PE is hell: How to actually get kids enjoying physical activity

Content note: This post discusses PE lessons. If you had a bad time in PE at school, this might dredge some stuff up for you.

I made a thread on Twitter about PE lessons today, and how I did all I could to avoid the weekly sessions of organised hell. It was popular, because my experience was far from being an outlier. I’ve yet to hear from even one person who didn’t despise PE and wasn’t left with lifelong emotional scars.

I was mostly a good kid at school, but my record was not unblemished: I had a series of detentions, and all of them were for PE, because I’d avoid it being forced to do it whenever possible. I’d maybe hide behind a shed instead of doing the cross country. I’d walk out of lessons. Once I participated in a small strike action with the other chubby, malcoordinated kids, where we sat down in the goal in protest at being made to play football when we all fucking sucked at football. The detentions were infinitely better than the PE lesson: usually it would entail tidying the equipment room, which was great fun, because I love arranging things into their correct places.

The nightmare starts in the changing rooms. You are around the time of puberty, as is everyone else, all at different points, and you are made to undress in front of others. A lot of people are forced to shower, naked, in front of others. Some were monitored by the PE teacher: an adult looking at naked kids, which is a gigantic safeguarding issue. This right here is an easy fix: install some cubicles for changing and showering. It’s an important lesson that we must teach children and young people that your body is your own and you should never be made to show it to others. This information protects children against sexual abusers, and yet, suddenly, in the context of a PE lesson, public nudity is enforced. That’s not good. And it’s additional hell for trans children, disabled children, late and early bloomers, any child who might not want to show their naked body to others. So, put up some cubicles.

I was a chubby kid with dyspraxia as well as bad eyesight and epilepsy. I wasn’t particularly built for sport, especially if they’d make me take my glasses off, so I couldn’t see what I was doing. PE was never going to be good for me, and indeed, it was absolutely horrible.

I hated the team sports. It felt like open season for bullying had been declared on me, because I wasn’t exactly a good addition to any team, what with not being particularly capable of kicking, throwing or catching a ball, nor hitting one. At best, I was mostly excluded from the games, with everyone playing around me. At worst, it was vicious mocking, berating and yelling because I was crap and I knew it. It must have been frustrating for my capable teammates, having to put up with me playing wing defence in their otherwise well-oiled netball machine, but it was an utter ordeal for me. And the worst thing was, I didn’t know what the fuck I was doing. Even if I was all right at catching a ball, fuck knows what I’d do afterwards. I once scored a rather spectacular own goal in football because nobody had taken a moment to explain which way I was meant to be going. It’s the only goal I have ever scored, and I still remember the absolute exhilaration of having the ball, dribbling the ball, shooting, scoring! And then my team being pissed at me because, well, I made us lose.

Running was humiliating, too. Genetics meant I was never built for being a particularly good runner anyway, even if I hadn’t fucking hated it. I’d always come dead last, and the long distance was the worst for that, knowing all eyes were on me, as I struggled and puffed my way to the finish line while the teacher bellowed barbed encouragement. And don’t even get me started on the beep test; I am pretty sure the Geneva Convention has some pretty strong things to say about forcing someone to run until the point of exhaustion, with an added layer of social humiliation to top it off.

I was lucky to not have to do swimming in secondary school, although quite a few people on Twitter told me about that particular humiliation. The changing room experience ramped up to 11, with the added joys of many of compulsory swimming’s victims having periods. Again, I was lucky that periods weren’t much of an issue for me: I didn’t start until I was 14, and my periods were so fucking irregular I think I only had about three while I was at school. However, I’ve been told of the horror of having to say, when the register was called, in front of everyone, that you are currently menstruating and therefore shouldn’t be swimming–and then the teacher would log your period so they could catch you out if you used the excuse a little too often! Which, as well as being an experience I cringed by proxy hearing about, is also pretty awful for young people whose periods are just settling down so they will have a weird cycle and might be on more than once every four weeks.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There were a few activities I did like during PE lessons. I loved rounders, because if I was fielding, the team would put me somewhere the ball was unlikely to fly, because everyone was wise to the fact I was rubbish at catching. And batting was even better, because there was no way on god’s earth I’d hit the ball, so could go back to sitting around. The fact I liked rounders because it was a massive doss speaks volumes to how badly PE was taught. But I also rather liked gymnastics and trampolining, and it was a pity we almost never got to do that–I wasn’t every good at those sports either, but they weren’t competitive, and it was fun to try out something new to me.

