A review of The Depression Cure and Therapeutic Lifestyle Change: Is beating depression REALLY that simple?

I recently finished The Depression Cure by Dr. Stephen Ilardi. It was…interesting. A unique blend of common sense, historical perspective and medical research, boiled into a six-step process which claims to be able to beat depression. My summary? A lot of merit in here, albiet maybe too simplistic. And I plan on incorporating some of what I learned into my life.

For starters, here’s the crux of the book: Depression is a disease of civilization. Ilardi argues that we’ve seen a rise in depression because of the way we have become civilized and socialized. We don’t get enough exercise, enough sunlight, enough of the right kind of food, enough sleep or enough social connections. We have broken away from the way our bodies and minds have evolved, and as a result, we’ve broken down.

Even more interesting: The book came out in 2009, well before iPhones became hugely ingrained in our lives. During that time, depression and rates of mental illness have only increased.

So what’s the cure? According to Ilardi, we need to do six things:

  • Get at least eight hours sleep.
  • Get more sunshine/natural light – including with a lightbox.
  • Improve our social connections.
  • Stop ruminating.
  • Improve our consumption of certain nutrients, like Omega-3s.
  • Get more exercise.

Ilardi claims that these steps combined – which he describes as Therapeutic Lifestyle Change – can dramatically reduce, if not outright eliminate, depression.

What does the research say? Well, that’s the thing, actually: This stuff isn’t psuedo-science. Each and everyone of the six steps above is backed up by real research which shows that these items can help reduce depression. Heck, I’ve written on many of them long before I read this book, including sleep and rumination.

How about the overall TLC package? TLC’s website provides a link which shows the effectiveness of each of these items individually, although I couldn’t find anything which evaluates the package as a whole. Still, it makes sense that they would work when used together, with the effectiveness of each individual element hopefully reinforcing each other.

My greatest issue? It just seems…too easy. Ilardi argues that, in many cases, sunshine can beat depression. I just cannot imagine it’s that simple. I also know how difficult it can be to do some of these items. When you are severely depressed, you may lose the ability to care for yourself or work towards self improvement. To his credit, Ilardi recognizes this: He breaks down each of these steps into small, easy to swallow, achievable items. He also acknowledges that there can be many causes of depression for which TLC is inadequate, including PTSD, brain damage and other medical changes.

If this is all real, I’d argue it could be a paradigm shift in depression. We wouldn’t need therapy or drugs: We’d need sleep or sunshine. It seems too easy and I’m skeptical. I’m very pro-medication (when necessary), and this book just seems to simplistic at times.

Still.

I’m going to give some of this stuff a shot, starting with the Omega 3 supplements, and I highly recognize you do the same (if you’re doing anything physical, like a lightbox or supplements, you should talk with your doctor first – I did!). At the worst, this stuff is harmless or good for you anyway. At the best…who knows.

If you’ve had any experience with TLC, please let us know in the comments below!

Highly recommended mental health reading

As the year comes to an end, I find myself staring at my Goodreads page. I had a pretty good year for reading! Looks like I read 28 books when I wanted to read 20 – I’ll take it!

But, that’s not what I am writing about today, at least, not specifically. I wanted to pass along the books I have read in the mental health genre, both fictional and non-fictional. Some authors just do a remarkably good job of dealing with this realm, and it’s my honor to make a few recommendations. So, without further ado:

Fiction

  • The Summer The World Ended, Matthew Cox: A fantastic book about a young girl who experiences a traumatic loss and has her entire life uprooted. The book takes a close look at trauma, PTSD and more (which I can’t get into without spoiling).
  • Consider and Contribute, Kristy Acevedo: This was the only other book I could find which simultaneously dealt with a young adult, science fiction and mental illness! In the book, portals open, with aliens advising that Earth residents jump in them because the world is about to end. The book follows a young girl with major anxiety challenges and her struggles to deal with the new world. I also interviewed the author, Kristy Acevedo, here.
  • The Memory of Light, Francisco Stork: One of my favorites. It follows a young girl who survives a suicide attempt and her way back into the light. Stork was kind enough to answer an interview from me as well.

Non-Fiction

  • Lost Connections, Johann Hari: A controversial book which I had some issues with. Nonetheless, it offers some interesting insight into the ideas of social, societal and cultural causes behind depression and mental illness in general.
  • How To Break Up With Your Phone, Catherine Price: Okay, this isn’t exactly a mental health book, per se, but I think it is. It helps people learn how to stay away from their phones, and all the benefits that can bring. I also interviewed Price on the blog a few months ago.

