April 24 2018

Why skills can beat pills when it comes to overcoming depression

Michael Yapko
By Depression expert

Depression can be treated and even prevented by focusing on psychological therapy and learnt life skills. A leading expert explains.

An international expert is urging Australians to shift the focus from medication alone to therapy in a bid to curb the increasing rates of depression in Australia and around the world.

Dr Michael Yapko, a psychologist and author, says that depression is often wrongly assumed to be caused entirely by biological factors. But research over the past 40 years shows many psychological and social factors play a more significant role.

“The suggestion that depression is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain – a shortage of serotonin – has been popular since the development of the newer generation of antidepressants about 30 years ago. That hypothesis has suffered badly in the research and many neuroscientists and depression experts now consider it entirely obsolete and misleading,” he says.

The World Health Organisation last year declared the disorder to be the number one cause of ill health and disability in the world, with more than 300 million people affected. It is estimated that 1 million Australians suffer depression each year, and it is on the rise among the young.

Dr Yapko says the mental health issue cost billions in dollars a year in lost productivity and increased health care. It is particularly costly because it robs people of the chance to fulfil their potential and adversely affects their relationships. His book Hand-Me-Down Blues details the way in which depression may be passed on through families.

“The evidence has grown to a level too great to ignore that depression is much more a social condition than a medical one,” Dr Yapko says.

His views accord with those of Johann Hari, the bestselling author and journalist who will speak on his book Lost Connections next month at the School of Life. Mr Hari recounts his own research into the social basis of depression and talks about the insights that helped him to address depression he first experienced in his teens.

Dr Yapko, who has spent 40 years working in the field and written 15 books, says those who take medication alone have the highest rates for relapse. In contrast psychological treatment is highly successful and has a lower relapse rate without the undesirable side effects of drugs.

Psychological treatment can address a person’s adverse life experiences, their style for dealing with life stressors, problem-solving abilities, thinking patterns and decision-making strategies to help them deal with and prevent depression. Psychologists have even been able to devise prevention programs with high success rates.

Dr Yapko says:  ‘In this terribly overcrowded world, loneliness is on the rise and depression is rising right along with it. Many of the triggers for depression are the painful things that happen in our relationships – the betrayals, humiliations, rejections, and abandonments. The skills necessary to build and maintain healthy, enduring relationships are on the decline.”

“It’s critically important that people who are depressed or vulnerable to depression recognise that much of what it takes to live well and to minimise the likelihood of suffering are specific life skills. These include coping skills, problem solving skills, and social skills that can help build enduring and positive relationships, and these can be learned with the help of a good psychologist.”

He says: ‘Just as there are many pathways into depression, fortunately there are also many pathways out. Each person has to discover his or her own path.’

Tickets to Michael Yapko’s two free public lectures in Melbourne on May 10 and 14 have sold out. A recording will be posted on Psychlopaedia. His book Keys to Unlocking Depression is available as a download on his website

Johann Hari will speak at The School of Life in Melbourne on May 8. His book Lost Connections (Bloomsbury) is also available for download.