My experiences were not uncommon, and it is not a fault of any of us PE-hating kids. There’s nothing wrong with us. It’s that the entire system is fucked. A part of PE lessons being fundamentally broken for the vast majority of kids is likely that same right wing nostalgia that bred a Brexit vote. Older generations had a horrid time in PE, and so younger generations should suffer, too. It’s character building, or some other nonsense. I mean, yes, it built character for me in a way, as I learned about making excuses, but that’s not really a particularly positive skill to learn.

Another problem is the objective doesn’t seem to be to get children and young people to be physically active, but rather, to maybe try to breed a sports superstar. Certainly, my experience and that of many others is the PE teachers would focus most on the capable kids, encouraging them, cheering them on, catering to their level. This is a problem, because statistically it’s almost certain that the next Mo Farah isn’t in your PE class, and if he was, it would be good if his talents could be nurtured with better access to free out-of-school and after school training.

Streaming classes by ability would probably help address this a lot, but broader changes to the way things are done would be invaluable. Rather than focusing on the kids who are already good, try to nurture those who aren’t. For example, I was never taught proper techniques for basketball, just yelled at because I couldn’t bounce a ball and run at the same time, by my teacher and my peers. It would have been much better if rather than just chucking a ball and some bibs at a class and instructing us to play basketball, I could have had a “you’re doing OK, but you need to work a bit on how to do this. Let me help you.” I might not have just fucking walked out of a lesson had that been the case.

Cracking down on peer bullying would also help immeasurably. If someone is shouting at the crap unsporty kid for letting down the team, send them off. Teach them good sportsmanship. Teach them to be an actual team player: the problem is with them.

Of course, a lot of those Brexit-voter nostalgia types will cry that I am advocating for PE lessons to be less competitive and let me be clear: yes I am. I want the element of competition completely eliminated from PE. It fosters bullying behaviour, and it’s demoralising, and it is a huge driver in the hatred of PE. Fuck who’s doing best at a sport, let’s recognise and accept that success looks different for everyone and cater to that.

Running 400 metres instead of 1500 is a huge achievement for some kids; celebrate that, rather than forcing them to run almost four times that length. Just being able to catch that ball is a vast achievement for many: celebrate that. And yes, get kids doing activities that suit them best and they like. Give them chances to try out various sports and types of exercise and choose which ones they want to do. Have a wider range of activities on offer, such as martial arts, circus skills or yoga. If there’s a whole-class football game, consider letting some kids referee rather than play: they’ll still run about, but they’re not being made to do something they’re not good at.

Accept when someone says they can’t do PE that week without pressing as to why. They know their body best, their limitations, and it’s kinder not to force someone to announce they’re menstruating. Ask if there’s anything they’d like to do that lesson, an indoor, lower-intensity exercise like yoga, perhaps. If PE isn’t a hellish experience, they’ll probably not be trying to bunk off–young people are only bunking off of PE because it’s an awful experience.

Yes, it’ll probably cost money to offer opportunities to try different activities, but the government is constantly on about throwing money at PE to “combat obesity” and “encourage activity” so why not do something that stands a fucking chance of achieving the latter, at least, rather than failing miserably at both (of course, a PE lesson is hardly going to combat obesity, a rather sketchy goal in itself!)

A lot of this rests on an assumption that admittedly runs counter to personal experience: that PE teachers are not fascist child-hating bullies who delight in dominating children and watching them suffer, but instead actually want to encourage children to take up physical activity. But if the former applies, fucking sack them, because they’re unfit teachers.

PE could be a nurturing environment where children learn useful skills for life, such as teamwork and cooperation, do some exercise each week, and carry that enjoyment of sport and physical activity into adulthood. At the moment, for many of us, it’s been the exact opposite of that. PE doesn’t have to be a hellish ritual humiliation, but a lot has to change.

And once again, to my fellow PE-haters: you’re not alone, and it wasn’t your fault that your PE experience was awful.


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Once more for the people at the back: abortion rights and trans rights are the same struggle

Content note: this post discusses anti-choice sentiment and transphobia

Today, I got a tweet from a TERF expressing a desire to reduce the abortion time limit, using the same concern-trolling language as noted womb-botherers such as Nadine Dorries.

It didn’t surprise me.

Let’s get the most obvious out of the way first: TERFs are about as feminist as Jim Davidson. They’re also very comfortable with forming political alliances with conservative men, and indeed prefer to date conservative men as they have more in common with them politically. So it’s hardly a shock that they’ve been parroting patriarchal talking points.

Then we have the media transmisogynists like to pretend that trans women pose a problem for reproductive rights activism, which is a deliberately disingenuous misrepresentation of the fairly uncontroversial demand that when we talk about reproductive organs and human bodies, we’re gender-neutral about it, because that’s more precise. It simply isn’t true that trans women are a block to reproductive rights. In fact, they’re doing more than any media transphobe ever has.

