Johann Hari is full of apologies. He regrets running out of time to shave, stroking his barely perceptible stubble in mock-horror. He agonises, as a non-tea drinker, over making me a cup of tea. (“Do you usually leave the bag in?”) When a catch in his throat interrupts his sentence, he pauses: “Sorry, I’m disgusting!”
The writer is padding around his north London top-floor flat in socks, baggy blue jeans and a black crew-neck sweater. Round-cheeked and short enough not to have to duck too far beneath the sloping ceilings, he doesn’t look 38, and the slightly lopsided giant TV screen in the corner gives the space the air of a boyish den.
We’re here to discuss his new book, Lost Connections, which claims to uncover the true causes of depression and anxiety. It’s a dizzying journey taking in the mental state of 1970s south London housewives, internet gaming addicts in a US rehab clinic, the Amish, bonobos at Twycross Zoo, rent protesters in Berlin, and First Nations Canadians taking their own lives on reservations.
Almost as extensive are the book’s endnotes, the fact-checks and caveats of which echo his meticulous manner this chilly Monday afternoon. “It’s very important to me to make sure all the facts in this book are correct,” he writes.
His desperation to get things right comes from a time when he got things very wrong. Hari is notorious for the plagiarism scandal that destroyed his journalistic career in 2011. In the early Noughties he rose to prominence as a left-wing commentator. He joined the New Statesman in 2001 after he graduated from Cambridge and then became a columnist on the Independent. He won several awards, including the Orwell Prize for journalism in 2008.
Three years later, a group of bloggers and the then editor of Yahoo! Ireland, Brian Whelan, began looking closely at Hari’s published interviews and profiles, discovering that he had lifted quotes and comments made by interviewees from elsewhere and passed them off as having been said to him.
As the originality of Hari’s work came under intense scrutiny, he was revealed to have created an online pseudonym, “David Rose”, which he used to attack his enemies in journalism, including Nick Cohen, Oliver Kamm and former NS deputy editor Cristina Odone. Hari/Rose edited their Wikipedia pages with unflattering and baseless allegations. He resigned from the Independent in January 2012 and returned his Orwell Prize. “[They] were very, very serious and terrible things to have done,” he says now. “When you fuck up, you should pay a very big price.”
Writing two books – a study of the drugs war, Chasing the Scream, in 2015, and now Lost Connections – may not seem like atonement, but nearly every review he receives is prefaced with the story of Hari’s fall from grace. “It shouldn’t just magic away one day… it hurts and it should hurt,” he says, although he doesn’t read press coverage and has asked his publisher not to give him sales figures.
Shortly after leaving the Independent, Hari stopped taking antidepressants. He had been on the drug Seroxat in increasingly higher doses since he was 18 and it hadn’t stopped “the pain leaking out of me”.He tells me he lost two-and-a-half stone within six months of stopping. What of the emotional effects?
“I don’t want to get into reconstructing my mental state around the time of the controversy I was involved in,” he says, cautious not to use depression as an excuse for his mistakes. Yet he was “addicted to working all the time”, taking the narcolepsy drug Provigil to “prop up” this condition, “which, like all addictions, was really about an underlying source of pain”, he tells me.
In his new book, Hari alludes to childhood traumas while growing up in Edgware, north London. His mother was ill, his father often away, and another adult in his life was violent towards him: Hari was once strangled with an electrical cord. He left home at 16 and missed a year of school before moving in with his grandmother.
Prone to weeping since childhood, Hari was prescribed drugs during what he describes in Lost Connections as “The Age of Prozac”. His book challenges the story he believed for so long: that depression is simply a chemical imbalance in the brain that can be fixed with more serotonin.
But many people suffering from mental illness rely on chemical antidepressants, and there’s evidence that they work. “I’m not saying to anyone stop taking your drugs. But for something as complex as human depression, there should be loads of things on the menu.”
He admits this message would be “too destabilising” for depression sufferers if he hadn’t looked further into why he feels “the old story is wrong”. So Hari emphasises the social causes of depression: loneliness, disconnection from the tribe and nature, and what he calls “junk values” – materialism and a preoccupation with status. Just as junk food makes you physically sick, he says, junk values make you mentally sick. “I still have a lot of these impulses, but [I’m] trying to disconnect from junk values: thinking life is about money and status and showing off.”
For Johann Hari, the road to self-knowledge has been a long and troubled one.
“Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions” is published by Bloomsbury, £16.99 on 11 January
This article appears in the 10 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief