A top scientific adviser to the U.K. government is advising depressed people to forget drugs and take up lifestyle changes such as smiling and eating seaweed.
Jane A. Plant is a professor of geochemistry at Imperial College London. She became interested in mental health via her work in environmental health and after first-hand experience. While her previous books have focused on a range of physical conditions, she has now turned her attention to depression.
In her controversial new book, Beating Stress, Anxiety and Depression: Groundbreaking Ways to Help You Feel Better, Plant aims to “inform and empower sufferers and their families” and “give the reader the latest findings on medications commonly used and misused to treat the epidemic that is sweeping the Western world.”
The book discusses the current debate as to whether pharmaceutical drugs are any better than placebo for managing depression. Plant and co-author Janet Stephenson are both themselves former sufferers: Plant survived years of chronic anxiety after taking benzodiazepines to counteract the stress of cancer treatment, and Stephenson, herself a psychologist, suffered from psychosis that began as postnatal depression and eventually led to admission to a “frightening” mental institution.
Both authors say that those experiences left them feeling helpless and part of an often-invisible community. By writing the book they hoped to pass on what they learned about regaining their health.
Plant and Stephenson identify 10 lifestyle factors that that they believe can “dramatically reduce anxiety and depression,” as well as proposing “10 Food Factors” to improve mental well-being.
Rather than relying on antidepressants, they recommend that depression sufferers take steps such as avoiding dairy products, sending fewer text messages, eating porridge at night and playing card games. They say all their tips are based on hard scientific evidence gathered from studies around the world.
“Smiling is a way of tricking your brain into thinking that everything’s OK, even if it’s not,” says Plant. “People who are mildly depressed should do their best to show the world a happy face, as that will improve people’s reaction to you and lift your mood.”
The authors advise sufferers to increase their intake of mood-boosting chemicals by eating kippers or poached haddock for breakfast because they contain omega-3 fatty acids, and to be less materialistic, as those who achieve success may do so at the expense of personal relationships, which are a better guarantee of happiness.
The authors argue that human contact, face-to-face or over the telephone, and the “people skills” to both talk and listen meaningfully are useful. However, they point out that emailing and texting are individualistic and isolating processes which people should spend less time on.
They condemn the conventional approach, urging a radical overhaul of medical treatment for the increasing number of people with mood disorders. Psychiatrists come in for some heavy criticism: “We know of many psychiatrists who have only a rudimentary knowledge of the brain and its workings.”
All the more reason to follow their advice and take control. “We do not agree with the usual advice to ‘keep taking your medication and eventually all will be well, because doctor knows best’,” they write. “We challenge many of the conventions in the treatment of mental illness, particularly the way that patients are prescribed medication without any diagnostic tests being carried out.”
They say that people with low self-esteem should ignore celebrity culture as much as possible, because it can reduce their self-esteem further. They also recommend improving your appearance through a new hairstyle, clothes or make-up because this can improve self-confidence.
Although controversial, these non-drug suggestions are receiving some mainstream support. In the U.K., the National Institute of Clinical Excellence says that cognitive therapy, involving one-on-one sessions, can be just as effective as antidepressants. Many family doctors feel that they are writing too many prescriptions when a different approach could be better for their patients.
The alternative approach outlined in the book has also been praised by the neurologist Sir John Walton, a former president of the British Medical Association. He says that it is an “admirable book, which would do much to alleviate the fear, helplessness and hopelessness which many feel when suffering from mental ill-health.”
Plant J. and Stephenson J. May 2008. Beating Stress, Anxiety and Depression: Groundbreaking Ways to Help You Feel Better (Piatkus Books).