How do we know this? One of the places to look is Ireland, where there is a huge struggle for access to abortion. I follow this activism keenly, and do what I can to support and boost their work, so I’m aware that there are a lot of trans women deeply involved in this crucial action. I’ve met many Irish trans feminists who participate in reproductive freedom work. And likewise, Irish feminists don’t want these UK TERFs anywhere near their work, having recently produced a widely-signed open letter telling TERFs exactly where to fuck off to.

If you actually care about reproductive rights, you’d know this, and that’s how it becomes abundantly clear that your transmisogynistic bigots are simply using abortion access as a dogwhistle for “women are defined by reproductive organs and only that.”

To me, feminism is always and has always involved liberating women from our biology. A refusal to define us by whether or not we can bear children. I’ve written before about how this biological essentialism promulgated by transmisogynistic bigot feminists is identical to that promulgated by misogynists. I’ve also defined my stance as pro-trans and pro-choice.

But I want to say it once more, loudly, for the people at the back: trans rights and reproductive rights are intimately linked. You cannot have one without the other. It all boils down to bodily autonomy.

Organisations like Planned Parenthood understand this, and provide therapy for trans people as well as reproductive care. On the flipside of this, 20 countries in Europe still require sterilisation for trans people if they want legal gender recognition.

It is no coincidence that the religious right and fascists want to crack down on both reproductive healthcare and trans healthcare: all they want to do is refuse us bodily autonomy.

Our struggles are the same, and scratch a transmisogynist, and it’ll bleed womb-botherer in the end. Don’t let them win, and let’s continue to stand shoulder to shoulder against these attacks.


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What I learned on my Twitter holiday

Content note: this post discusses and describes street harassment

During my suspension from Twitter due to malicious reporting, I thought I’d take the week to do the thing lifestyle mags (and books that read like them) say changes your life and makes everything special: take a proper break from social media and put down my smartphone for a bit. I’m pleased to report that I’ve tried it, and I still think it’s some premium-grade hippy bullshit. Here’s some things I learned during my enforced absence.

You miss people

I’m not convinced that a lot of people “get” social media when they’re talking about how it’s toxic and hollow and the like. Because these people don’t get what a lot of people like me are getting out of the Twitter experience, I’ll use a little metaphor.

Imagine a park that you visit every day and go for a walk. There’s lots of other people who use that park, and you see them every day. Some of the park users are your friends. You hang out with them outside of the park. Some of them, you just see at the park. You might not even talk often, but when you see them, you nod.

One day, you’re not allowed to go to the park any more, because there’s some horrible people who litter the park, and you yelled at them, and they’ve been stopping you from visiting this lovely, lovely park.

You’d miss them, wouldn’t you? You can have a perfectly nice social life without going to that park, see all your friends who don’t go to the park, ever, or you know outside of the park. But you miss those people who you only know from there. You miss those people who you just give a nod to.

That’s how it was for me. I missed those mutuals of mine. I missed scrolling the TL and seeing what people I’ve never met in person have seen. I even missed those people I see quietly faving my tweets.

I think a lot of the commenters on social media being toxic are journalists, and they aren’t using social media socially. They’re using it as a big old professional megaphone, barking into it. You can do without that, easily, especially when you’ve got a newspaper column.

It’s all so privileged

A lot of the people I follow on Twitter aren’t the sort of people who get newspaper columns. They’re more likely to be disabled, trans, people of colour, not men. Their voices are more important to me to listen to, and they point me towards stories and articles I may have missed, and opinions that I need to hear, but wouldn’t usually get to hear.

Being without Twitter made it much harder to access these opinions. Since the tragic death of Google Reader (forever in my heart!) I haven’t followed blogs through RSS, and besides, that only gave me the tip of an incredibly diverse iceberg.

Off of Twitter, I was not just disconnected from fellow humans, but from the people we all need to listen to most of all. It’s not a very nice experience, having to view current affairs through the lens of the profoundly privileged people who curate the news.

I know, of course, that the voices with the biggest platforms are coincidentally privileged as hell. But it really sucks when it’s difficult to find voices outside of those who get the space to yell over everyone else.

Smartphones repel men

As part of my personal growth exercise, I decided to look at my smartphone less. That did not go well at all. The amount of street harassment I received spiked. Every man on God’s green earth was trying to talk to me and tell me I was beautiful or other such bollocks. One followed me and tried to grab me. The only way I could get rid of him was to disappear through the gates at a tube station and hop on a tube I didn’t really need to get.