And, of course, if you want one more book, allow me to suggest Redemption, my young adult, science fiction tale of depression, anxiety and saving the world.

Any other books to add? Please let us know in the comments. Have a WONDERFUL new year!

Six questions: Interview with John Corey Whaley, author of Highly Illogical Behavior

So this is an interesting one, mainly because the book deals with a topic I’ve barely tackled: Agorophobia. Today’s book is Highly Illogical Behavior by John Corey Whaley. From the blurb:

Sixteen-year-old Solomon has agoraphobia. He hasn’t left his house in 3 years. Ambitious Lisa is desperate to get into a top-tier psychology program. And so when Lisa learns about Solomon, she decides to befriend him, cure him, and then write about it for her college application. To earn Solomon’s trust, she introduces him to her boyfriend Clark, and starts to reveal her own secrets. But what started as an experiment leads to a real friendship, with all three growing close. But when the truth comes out, what erupts could destroy them all. Funny and heartwarming, Highly Illogical Behavior is a fascinating exploration of what makes us tick, and how the connections between us may be the most important things of all.

1) Did this book come from your own personal experiences with mental illness, or that of someone close to you?

I’d say it was a combination of both, but Solomon’s anxiety is definitely an exploration of my own.

 2) Were you trying to write a story about mental illness, or were you using the agoraphobia to make a broader point? I suspect the answer lies in the middle, and if that’s the case, what made you use agoraphobia specifically? 

While I did set out to tackle mental illness as a subject, I also wanted to make sure the story was really a character study more than anything else—and a way to help readers empathize with someone like Solomon.

3) Your book is clearly remarkably effective at taking shots at the stigma which surrounds mental illness. How did you write a character that was so multi-layered, and in the words of at least one reviewer, so much more than his mental illness?

That’s a tough question to answer! I guess I’d say that I focused really hard on making sure Solomon-and the other characters-all left more of a lasting impression on the reader through their personalities and not their problems.

4) The cover design – with the different colored lines and someone walking in what looks to be a box – is one of the more noticeable covers I have seen. What inspired that?

I can’t take any credit for the cover, but I will say I LOVE IT. It’s simply the chaotic lines of color leading Solomon outside to the crazy world, where his friends are waiting.

5) Members of minority communities tend to suffer even greater from mental illness – can you talk at all about how your book attempted to address the subject of mental illness among the LGBT population, and why you chose to go that route?

As a queer American, and one with mental illness, I’ve seen up close the effects of mental illness on my community. It was important to me portray a young gay man with mental illness who wasn’t defined by EITHER thing solely.

6) As noted in the blurb, one of your main characters tries to “fix” another’s mental illness. What’s your advice to those who think this is a viable strategy?

Anyone who wants to help someone with mental illness deserves a chance to be heard, sure, but it’s very important that those without mental illness understand that you can’t “fix”  a person. Mental illness is wired into a person, so much care, research, and care must be taken when helping someone deal with their illness.

Six questions: Interview with Heidi Ayarbe, Author of Compulsion

Hello, everyone! Another day, another author interview. This one is with Heidi Ayarbe, who wrote Compulsion, a multi-layered story of OCD in a young adult. From the blurb:

Today has to be perfect.
Magic.
I look at the clock.
10:14 AM.

Ten fourteen. One plus one is two plus four is six plus ten is sixteen minus one is fifteen minus two is thirteen. OK.

I turn from the clock and walk into the hallway. “Ready.”

Saturday will be the third state soccer champion­ship in a row for Jake Martin. Three. A good number. Prime. With Jake on the field, Carson City High can’t lose because Jake has the magic: a self-created protection generated by his obsession with prime numbers. It’s the magic that has every top soccer university recruiting Jake, the magic that keeps his family safe, and the magic that suppresses his anxiety attacks. But the magic is Jake’s prison, because sustaining it means his compulsions take over nearly every aspect of his life.

Jake’s convinced the magic will be permanent after Saturday, the perfect day, when every prime has converged. Once the game is over, he won’t have to rely on his sister to concoct excuses for his odd rituals. His dad will stop treating him like he is some freak. Maybe he’ll even make a friend other than Luc.

But what if the magic doesn’t stay?

What if the numbers never leave?

Acclaimed author Heidi Ayarbe has created an honest and riveting portrait of a teen struggling with obsessive compulsive disorder in this breathtaking and courageous novel.

