reconnection. Reconnection to: other people, social prescribing, meaningful work, meaningful values, sympathetic joy, addiction to the self, overcoming childhood trauma and restoring the future. Again, his solutions are just his solutions. I think we can all agree that the disconnections are there; we might disagree on his solutions, which is fine.

I still think this is an eye-opening book for both therapists AND clients, because there is so much depression out there and the information is not always accurate. I think that it is quite affirming to tell clients that their reactions are somewhat normal – that anyone would be depressed in their situation. I also still think antidepressants can sometimes be helpful, but we can all probably agree that they are problematic. I really, really liked this book and think anyone could benefit from reading it. I look forward to more from Johann Hari!

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Review: Cultish: The Language of Fanaticism by Amanda Montell

I work a fair amount with cult survivors, or those exiting cults and one of my clients recommended this book to me, after hearing Montell interviewed on a podcast. You may be thinking this isn’t really a self-help book, or a book a therapist might need. But nowadays, fanatacism is a real problem, and therapists might need some help to identify it.

Montell starts out talking about the dangerous cults that we are all familiar with, like Jonestown and Heaven’s Gate. She then shifts to talking about today’s mainstream religions that are considered cults, like Scientology. But then she shifts into things that some of us may not realize are “cultish”, like multilevel marketing companies, fitness groups, or Internet “influencers”. She does note that not all “cultish” groups are harmful or dangerous; but it is still a good idea to be aware of the linguistics that “cultish” groups use to manipulate followers, so that you can assess if a particular group is a good idea for you.

Cultish language begins by making people feel that they are special and understood. Then it works to create reliance on the group or leader so that people can’t imagine life outside the group anymore. Finally it can convince you to act in new ways, that previously you may have never acted. Several linguistic tools are used to do this, but it generally starts with us-versus-them talk.

Some other tools are loaded language and thought terminating cliches. Loaded language is when commonly used words or phrases are used in ways that give them a new or special meaning – an innocent example might be how CrossFit uses the word “box” to describe the workout space instead of gym. Thought terminating cliches are phrases that discourage critical thinking, that stop conversations in their tracks. Another innocent example might be how “no pain, no gain” is used in CrossFit to discourage people from critiquing the workouts as too harsh.

I’m going to quote directly from the book here, because Montell has some really great questions you can ask if you think a group might be “cultish”:

  • Is this group genuinely welcoming to all different people?
  • Do you feel excessive pressure to dress and talk like everyone else?
  • Are you allowed to participate casually, to dabble in this?
  • Do you find yourself putting all your time and faith in this group alone, basing all your decisions on theirs?
  • What is the exit cost? Is it a price you’d be willing to pay?

I feel like this book is a valuable resource for clinicians because in today’s America, fanatical groups are thriving – not just politically but on social media. In order to educate our clients about groups where they feel a sense of belonging, it would be good if we know what kind of linguistics to watch for, so we can ask good questions.

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