Perhaps it’s a coincidence, I tell myself. Perhaps it just so happened that the week I tried to take time away from my smartphone was open season on women out and about.


A smartphone does two things in repelling men: first, it means you don’t accidentally make eye contact, which men seem to believe means “I would love to talk to you.” And secondly, you have in your hand a means of calling the cops if needs be, because on a level they know what they’re doing is wrong.

In short order, I went back to staring at my smartphone all the time. Better to make wannabe Banksys tut-tut than to be literally chased down the street by a horny creep.

Don’t get me wrong, obviously Twitter is full of harassment, too. But there’s no block button for real life, which makes it harder to get away from harassment.

My anger management

Twitter people who meet me in the meatspace often express surprise that in the flesh I’m a rather jolly, smiley, easy-going person. I wasn’t always that way. I was one of those customers from hell who would be rude as fuck to customer service and service staff.

It is unfortunate that the week I was off Twitter also happened to be the week that I had to call a lot of customer service hotlines. Usually in this situation, I’d put out a tweet bitching about the interminable hold music and rage vented, I’d be fairly polite to the poor sod getting paid a pittance to follow a script, no matter how frustrated I’d feel. If it was particularly frustrating, I might tweet the fire emoji a few times to vent off a bit more fury.

Readers, it gives me great shame to admit I was very rude on the phone to somebody I know cannot help me and is trying their best with the unpolishable turds they’ve been given.

In general, without my usual venting space, I found myself generally more irritable in my day-to-day life, a less sunny person than usual who was prone to snappiness. I’ve kind of always had that streak in me.

I developed coping mechanisms, of course. Printing off pictures of people who had pissed me off and running them through a shredder was very gratifying, but ultimately, a snarky subtweet is free and better for the environment.

I can live without Twitter, but I don’t know why I’d bother

I didn’t die being off Twitter. I can live without it. I just don’t really want to, for the reasons I’ve outlined here. What I learned most of all in this little break was that for me, the positives of using the site outweigh the negatives. Sure, Twitter is a fucking hellsite. But to me, it’s also a place of friendship, connection and wisdom.


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Duct tape mouth selfie: AKA I’ve been maliciously reported and suspended

Back in 2016, I tweeted concerns that twitter abuse guidelines would be used more to silence women who tweeted confrontational feminist slogans, than actual misogynists.

Unfortunately, I can’t link to the tweet, because it was reported and I’ve been suspended from Twitter.

Yep, I’m on the naughty step. I’m on the wrong end of a malicious reporting binge which is a tactic being increasingly used to silence voices.

I’ve been wracking my brains to think of who I’ve pissed off this week, and the shortlist is:

  • TERFs
  • MRAs
  • Neo-Nazis
  • FBPE
  • Men who feel deeply personally invested in maintaining sexism in motorsports
  • The journalistic establishment

I admit it’s not a great list; the overlap between categories is pretty strong.

This time it was my turn. But I’ve seen it happen before to friends of mine, predominantly women of colour: outspoken women who speak truth to power, and therefore power wants them silenced.

Let me talk a little about what happened to me, and how you can spot malicious reporting, and avoid it yourself. It’s a tactic used to silence.

What I can see happened, as clear as day, was that someone (or some people) did a search on my old tweets, looking for tweets using a particular confrontational feminist slogan (“Kill all men”, if you’re interested. If you want to learn more about the meaning of the slogan, here’s something I wrote years ago, when it was an active slogan and I made the tweets). Now, I know a search was run, because phrasing within the reported tweets was identical, and the tweets were years apart. So, off the bat, we have abuse of reporting rules: we have someone seeking out offensive material to silence a woman.

They’ve also been abusing the process in other ways, using a “slice and dice” approach. I was first suspended on Sunday, for 12 hours. I returned. Then, once again, I was reported, for tweets containing–you guessed it–identical phrasing, just to bump me off again. This time, I’m on the naughty step for a week.

I’m planning on deleting all old tweets, so please don’t worry if conversations go missing. I’ll be sad to lose them, but it has to be done. I can’t deal with this form of harassment, this concerted attempt to silence me.

In the meantime, avenge me. Kick up a stink and share this blog. Demand to have me back. Go all #jesuisstavvers. Raise awareness, and take a mo to delete your old archive, too.

Oh, and follow me on my alt, @thestavvening. I’m not using it much this week, because I figured I’d use my time out as a little social media holiday–might as well take a break! But it’s worth following the account, because there’s a very effective tactic for silencing women, and I wouldn’t put it past the trolls to try to pull this shit again in the future.


