29. Growing cress heads for no particular reason.

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This morning, the council came to collect the 3 bins I leave outside on Tuesday mornings, and I think they have brought another new bin – to dump your Guilt into. So much better to have it safely disposed of rather than giving it to another person. Guilt just doesn’t compost down.

I’m hoping for more metaphorical bins in the future, now that local government has taken over public health. In hospitals we have sharps containers coloured yellow, which is a safe place to put barbed comments.

Today, just as The Times reported that health checks for the over 40s were a complete waste of money, I received a letter from my local surgery asking me to come in for a health check with the practice nurse.

Though I am a supporter of evidence-based medicine, it took me less than a minute to make myself an appointment. I am also a hypochondriac.

To be honest, evidence-based decision making can conflict with common sense. Everyone knows that a stitch in time saves nine. As far as I know, there is no equal and opposite proverb to cancel this one out. My strict adherence to the evidence based approach probably doesn’t go much deeper than the occasional casting of nasturtiums on the alternative sector.

So many decisions we have to make are based on intuition rather than double blind randomised control trials. For instance, choosing what we eat. I start with the null hypothesis as follows: nothing that you eat – within reason – makes any difference to you. There are occasional bits of conflicting evidence, but in general nothing to disprove the hypothesis, which is based on the sound principle that the human body is a chemical factory.

I have yet to see any convincing evidence for the five fruits a day policy, nor the arbitrary alcohol consumption limit of 21 or 28 units per week. Which leaves me with a bit of a dilemma over what to tell the practice nurse about my lifestyle. I don’t want to come across as a fanatic of any kind. Like an NHS Trust, or Everton FC, its safest to be half way up the league table rather than at the top or bottom. But there is no real ‘gold standard test’ for lifestyle to pass or fail, apart from a few aspects of what we consume.

Like everyone, I find it very difficult to explain the increasing numbers of people who suffer with obesity. I watched a recent documentary attributing this to the corn syrup industry, but was not entirely convinced. Maybe it is a virus or other infection we have yet to identify. The concept of ‘food addiction’ has gained some adherents, certain products turning out to be incredibly ‘more-ish’, such as chocolate, pizza and ice cream.

Since obesity has increased rapidly over the last 30 years, we could attribute it to any or all of the social trends of the last few decades, from computer ownership to the decline of progressive rock. Psychiatrists have made their own contribution, in the form of atypical antipsychotics, which have doubtless added to the lard mountain.

My own hypothesis – no, really my own intuition, is that obesity is inversely related to pottering.

Pottering has been defined as: ‘to busy oneself in a desultory though agreeable manner’. Pottering behaviour should be largely unplanned, enjoyable, unhurried and diverse. Crucially, pottering does not derive from a work ethic, but from a natural tendency to interact with one’s environment. It’s roots are probably in thousands of years of hunting and gathering.

The habit of pottering has been hard hit by lifestyle changes toward electronic media and industrialisation, and away from localism, arts, crafts, hobbies, games and sport. Home made food is fast going the way of home made clothes.

What is surprising is the lack of a response, either from mental health services or the pharmaceutical industry, to the obesity epidemic. Surprisingly, there is a lack of evidence about what treatment to offer.

As anyone knows who has been on one of those treadmills with a calorie counter, you have to run about a thousand miles to counteract the effects of one Mars Bar. So its hard to see how increased activity alone could be the answer.

CBT does embrace ‘behavioural activation’ and ‘activity scheduling’ and mental health services do employ a small number of occupational therapists. We could begin to rehabilitate a pottering based lifestyle, but we need badly to find a new word for ‘potter’. It’s just too old-bloke-in-a-shed-based. And we need new pottering clothes, instead of tracky-bottoms and cardigans.

So here’s my five point plan:

Pottering should be re-named Freestyle Active Behaviour – fabbing, for short.

Village Shows to be re-named ‘Fabathons’

Stella McCartney / Adidas to bring out a new fabbing range, using a tweed / kevlar fabric mix.

A new talent show, called Britain’s got Knitting.

A new ‘more modern’ penthalon event, consisting of: repairing a stuck window, making a cake, learning the saxophone, growing cress in old eggshells with a face drawn on them and visiting granny.

(Yours may be different).

So far, none of this is evidence based, but neither, it seems, is going to the health centre for a check-up.

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2. Where will the war take place?

The war against Depression begins with an attempt at building a strategy (unlike some recent wars I could mention).

Firstly we must identify the enemy. Then we must identify our resources. Then we must deploy our resources to where the enemy is weakest.

And we must look at where previous similar campaigns have come unstuck.