1) Is your book based on personal experiences, and how did your life experiences inform your description of OCD?
I do not have OCD, though I do deal with anxiety. A friend of mine has severe anxiety and OCD. I spent a lot of time with her, sharing scenes, asking how she’d react in certain situations. Naturally, every person with anxiety doesn’t react the same. Having her as a sounding board and sensitivity reader made all the difference in this novel. The climactic scene, in which Jake physically can’t go help his sister, mirrors a similar situation in her life in which she couldn’t help her daughter. That is how crippling it is. And so often I’ve seen OCD and anxiety represented as a punchline for someone’s character in a story or TV show when it’s anything but funny. And so so hard to understand.
 
2) Your book deals with the mental and physical aspects of OCD. How difficult was it to describe what these felt like?
I think anybody who has experienced a panic attack can appreciate how out-of-body and uncontrolled you feel during that moment. It’s terrifying. And, yes, I really think it’s hard to describe that moment when everything feels electric and fuzzy at the same time. And the pre-moment, when you know it’s going to happen. It’s like a tidal wave taking over your body, and you just have to brace yourself for it. During those scenes, I just tried to express how I felt during a panic attack. I haven’t had many, but they leave an imprint on you.
 
3) How did you balance the need to make this book broadly appealing to an audience at large and a desire to make it speak specifically to those who have been affected by OCD?
Honestly, I only thought about Jake’s story and being true to him. Certainly, as an author, our job is to connect with readers. That said, I think telling our truth, and finding the truth in our characters, is primordial, or it can come off as contrived. So, honestly, I was only thinking about Jake’s story. It really was important to me. And by being honest and vulnerable, I hope that it appealed to readers.
 
4) In the book, you describe a character driving to the moment when the “magic” will stay and everything will be alright in Jake’s life – were you intentionally trying to use this concept to make the book more relatable to all readers? That’s how I read this aspect, but I could be wrong.
Anxiety disorders (specific phobias, social anxiety disorder, agoraphobia, and OCD among others) don’t make sense in a “rational world.” So I tried to create a reasoning that Jake could hold onto to make sense of the disorder himself. If we think about anxiety disorders, and approaching them from an outside-looking-in, Jake, too, was trying to make sense of his own disorder. He used sports and “magic” to do so. So I used this idea more for Jake. How would he justify what was happening to him? Again, it’s his story.
 
5) Why prime numbers?
When I was researching OCD, so many different forms exist. Though the jury is out on whether anxiety disorders are hereditary or social, or, most likely, a combination of both, no two people deal with anxiety the same way. So they can be unrecognizable to each other. Like Jake’s mom suffers from scrupulosity. He definitely doesn’t see himself mirrored in her, at all. They don’t connect, though they both suffer. Most characters I’ve seen portrayed with OCD focus on germs, cleanliness, having everything perfectly organized etc. I guess it’s easier to address something like that visually. As novelists, though, we get to use the mind!  I was thinking about athletes and an athlete mentality. A friend of mine’s son used to count words. All of his sentences had to have an odd number of words. So I started to consider numbers, prime, and how Jake could relate them to sports. This seemed more natural to me. And I know some readers found it frustrating, even difficult, dealing with the constant adding, subtracting, searching through numbers in Jake’s mind. Imagine living that, though.
 
6) Can you talk a little about the impact this book had on readers? Did you hear from anyone who said that your writing helped them get help or recognize OCD in themselves/others?
This is one of those questions I’d love to say, “I simply don’t have time to address the endless e-mails that flood my inbox.” I get more of a desert drizzle of mails from readers (which means not many). That said, Compulsion was on Taysha’s list and received a lot of good reviews, even starred. Perhaps, by focusing so much on Jake I didn’t connect to readers as I’d hoped? I’m not sure. It’s a weird job. I love Jake. I love his story. And I tried my hardest to be honest. I think, as authors, that’s what we owe our readers (all five of them!) teehee!!
If you enjoy books about young adults and mental health, then I encourage you to check out my upcoming novel, Redemptionwhich will be out on June 5 but is available for pre-order at a discounted price today. Redemption is a young adult/sci-fi thriller about depression, anxiety and saving the world.

The Lost Connections by Johann Hari

I mentioned this book in my entry the other day and I really wanted to discuss it more.  Hari is a journalist who openly discusses his own battles with depression and anxiety as a young man.  He, like many of us, was put on anti-depressants.  Like many of us, he found success with anti-depressants, only to find their effectiveness waning.  He goes on to discuss nine different types of depression and anxiety, ways to reconnect and the various social causes of psychological illness.  This book opened my eyes in a lot of ways.  Much of what was said rang completely true.  At the same time, I found myself incredibly angry at some of the arguments Hari makes.