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Thinking critically about Lost Connections 5: The target audience

Part 5 of my Lost Connections review. Back to part 1

Lost Connections has been almost universally positively received in the media, and covered in glowing endorsements from the great and good, all over the dust jacket. There’s been reasonably-little criticism, and it’s been draining for those of us, like Dean Burnett and Stuart Ritchie, who have been trying to put forward critiques. We shouldn’t be a little minority, and for a flawed text, there should have been a hell of a lot more of a critical reception.

There’s a few good reasons I can think of as to the homogeneity of the response to the book. The first is that PR machines are powerful beasties. Send a press pack off to the right influencers, with a bit of sample text that they can tweet, and most people are lazy enough to do that. And once it looks like the great and the good are reading it, more will follow.

Another reason is poor science literacy in the media. The reviews in mainstream outlets of Lost Connections have largely been written by journalists. I haven’t seen much evidence of outlets proactively commissioning experts–psychiatrists, academics, mental health doctors, even a humble science journalist–to review the text. Had they done so, I suspect we’d be seeing a lot more mainstream criticism.

And then there’s the thorny influence of personal friendships (I thought, for a second, that I’d made up the term “mateocracy” to discuss this, but it turns out that’s a fairly established phrase, so maybe I should have started part 4 with that anecdote instead of the slightly more embarrassing one). Naomi Klein and Eve Ensler are breathlessly blurbing on the dust jacket, imploring you to read this awesome book. They’re also the first people thanked in the acknowledgements section, described as Hari’s friends. Many of the journalists who have endorsed the book have been colleagues and fellow travellers with Hari over the years, who maybe publicly distanced themselves during the whole plagiarism problem, but the personal relationships are present. When your pal writes a book, you tend to love it. That’s just how friendship works.

Finally, and most crucially, we must look at who this book is intended for. At the end of the last instalment, we touched upon how many of Hari’s proposed reconnections are unsuitable for the people who need them most, and utterly inaccessible. One needs a certain amount of fortune in life to be able to, say, move away to the countryside.

Most of the people who have endorsed Hari’s book have been white, well-off and not disabled. This is no coincidence, because the problems and solutions presented by Hari tend to cater mostly towards this demographic–with the more marginalised people left unmentioned

Race and ethnicity are seldom mentioned, and when they are, it’s usually within the context that these people don’t get depressed so often because they’ve got better family networks. What goes unsaid is that there are racial disparities in diagnosis and access to treatment. For example, black people are 20% more likely to experience mental health problems, and are less likely to seek help than white people.

Disability and chronic illness have long been linked to depression. Take any disability or chronic condition, and google “[disability name] depression comorbidity”. I guarantee you’ll find research showing that if you live with the disability, you’re more likely to be depressed.

For most people, the reconnections proposed in the book are completely unfeasible. How can you reconnect to meaningful work when you cannot work? How can you take the leap towards a meaningful future when you’re unlikely to live long enough to see it through? What about the immense pressure of living under a racist society? How is any of this useful to you when you live under threats of violence every damn day?

These are important questions which are never even raised, let alone answered. The problem is far, far deeper than Hari believes. For most of us, taking a break and turning of our phones isn’t going to help, because inequality is the ginormous elephant in the room. And for many of us, even something big like a universal basic income is a fat lot of good if further underlying inequalities are not addressed.

But the solutions he outlines are appealing as hell to more privileged people, the ones who are on the luckier side of inequality. The book allows us to ignore inequalities, and feel that the solution is a problem of values rather than material realities. You don’t need to check your privilege, just tut-tut at these people who are still clinging to the materialist values that the advertisers force-fed them. Hey, maybe impose a tax on the adverts, or something, they can say, instead of thinking about how they might be complicit in something significantly worse.

Strangely enough, for a book which purports to be proposing radical social change, for the most part, it’s deeply individualistic: a few simple things you can do. It’s a little bit like buying a product in a recyclable packaging instead of plastic: it costs a little more, you feel great about yourself, you get to tut-tut about those who opt for the cheaper version, but ultimately, your individual purchasing choices aren’t doing much for the environment because the bulk of the problem is in corporations’ behaviour, not individuals’.

At the end of the day, Lost Connections is not a particularly useful text for many. It misrepresents much of the problem, sells us inadequate solutions, and, by rights, ought to have flopped. That it didn’t tells us a lot.


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Thinking critically about Lost Connections 4: Something old, something blue, something borrowed, nothing new

Part 4 of my Lost Connections review. Back to part 1

Once, when I was still a teenager, I thought in great depth about technology and the world. I came to a conclusion–illicit substances may or may not have been involved–that it would be impossible to tell if the world was real, and that we could well all be living in a computer simulation. How groundbreaking!

