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Last Friday, RTE’s Late Late Show invited Patrick Holford, a “pioneer in the area of health and nutrition” to talk to people about how to beat depression. It’s an interesting choice of expert because Patrick Holford has no academically recognised qualifications in the treatment of depression and has spent much of his career building up his health food and vitamin pill business. He has been the source of much controversy. Holford has claimed that AZT (a drugs cocktail used to combat AIDS) is less effective than Vitamin C and has been pulled up by the advertising standards authority in the UK for making unsubstantiated claims. In a nutshell, he isn’t the type of “expert” you want to be to rolling out when discussing something as serious and damaging as depression.

Using RTE Player I went through some of the claims Holford makes during the interview, and as it happens, many of the claims check out. There are studies around that have shown a beneficial link between fish oils and depression. There are studies that show a positive correlation between Vitamin D and seasonal depression. There are studies that link mood to obesity. Holford conveniently ties these studies into a single thesis: that what we eat is the most significant link in causing and treating depression, when many decades of clinical research would present a very different view. In other words, it’s just a confident sales pitch: read my book, eat the foods I suggest and you will feel better. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t; such is the power of the placebo effect; but in reality it falls far short of a comprehensive solution to the problems of depression.

Depression really is a grind. It differs from bad mood because it is not easy to get rid of and the depths of despair reached people inflicted by it. It can last for days, weeks, months, even years. No magic bullet has yet been found and it appears to differ greatly from person to person. There are lots of probable reasons and many treatments. It is one of the most widespread illnesses in society and is tipped to be the second leading cause of disability by 2020. Many of the most effective weapons against it (antidepressants, psychotherapy, electroconvulsive therapy) remain unpopular and stigmatised, often by the very same groups that promote healthy eating and mineral supplements. In the battle against depression what is most important are treatments that work, not ones we would like to work.

We need a serious discussion about depression in this country, not just a sales pitch by a vitamin pill vendor.

Most people will agree that we are now going through a period of time that will be remembered for a long time, like World War II, 9/11 or The Great Depression. It’s probably the first time in world history when the entire globe has been caught in the grip of a sudden and calamitous economic crisis. No country has been untouched. Governments,  businesses and households worldwide are desperately fighting to shore up their reserves while avoiding financial meltdown. The problem is far from over and recovery will take many years.

Last month, Dominique Strauss Kahn of the IMF gave the current economic crisis the rather unimaginative appellation “The Great Recession“. Given that we still don’t know how long this crisis will last, or how deep it will be, events might yet consign this name to history.

Doing a quick trawl of the web, I have discovered a few potential alternatives.

  • The Great Deception (*)
  • The Bush Kaboom (*)
  • Depression 2.0 (*)
  • The Flump (*)
  • The Clump (*)
  • The Not So Great Depression (*)
  • The Repression (*)
  • The Econopocalypse (*)
  • World Crash I 
  • The De-Hummerization (*)
  • The Great Uh-Oh (*)
  • The Boomer Bust (*) 
  • Econorrhea (*)

And what would you call the young people who will be shaped by these events? Generation OMG.

Dignitaries from Ireland, the UK and North America will be attending a dinner in Dublin tonight commemorating the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Given that the agreement helped to resolve the 30 year conflict in Northern Ireland, it’s a worthwhile commemoration indeed. It’s not Irish politics I want to write about though. I’m much more interested in the charitable cause being supported by the dinner in Dublin Castle. The beneficiary of the get-together is 3TS – Turning The Tide of Suicide. Their spokesman, Noel Smyth, spoke eloquently on the radio this afternoon about the stigma and the prevalence of suicide in this country and the initiatives in place to reduce it. It’s a noble aspiration and I wish them the very best in their efforts.

In my view, the task ahead of them is daunting in the extreme. It makes the resolution of the Troubles seem easy in comparison. Irish society is now structured in a way that makes suicide much more likely than ever. We have moved over the past three decades from a communal culture to a highly individualistic one, where only the successful seem worthy of love, respect and acclaim. We live now in a society where a person’s economic contribution is the prime determinant of how society views them. It’s now acceptable to look at those who have had reverses in their lives or who have failed to live up to the standards set for them by others as losers. While this approach may seem good for our economy, it has failed to take into account the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of individuals who feel left behind by it all. Messages of self-worthlessness are reinforced each and every day through their workplaces, the media and perhaps even their friends and families. It’s no wonder therefore that people seek extreme solutions to their problems.

Many modern workplaces are absolutely draconian in the way they manage their staff. The side effect of initatives such as talent management, bell curve assessments and high performance management is a reinforcement of the message that economic value equals self worth. Subliminal messages such as “Failure Is Not an Option” have become part of the modern zeitgeist. This is all very well, but as one gets older, one begins to realise all too painfully that failure is part and parcel of the journey through life.

From a conversation with a medical professional recently, I learned that the number of people taking anti-depressants in this country is staggeringly large. A recent report has shown that suicide has tripled since the 1960’s. It seems to me therefore that we are surfing a massive suicide tidal wave that has yet to fully break.

So what can be done? Well, I’m no specialist, and I appreciate that bad feelings will differ depending on the person, their age and the situations affecting them, but it seems to me that we can go a long way if we work on breaking (or at least lengthening) the link between between perceived economic value and self worth. In addition, anything we can do to destigmatise issues such as depression and suicide will help enormously.

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