“I have lost my job and I am struggling to pay my rent,” says 25-year-old Myra*. “I want to study further but don’t have the money for college tuition. With no support and not a soul in this world who truly cares about me, I keep asking myself why was I ever born. Will it even matter to anyone if I live or die?”
Each time I leave the local distress centre in Toronto, after my shift on their distress line, I drive home in silence, going over conversations such as the one above.
I started working at the distress centre during the pandemic and am truly amazed, for lack of a better word, at experiencing first-hand just how widespread mental health issues are. It makes me shudder how people from all ages are battling loneliness, anxiety, depression and several mental health issues, including suicide ideation.
It is still a widely held belief that our biology is largely responsible for these disorders: our genes making us more susceptible or a chemical imbalance in the brain. Antidepressants are still touted as the first line of treatment, strongly suggesting that medication is the only viable solution.
Misplaced values and a lack of human connections and meaningful work could be the real cause of increasing mental health issues in society
But Johann Hari, in his book Lost Connections, challenges these conventional views and misconceptions. Speaking from his own decade-long experience with antidepressants and journey to recovery, he believes that, although medication provides short-term relief, it does induce a dependency and, most importantly, merely treats the symptoms and not the underlying deep-rooted issues.
Most of the factors contributing to depression and anxiety are found, not in our biology, but in our environment and the way we live. Hence, depression and anxiety are a response to life experiences, and not merely the result of an imbalance.
Our growing disconnection from people is one of the biggest contributors to the prevalent high incidence of depression and anxiety. We are creatures of connection, coming from tribes, raised and nurtured by our loved ones, socialised into being who we are. And yet, in today’s fast-paced world, we have sadly disbanded our tribes and, rather than thinking of ourselves as a collective group, we operate as isolated individuals.
Constantly being told to become self-sufficient, independent, and take care of ourselves, our focus has shifted to meeting our own individual needs. We may be surrounded by people at social events, weddings, family gatherings, but we still suffer from acute loneliness if we don’t share anything meaningful with them.
“Although we connect with people at a superficial level on social media, we hardly have any deep connections, where we share our problems, joys and sorrows,” says Sarah*, an IT professional in her mid-thirties.
“I have over 1,000 followers on Instagram and roughly as many on Facebook. But when I was struggling mentally and emotionally in a crisis, it hit me that I had no one to turn to. I felt utterly alone and realised how meaningless these friendships were.”
Services such as distress centres fulfill one of the biggest and often ignored psychological needs of man: to feel seen and heard. People call in for multiple reasons, such as loneliness, relationship issues, anger management, thoughts of suicide, school or work issues and addictions, and are provided support non-judgementally.
“I know you can’t solve my problems, but it feels so reassuring to talk to someone who cares,” says 49-year-old Doreen*, a single parent raising two little girls, appreciating the importance of having someone to talk to, at the distress centre. “I don’t know where I’d be or what would happen if you weren’t here to listen to me.”
In the absence of meaningful connections, we have the tendency to fall down an endless spiral of anxiety and depression.
Numerous studies conducted across Europe, Asia, North America and Australia, confirm that the more materialistic and reward-driven your motivation, the more anxious and depressed you are likely to be. Material goods such as a new iPhone or a salary raise may provide happiness initially. However, after a while, they simply become the new normal, and will not give a sustained level of happiness or lead to more fulfilling lives.
Social comparisons and the pressure to measure up, for example, or which car to drive or the scale of your child’s wedding, damage your self-esteem and further intensify feelings of depression and anxiety. Unfortunately, as a society, we are increasingly driven to what Hari likens to fast food for the soul.
Just as junk food does not meet our nutritional needs, these ‘junk’ values are not meeting our psychological needs. “I have all the luxuries and amenities I could possibly wish for,” says Adam*, a 41-year-old successful business executive. “A gorgeous house, the latest gadgets and cars and, yet, I find myself struggling to get out of bed every morning.”
According to a 2010 Harvard Business School survey on happiness, covering 136 countries, altruistic people are by far the happiest. In addition to reducing levels of stress and anxiety, doing things for others increases the levels of the ‘feel-good’ hormones, serotonin and oxytocin, in our bodies.
Then there is the issue of meaningfulness in our work. Between 2011 and 2012, Gallup conducted the most detailed study of millions of people across 142 countries in relation to how they feel about their work. A mere 13 percent of people were enthusiastic, committed or felt they made a positive contribution to their organisation. Meanwhile, a staggering 63 percent admitted to be merely going through the motions, without any passion for their work. Another 24 percent claimed to be ‘actively disengaged’.
“I don’t look forward to work, it’s just something I have to do,” says Maria*, a middle-aged lawyer. “I am miserable but, having invested so much time, money and effort to become a lawyer, I feel trapped and I just trudge on.”
When work is enriching, you feel more energised, so it is of utmost importance to find work that fuels your passion. Otherwise you find yourself on a sure-shot path to depression. Of course, not everyone finds fulfilling work all the time and it is important to understand the importance of perseverance to make a living as well. But that is where human connections can help.
We need to realise that we cannot survive alone; teamwork and co-dependence are crucial not only to survive, but to thrive. Acknowledging our mental struggles is not a sign of weakness, it’s what makes us human.
In the words of David Mitchell, the British actor and writer, “You are allowed to feel messed up and inside out. It doesn’t mean you’re defective — it just means you’re human.”
The writer is based in Toronto, Canada, where she studied Cognitive Science
- Name changed to protect privacy
Published in Dawn, EOS, January 2nd, 2022