Upon sobering up, I realised that what I’d been thinking about was a fairly well-discussed point in philosophy and other disciplines, and also the plot of The Matrix. And so, I didn’t write a book espousing these amazing insights I’d had.

The thing with Lost Connections is that rather a lot of it isn’t actually all that bad, if you pretend it’s not about depression, and can also spot what’s actually being discussed. In fact, rather a lot of it is fairly classical stuff which is taught in our earliest introductions to psychology.

Take, for example, the chapters in the book dedicated to childhood trauma. This is not a particularly contested fact, because there’s little to contest. There’s this bloke, I don’t know if you’ve heard of him, called Freud, who is considered the father of psychology, and was all about childhood trauma as a driving force of neurosis–which, these days, we’d be calling anxiety and depression. His work still drastically influences research in this field.

And yet, Freud is mentioned precisely once in the book, in passing, and not in reference to the chapters on childhood trauma. Freud’s large body of work on the importance of childhood trauma goes completely and utterly unmentioned.

Another example: in chapter 14, we’re treated to a story of a man who lost a leg, and became depressed because his work caused him pain. His community helped him become a dairy farmer instead, and he lived happily ever after. Now, this is not rare at all, and is quite well-discussed. It ties in with the social model of disability, a phrase which is mentioned exactly zero times in the text.

This pattern repeats over and over again, with fairly well-accepted research being treated as though it’s outsider mavericks speaking truth to power. Brown and Harris’s Social Origins of Depression, discussed at length in chapter 4, is required reading on many social science degrees, with little to contest. Likewise, Marmot’s Whitehall studies, referenced heavily in chapter 6 (although these pertain to stress, not depression). Likewise, Cacioppo’s work on loneliness.

It’s all fairly basic stuff which is taught to most people whose jobs involve poking around in the human psyche. As a result of this, it finds its way into healthcare: for example, interventions like befriending or mindfulness are recommended for treating depression on the NHS.

None of this is The Secret That Big Pharma Doesn’t Want You To Know about, and it galls me that it is presented this way, when that’s simply not true.

It would be very helpful to put the established names to the ideas which are discussed in the book. A part of the reason for this is for clarity’s sake: it would be nice to know when particular approaches are being mentioned rather than having to sit through pages and pages of extended metaphors before finally figuring out that what’s being talked about is status syndrome (a phrase which never appears in the text of the book!). It’s particularly important for someone with a background in plagiarism to refer to academic concepts by their established names.

“But Zoe,” perhaps you cry at this point, “this is a great jargon-free accessible introduction.” Not true, I reply. It’s a wildly irresponsible starting point for the interested newbie to dip their toes into the waters of learning about the topics in hand, precisely because the ideas are seldom credited to their proper names. It is the beginning and the end of your learning process. How do you learn more when you’re not equipped with the right phrase to fucking google?

Good popular science writing takes an established concept, and breaks it down for a layperson to understand, giving them the information they need to learn more, if that’s something that’s whetted their appetite for knowledge. You give people the language, and explain what the language means. It’s an entrance point where everyone emerges knowing a little more than they had, and knows what to look for next. Lost Connections does the opposite of this, and in its obfuscation, it fosters a dependence on the author to explain what in the name of sweet blue fuck is being talked about.

My background is in psychology, and sometimes it took me a while to follow what exactly was being explained, because it wasn’t a very good explanation, and often misrepresented findings which pertained to something that wasn’t depression, to depression. If I were completely new to the subject, I’d find myself unable to learn more about these topics, because I wouldn’t have the language to seek out more knowledge–and I would probably walk away thinking Hari and the handful of experts he talked to were the only people looking about social and environmental contributors to depression, because Big Pharma has silenced everyone else.

I don’t know if Hari set out to deliberately muddy the waters in order to foster this dependence on the author, to draw attention away from the false dichotomy he has set up, and to make it harder to notice that for the most part, he isn’t telling us anything radical or revolutionary, just things already widely-used in the study of and treatment of mental illness. That might have been an intention all along. It could also go the other way: maybe he himself hasn’t realised just how established much of what he’s outlined is. 

Either way, social and environmental factors aren’t exactly considered a particularly obscure field of research. They’re so well-known they’re embedded in the public consciousness, which is how Blue Monday, “the most depressing day of the year”, could easily be launched by PR companies to sell more holidays. And  social and environmental factors are pretty damn integral to biopsychosocial models of health. As to the question as to why they aren’t more widely-used for therapeutic benefit?

It isn’t because nobody would make any money off it. Once again, as we discussed regarding St John’s Wort, these industries are very lucrative indeed. Same with getting your internet addiction treated at a dedicated rehab clinic, or being tutored in how to meditate.

