Wednesday, 21 July 2010

A Six-Point Plan For Removing Depression - If You Don't Commute

An article in the Guardian the other day reported a doctor who treated depression without using pills. Since my religion forbids mind-altering substances, he has my support. His six-point prescription is:

1. Take 1,500mg of omega-3 daily (in the form of fish oil capsules), with a multivitamin and 500mg vitamin C.
2. Don't dwell on negative thoughts – instead of ruminating start an activity; even conversation counts.
3. Exercise for 90 minutes a week.
4. Get 15-30 minutes of sunlight each morning in the summer. In the winter, consider using a lightbox.
5. Be sociable.
6. Get eight hours of sleep

Let's take the good doctor seriously and see where this gets us. Let's assume you live in the suburbs, have a 9-5:30 (thirty-seven-and-a-half hours a week) job and an hour's commute. How to get that 30 minutes of sunshine in the morning? We're looking at walking some of the journey to work (lunchtime isn't the morning). If you use the car, you're going to leave it half-an-hour from work, so you'll have half-an-hour's walk back in the evening. By public transport, you can keep the original time for the return trip. So with that eight hour's sleep, your diary now looks like this:

Return home: 22:00
In bed: 22:15
Asleep: 22:30
Wake up, ablutions and breakfast: 06:30
Commute (public transport or car) starts: 07:30
Walk: 08:30
Work starts: 09:00
Work ends: 17:30
Commute ends: 18:30  (car: 19:00)
Ready to party: 19:30 (car: 20:00)
Return home: 22:00

You can take the vitamins at breakfast with no loss of time and all that walking takes care of the ninety minutes of exercise requirement.

Let's look at the logistics of socialising. Forget the theatre or movies on the way back from work: unless you get a movie that starts before 18:30, there is no way you're getting back before 22:30 by public transport. Anyway, it would take you about half-an-hour to unwind from what would have been a very long day which ended by travelling on a train or bus full of drunks. If you go locally, allow twenty minutes to get there, so your evening meal is rushed to make the theatre at 19:15 (takes time to get to the seat). Ditto the movies and evening classes. Supper with friends can start about 19:30 and you might be back at 22:00 if you don't stop at theirs for a chat. There's the pub (unwise: alcohol is a depressant and lowers the quality of your sleep) or round at theirs or yours chatting (over a few beers, right? Not so much) or you could be ten-pin bowling. Whatever you do, this is pretty focussed and maybe hectic "socialising". In my experience, socialising with a time limit is only partially satisfying, closer to networking than a moment of friendship. Maybe you could do your chores during the week and socialise at the weekend? Except everyone else is doing their chores at the weekend - because they don't share your new lifestyle.

Or you could live like this:

Return home: 23:00
In bed: 23:15
Asleep: 23:30
Wake up, ablutions and breakfast: 07:30
Commute starts: 08:30
Work starts: 09:00
Work ends: 17:30
Meet friends in bar / cafe: 17:45
Leave bar / cafe: 18:45
Return home: 19:00
Ready to party: 20:00 (for e.g. 20:30 movie twenty minutes away)
Return home (again): 23:00

You can do this if you are living and working in the centre of a decent-sized town somewhere near the Mediterranean that doesn't close at 18:00. It's inland commuters who have a hard time fighting depression.

I'm not disagreeing with the good Doctor. The bit about not dwelling on negative thoughts is a tad glib, but it's what depressives do. I suspect it's a symptom, not a cause. The cause is a deadly job with a nasty supervisor that pays just enough to meet the bills, a marriage that went dead two years ago and having no-one you can talk to about any of it. The real cure for depression is to get out of the life that's killing you. Which is tougher to do than it sounds. If one part of happiness is the feeling of having choices, one part of depression is the feeling of being stuck with this shit. I suspect the good Doctor's six part plan works not because of what it does but because of a Hawthorn Effect - you're paying attention to yourself and your life. Pass the fish-oil capsules. 

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