Let me do the angry part first, because I think that made more of an impact, at least in my mind, because it’s more dangerous.

Hari basically argues that anti-depressants are effective only in the short-term, and only then for a placebo effect.  This argument is partially – but only partially – supported by science.  I will say that it really made me do some research and I was dismayed at what I found. The record of anti-depressants in terms of long-term effectiveness is not a positive one.  The link above is actually for a Google search, not a specific article, and I’d encourage you to do your own research.

What’s my problem, then?  Easy: Hari completely dismisses the biological causes of depression, issues that legitimately may require depression to address.  While much research needs to be done on the specific biological components of depression, it is clear that there is a biological component. To dismiss that – and to thus dismiss biologically based treatments – is problematic and pseudo-scientific.  I have real issues with that, and I think that Hari is being disingenuous at best – and dangerous at worst – with this type of advocacy.

But.

Hari makes other, very persuasive arguments – ones that ring true, in my mind.  The one that hit me the most was these: The social element of mental illness.  Hari goes through a series of arguments about how our society is making us sicker: We have lost our connections to each other as we are busier and get more absorbed in our various electronic devices.  We are bombarded by “junk values,” that encourage materialism over intrinsic values and real connection to people.  We live in a sick world – last week’s news from Parkland is a great example – that make us depressed.

This much really made sense to me, and if this advice was taken by all of us, could be transformative.  Society’s obligation to deal with the mentally ill has to do with much more than just treating biological and psychological causes of mental illness – we have to address the social ones as well.

Anyway, is the book worth the read? In my opinion, yeah.  I think you have to read it with an entire shaker of salt, and keep in mind that some of what Hari says isn’t supported by science.  But much of it is, and hopefully, you can read between the lines, find the things that work for you and go from there.

An overview & critique: Depression in fiction books

For reasons that I will inevitably wind up discussing more in-depth later, this is a topic that I am very interested in.  After all, there is no doubt about it: So much of our world is informed by our media, including fiction books.  Major pop culture phenomenons – books like Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, for instance – wind up having a major impact on a whole slew of societal attitudes, everything from the names of our children to the hobbies we play.

Of course this extends to serious issues, like mental health.  As I sat, thinking about this entry, I came to the realization that I cannot think of too many books I’ve read that explicitly feature stories about characters who feature mental illness – even when the book is potentially about something other than mental illness.  This is important from a stigma perspective: I think it is vital that readers hear stories about people with mental illness living a successful life, despite their challenges.

Now, please don’t misunderstand: Just because I haven’t read them doesn’t mean they aren’t out there.  A very quick Google search reveals no shortage of books that discuss exactly this topic.  And, indeed, many of these books touch of mental illness in a more tangential way.

Two young adult books that I’ve read immediately come to mind.  One is Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, which discusses a young woman moving to college and dealing with a slew of pressures, then finding therapy in her writing.  Another, Anthem of a Reluctant Prophet by Joanne Proulx, features a character who clearly is struggling with depression and anxiety, even though it goes unspoken throughout the novel.

I’m coming at this from the perspective of Young Adult novels, which I must confess, I still enjoy (a quick look at my Goodreads page will confirm this!).  But, from the perspective of mental illness, there is an important reason for discussing this genre in particular: 50% of all mental illness starts at age 14, and 75% by age 24.  If this issue can be addressed early enough – particularly during it’s onset – it can make a big difference.

I suppose my point is this: As best I can tell – and, again, admittedly, I could be wrong, please correct me if I am – it seems like mental illness in fiction is addressed in one of two ways:

  1. It is completely undiagnosed, leaving readers guessing or playing armchair psychiatrists, and that’s never a good idea.
  2. It is the centerpiece of the book.

Don’t get me wrong, neither of these things are necessarily bad in and of themselves.  I’m just having this conversation from a stigma perspective.  The first option listed above can be problematic and fail to fully address a characters illness, which can lead to misguided perceptions about the way that mental illness works.  The second option can be good, but it, too, can make people think that mental illness is somehow more debilitating than it truly is.

Also, please understand, I’m not criticizing any author or book.  Many of the ones that deal with mental illness – directly or indirectly – are powerful, and it’s not possible or fair to be critical of an author simply because they don’t address a particular issue in a way I want to see it done.

That being said, from a stigma perspective, that’s what I’d love to see more of.

Any thoughts to add, or books I am missing?  I’d really love to know – if only to read them!  Please let us know in the comments.