It’s more that these remedies are often least accessible to those who need it most. Take, for example chapter 18’s case study of how to reconnect with meaningful work, wherein employees of a bike shop took back control and made a workers’ cooperative. That’s great. It’s also about as much use as a chocolate dildo if you’re in one of the professions with high rates of burnout, stress and mental illness, like a teacher or an NHS nurse.

The way depression is treated is because a new job or a holiday cannot be prescribed. It would be very nice if we could change society; I’m a big advocate for communism, but that’s not going to happen any time soon. And so we must make transitional demands, the things which can be achieved: and with mental illness, often that’s about just being able to cope.

To use another ghastly analogy, and this one straight out of Hari’s repertoire, sometimes you need to make the symptoms manageable. The pain can be a message that something deeper is wrong, but that’s no good if there’s no cure for the underlying ailment, or the cure will take a long time to realise. If you have a broken leg, and you know you have a broken leg, and your leg’s in plaster, you’re probably still going to need to take a painkiller to stop your leg from hurting while it mends.

Still, Hari’s proposed reconnections do work for some people. And in our final instalment, we’ll be looking at who they work for the best.

Part 5: The Target Audience >


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Thinking critically about Lost Connections 3: Defining depression and the false dichotomy

Part 3 of my Lost Connections review. Back to part 1

Right in the title of Lost Connections is a clue as to what it is supposed to be about: “Uncovering the real causes of depression”. That’s nice, but unfortunately, the book does nothing of the kind.

Throughout the text the same problem that I identified in my reading of the extract is present: dozens of things are being conflated with depression, to the end that depression isn’t really the subject of the text at all.

The problems begin right at the introduction. If you’re writing a book on anything, you need to start with a working definition of the thing you’re discussing. It’s really important to get this right. Hari doesn’t, and this part of the book is one of the most sparsely-footnoted sections, setting the tone for the rest of our journey.

Hari states that depression and anxiety are the same thing. We’re treated to an academic saying that “the diagnoses, particularly depression and anxiety, overlap.” Hari then claims that studies which present depression and anxiety as different diagnoses are no longer funded by the National Institutes of Health. The reference for this? An article by Thomas Insel on NIMH’s website which introduces a new project for looking at symptom clusters in a different way, with no mention of funding any other types of project, and literally no mention of anxiety.

It’s true that depression and anxiety often happen in the same patient. I myself have experienced both: sometimes one, sometimes the other, sometimes both at the same time. And this bears out at a population level, with some 50% of patients visiting a doctor with one of the problems also experiencing the other. This does not equate to the two being the same thing.

However, let’s pretend that it’s an established scientific consensus that depression and anxiety are the same thing, or at least, two parts of the same whole. That still renders vast swathes of the book not about depression.

There are two things most frequently conflated with depression. The first is stress, which I mentioned in the review of the extract, but I’ll quote again here, so I don’t have to say it again.

Towards the latter end of the extract, Hari discusses environmental factors, and places a lot of emphasis on stress. While stress is acknowledged to be a contributor to depression, it’s a different kettle of fish entirely and isn’t thought to be the root cause of all depression by anyone. Stress is physical changes to the body caused by your “fight-or-flight” responses going on the alert in response to an external stimulus and just keeping on going. Stress isn’t a medical condition, per se, and it’s often advised that it’s managed by relaxation or just taking a break once in a while. There’s different neurotransmitters involved: depression itself doesn’t tend to have increased levels of cortisol, which is the dangerous thing about stress, and the killer. Because it’s different, stress has different symptoms to depression, though there may be some overlap.

The other thing frequently conflated with depression is something called “negative affect”. Negative affect is not depression. It’s pretty much a fancy way of saying “bad feels”. It covers feelings like anxiety, guilt, shame, fear, sadness, anger, irritability. It’s not a diagnosis, or a sickness, it’s a broad name for the bad feelings. When something is causing negative affect, that is not the same thing as causing depression. Likewise, when something is alleviating negative affect, it is not alleviating depression. Negative affect itself is not clinical: it’s just sometimes a useful thing that psychologists need to measure, although it can be measured and present in depression.

Also mentioned occasionally within the text are grief and substance abuse. Again, neither of these are the same things as depression.

Interestingly, though, what is barely mentioned in the book–indeed, a quick search reveals the word is only used twice–is bipolar. Bipolar features depressive episodes. You can make a better argument for bipolar being a type of depression than, say, stress. However, where bipolar (and its physical component) is mentioned, all we get is “They are a very small proportion of depressed people.” With up to 2% of the population screening positive for bipolar, it seems to me like this ought to be discussed a little more than being mentioned literally twice in a book about depression. Perhaps it’s because there’s stronger evidence for genetics and brain chemistry in bipolar, which is a little uncomfortable when you’re writing a book about how Actually, These Factors Aren’t As Important.

