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Johann Hari: the man who fell to earth and took on depression

The disgraced former journalist uses his new book, Lost Connections, to argue the mental illness’ causes are ignored.

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

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 10 January 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Toddler in chief

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Othering, micro-aggressions and subtle prejudice: growing up black and British

Afua Hirsch’s memoir Brit(ish) adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK

As every economic or political immigrant knows, the real enigma of arrival is to look in two directions. Immigrants gaze back at the homelands and family they have left behind; and they look anxiously at the customs, language and laws of the country they have adopted. Making sense of both can take a lifetime.

Afua Hirsch, the author of Brit(ish), who has worked at Sky News and the Guardian, was born in Norway to a British father and Ghanaian mother and grew up in prosperous Wimbledon, south-west London. She studied Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford before graduating in law. Her experience of violent racism seems to be limited, but she writes of the cumulative toll of regular infractions while studying and working as a lawyer and journalist, described as acts of “othering”, “micro-aggressions” and “subtle prejudice”.

Of visiting a shop near her home, she writes: “The harshest lessons came in my late teens, visiting my best friend at work at a boutique in Wimbledon Village. The manager told her I could not come in. ‘It’s off-putting to the other customers,’ she said, ‘and the black girls are thieves. Tell her she’s not welcome.’” On another occasion, a man on the Underground threatened to beat Hirsch with his belt because “you people are out of control”. The incidents coincided with a growing curiosity about her mother’s homeland, which is common to many second-generation children. Hirsch first visited Accra with her mother in 1995: “I don’t think I had realised that there was a world in which black people could be in charge.” In the early 2000s, she worked for a development organisation and was based in Senegal for two years. A decade later, as recession and austerity gripped Europe, she returned to Accra as the Guardian’s West Africa correspondent.

Half a century ago, Hirsch would have been described as a “returnee”; in 2012, the changing nature of global wealth and identity saw the brief rise of a more assertive term, “Afropolitan”.

But Ghana failed to provide Hirsch with an enduring sense of arrival. “For someone like me, Britishness contains the threat of exclusion,” she writes. “An exclusion only made more sinister by discovering – after so many years of searching – that there is nowhere else to go.” Like Filipinos returning home after decades in the Arabian Gulf, Hirsch felt like a privileged outsider who ostensibly viewed a poor country from the safety of a guarded community.

This section of Brit(ish) provides some of the memoir’s most valuable insights. It also could have benefited from more detail; I would have liked to have learned if, like expat Indians who have returned to Mumbai or Bangalore over the last 20 years, Hirsch considered immersing herself in Ghana’s roaring economy by opening a business. She is currently collaborating on a clothing line inspired by Ghanaian culture.

In the end, personal safety prompted an abrupt withdrawal from Accra. Hirsch and her partner returned to the UK after they were attacked on a beach on the outskirts of the Ghanaian capital. In the harrowing incident, her earrings were ripped from her earlobes and her ring was stolen. The attack also marked an introduction to an under-resourced and inept justice system. On the day of the first court appearance of the assailants, Hirsch’s partner was asked to pick them up and drive them to the hearing.

The most interesting segments of the book aren’t those that dwell on racial theory; Hirsch has yet to coalesce her views on her British and Ghanaian heritage into a unified argument. That usually takes most writers a lifetime. Brit(ish) has more in common with memoirs by other immigrants and their children whose search for education and prosperity transitions to a longer quest for identity. ER Braithwaite, the author of To Sir, With Love, wrote about what it felt like to be a second-class citizen in the UK, despite decades of service to the education sector:

In spite of my years of residence in Britain, any service I might render the community in times of war or peace, any contribution I might make or wish to make, or any feeling of identity I might entertain towards Britain and the British, I – like all other coloured persons in Britain – am considered an “immigrant”.

Hirsch’s book is also less sure about how other immigrant groups view their British experience. For instance, she cites the return of present-day South Asians to the subcontinent as being partly due to racism, but a departing diaspora, resettling in India and Pakistan for reasons such as accumulated wealth or community, has been a fixture of British life since the 1950s. A more interesting detour would have seen an exploration of British Muslims, often wrongly charged with disloyalty to the UK by commentators such as Trevor Phillips, who selectively pick out the most extreme views on integration and religion.

Instead, the memoir offers clearer ideas on how the UK could do more to acknowledge its role in the slave trade and colonialism. In the book’s most searing sections, Hirsch rightly suggests there is more to be achieved in correcting Britain’s memorials to empire – those permanent exhibitions in museums, statues and plaques that fail to acknowledge the sins of colonialism.

For instance, for 300 years, every British monarch gave direct or indirect support to the transatlantic slave trade until it was abolished in 1833. Of the 12 million slaves abducted from Africa, 40 per cent were transported on British ships. We are told slavery was outlawed on humanitarian grounds in a campaign fought by abolitionists. In reality, an overproduction of sugar crops led to reduced profits.

In Capitalism and Slavery, published in 1944, Eric Williams, the first prime minister of Trinidad and Tobago, described the idea that slavery was abolished because of an appeal to humanitarian principles as “one of the greatest propaganda movements of all time”.

Hirsch argues these old ideas continue to hinder diversity. In 2013, only 23 students of black British African heritage were given paces to study at Oxford University. In 2016, one third of all people stopped by the police in England and Wales under “stop and search” laws were from ethnic minority backgrounds. Hirsch also highlights the worrying uptick in violence after the Brexit vote in June 2016. In the four months after the referendum, there was a 41 per cent increase in racially and religiously motivated crimes.

British public life is full of the talented children of Ghanaians who have written about racism and the push for acceptance, including rappers such as Tinchy Stryder, Dizzee Rascal and Sway. Just as Peter Fryer’s groundbreaking book, Staying Power: the History of Black People in Britain, did in 1984, Afua Hirsch’s memoir adds a new chapter to the body of work on race in the UK. As she writes, an island nation that has benefited from centuries of immigration should reframe the question it asks some of its citizens: “I can’t be British, can I, if British people keep asking me where I’m from?” 

Burhan Wazir is an editor at WikiTribune and former head of opinion at Al Jazeera. Afua Hirsch will appear at Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the New Statesman, on Sunday 15th April.

Brit(ish): on Race, Identity and Belonging
Afua Hirsch
Jonathan Cape, 384pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 15 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The polite extremist