A few years ago, the UK Royal Colleges of Psychiatrists and GPs ran a campaign called ‘Defeat Depression’. Traditional campaigns designed to improve public health usually involve screening – trying to detect cases of the illness that have not been discovered. For a successful campaign the following ingredients are needed:

We have a way of discovering cases using some kind of test.

We have a treatment option to offer those found to be suffering.

The treatment option is effective enough to cover the costs of running the program.

The Defeat Depression campaign was based on the notion that a large number of depressed people were undiagnosed and suffering in relative silence. If they were diagnosed, using simple screening tests, they could be given antidepressants and/or therapy that would improve their condition.

Recent types of antidepressants such as selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, (SSRI) seemed to be effective, non – addictive and low in side effects. So the balance had tipped in favour of prescribing them, if not exactly spraying the countryside with them.

Sure enough, there has been an enormous increase in the diagnosis and treatment of depression in  the UK. GPs use a screening tool called PHQ-9 to uncover cases. For moderate or severe depression, antidepressants are recommended, starting with an SSRI, either Fluoxetine (Prozac) or Citalopram (Cipramil).

Possibly, one day, SSRIs will become ‘over the counter’ remedies rather than prescription only. After all, you can now buy own – brand Ranitidine at hardware stores. Its not that long since Ranitidine was ‘Zantac’, and available only from proper doctors in white coats and half- moon glasses, probably after an endoscopic exam or barium x ray.

People used to warn that taking Ranitidine might mask the symptoms of more serious stomach problems, delay people seeking medical advice, and thus prove harmful. Such fears seem to have been overly pessimistic, but doctors and pharmacists are always going to want to steer the medicines trolley.

Making antidepressants freely available in Lidl, or Boots at least, might have a greater impact than any other measure, if we are seeking to get the greatest number of people on to antidepressant medication. Yet there has been no campaign to make this happen. Why?

Is it because antidepressants can be harmful if not carefully monitored? For instance they need to be taken for several weeks at least rather than as and when we feel like it.

Or is it because we are reluctant to see medication as the answer to Depression? Or maybe because existing antidepressants have a relatively poor benefit to risk ratio?

The defeat depression campaign attracted a fair amount of criticism behind the scenes. On the one hand there was something of a doubt over how effective antidepressants really were.

Also they had side effects that were troubling, some real and some imaginary. It was suggested that they could make some people more impulsive and – in the case of teenagers – more suicidal. Some of them seemed to have ‘discontinuation effects’ causing flu like symptoms a day or two after stopping treatment. Their effect of reducing libido was more common than people recognized.

People warned that the Depression concept was being stretched to include unhappiness, ‘medicalising’ peoples responses to social ills such as call centres and poor quality sausages .

Some people even went as far as suggesting the depression industry was part of a capitalist conspiracy to make people feel dissatisfied with their lot in life. It was alleged that such dissatisfaction would serve to fuel consumer demand and get the proletariat back on the treadmill of purposeless consumption, indebtedness and hard labour.

In the background, a few psychiatrists remained highly skeptical about the effectiveness of newer antidepressants, even preferring older drugs that had a better evidence base.

It looked to many as though the Royal Colleges had been swept along by the SSRI companies, without thinking the strategy through. Two favorite stereotypes for Psychiatrists are Dr Dippy and Dr Evil. So, not looking clever, and seeming to be in cahoots with drug companies, damaged our image. When the Prozac bubble burst within the liberal consensus, British psychiatry was badly splattered.

The most deadly germs are those that can change their form and structure. The same is probably true of terrorist organizations. By adapting to different situations they can often go undetected. Germs can pretend to be other organisms, or part of your own body.

Terrorists can pretend to be religious men. Gangsters can pretend to be politicians.  A lot of it is down to packaging and presentation. Depression is an entity that resorts to camouflage in response to a conventional attack.

In response to the Defeat Depression campaign many people remained in denial. Few were convinced that Depression could be treated in the same way as a germ based illness. Few were convinced it was easy to identify and treat. And even fewer trusted psychiatrists and GPs to tackle the problem.

Lots more antidepressants were finding their way into our sewerage systems one way or another, (often cutting out the middle man), but was anyone much happier?

There is a lot of conflicting thinking about Depression – whether it exists within society, and whether it exists in an individual. It can hide within a heap of what looks like unhappiness. It can hide within what looks like a life crisis or drink problem. It can hide within a cranky view of the world.

Essentially, all this needs to be tackled on a personal level. Depression exists in individuals, not in towns or countries. All that matters is what Depression means for you.This means that the battle against Depression will take place mainly in your kitchen. Luckily, you choose the weapons.

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At exactly 0600 we go over the wall.