Which brings me to my other quibble with how depression and its treatments are constructed throughout Lost Connections: a false dichotomy.

The way Lost Connections presents it is that there are two routes: an exclusively chemical approach, favoured by scientists, which isn’t right, so that’s taken apart in Part 1; and the real cause (his word, not mine: I remind you the second half of the title is “Uncovering the real causes of depression”) which is largely social and environmental.

That’s simply not true, and has never been true, and isn’t true of the general academic understanding of depression, or its treatment approaches, or… well, anything in particular.

As much as I loathe to use analogies, particularly those comparing a mental health issue with a physical health issue, I’m going to crack one out here, because the public understanding of mental illness isn’t great to begin with, and certainly isn’t going to get any better with books like Hari’s floating around.

Consider the common cold, a virus which we’ve probably all experienced. There’s lots of different things that scientists can do when studying and treating the common cold. A virologist will be most interested in the structure of the virus, and how it affects the body. A pharmacologist will be most interested in developing drugs that treat the symptoms. An epidemiologist would be most interested in how the cold is spread, and developing solutions to stop it spreading. A health psychologist is most interested in seeing how people feel about their colds. An occupational psychologist wants to work on getting people back to work when they have a cold. An immunologist will be thinking about how the cold is fought by the body. A geneticist would be interested in determining if some people are more susceptible to catching colds. They’re all looking at different things, but this doesn’t mean any of the approaches are incorrect, and that there’s a real cause of the common cold. It means that there are many ways of skinning a cat.

It’s the same for depression. When medications for depression are developed, that does not mean that the social, environmental and cognitive factors in depression don’t exist. It means that researchers in a particular field of research are looking at things from their angle.

Returning to Insel’s article, cited at the beginning, the one which doesn’t say that NIH are not funding any research that doesn’t treat anxiety and depression as the same thing, what we actually see is this approach in action. The article is launching the Research Domain Criteria, which brings together various disciplines to “transform diagnosis by incorporating genetics, imaging, cognitive science, and other levels of information”.

The joined-up thinking is also present in the current pathway of care in the UK. The way you’d think of it if you’d only read Hari’s book, you roll into the doctor with your depression, and they drug you up. And I don’t know, perhaps that truly happened to him, and if so, I feel sorry for him, because that’s not good medical care. If you’re diagnosed with depression, you have options on your table: medication is one, there’s also talking therapy, group-based recovery colleges where you learn skills for coping with your depression and support and receive support from others who have experienced depression, doing a low-level CBT course online… And yes, we can talk about problems with waiting lists to access this care; indeed, I could talk about it till the cows come home, because it’s appalling that this care is gatekept by GPs and the waiting lists are terrifyingly long, and so you’re often prescribed medication without other support while you wait. Honestly, don’t get me started on this. But this is not something discussed in Lost Connections. Instead, we’re saddled with a false dichotomy of Just Medical and Actual Things That Work.

Interestingly, psychological interventions are almost entirely neglected in Hari’s work, so the false dichotomy is entirely between organic and social/environmental remedies. Cognitive behavioural therapy, one of the most common talking therapies for depression, is mentioned precisely once in the book, and very near the end, in a paragraph also covering psychotherapy. The rest of the chapter (chapter 20) is devoted to sympathetic joy meditation as psychological change. There’s a lot of evidence for sympathetic joy meditation presented, including an fMRI study of its effect on empathy, its ability to reduce intergroup bias, its effect on altruism. These are all cited in a footnote for a paragraph claiming that 58% of people who don’t have this treatment become depressed again, compared to 38% of people trained in meditation. I think that particular statistic might feature in the other footnoted study, which is from a self-help book called The Buddha Pill, which I cannot access to check its scientific rigour.

There is meanwhile a vast bulk of evidence for the talking therapies which barely even receive lip service–CBT is so well-studied, there’s even a meta-analysis of meta-analyses!

To those with an interest in treating it, “biopsychosocial” is a word which is often used to describe the relationships between the well-documented causes and treatments of depression. In Hari’s book on depression, this word appears precisely twice, and both to bolster claims that doctors are getting it all wrong.

The false dichotomy set up makes things easier for a slightly weaselly author to pull a fast one on us, the readers. And it also helps us hide the fact that actually much of the book isn’t teaching us anything new…

Part 4: Something old, something blue, something borrowed, nothing new >


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