Finding your cow

Last night I hopped along the Hammersmith and City line to Housman’s Bookshop in King’s Cross to hear author and journalist Johann Hari talk about his latest book ‘Lost Connections‘. In it he explores a slightly different – and I would say complementary, although not all reviewers have agreed – explanation as to why depression has been increasing and mental health declining, focused on the changed way in which we live today, where we have ‘lost connections’ with things that matter to our well-being, as opposed to it all simply being isolated to causes in the brain.

I touched on one of these nine causes Hari describes, a lack of connection with others, in a blog last week on self-care. Personally, I found it one of the most profound and thought-provoking of my recent reads and I would recommend it as a must-read for anyone with an interest in this area. To say that we are facing real problems as individuals, communities and society because of some mis-match between the way we live, versus what we really need, is an understatement. And whilst there are some signs that we are awakening to this – from the recent rise of mindfulness to the even more recent appointment of a Minister for Loneliness – there’s a still a huge amount Hari writes about which either remains unsaid, or at least poorly understood, including by those who are suffering themselves.

Last night Hari re-counted a number of studies or stories from his book, but there was one which I’d forgotten since reading that really struck a chord. It’s about a South African psychiatrist Dr Derek Summerfield, the Cambodian countryside and a cow.

Hari writes how:

“Anti-depressants had begun to be marketed in Cambodia for the very first time but there was a problem… there was no obvious translation for the the word… it was an idea that seemed to puzzle them. Derek tried to explain it. Depression is, he said, a profound sense of sadness that you can’t shake off… The Cambodians… said, yes, we do have some people like that…a farmer whose left leg was blown off…got fitted with a new limb but didn’t recover…. (but) they didn’t need these new-fangled antidepressants, because they already had antidepressants for people like that…. the doctors and his neighbours sat with him, and talked through his life and his troubles… even with his new artificial limb, his old job…was just too difficult… was making him just want to stop living and give up… they believed he would be perfectly capable of being a dairy farmer, and that would involve less painful walking on his false limb and fewer disturbing memories. So they bought him a cow… his life changed. His depression – which had been profound – went away. You see, doctor, the cow was an analgesic, and antidepressant.”

There has been more scrutiny and critical comment about the prevalence and effectiveness of antidepressants in recent weeks, which is absolutely right. Personally I believe they have an important role to play, but no medication, especially not one that literally plays with people’s lives, should be above careful public examination. But I also don’t believe that alone, it is enough.

I absolutely love this philosophy of a cow as a true antidepressant. Whether you suffer from diagnosed depression or not, there is a very good argument to say we could all be better if we thought about finding our equivalent. I think recently I might have found mine. Perhaps it really is finally time the cows came home….!

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