Not Depressed, Just British!

A new take on mental health

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George Farthing, an expatriate British man living in America, was diagnosed as clinically depressed, tanked up on antidepressants, and scheduled for a controversial shock therapy when doctors realized he wasn't depressed at all, he was just British!

Farthing, a man whose characteristic pessimism and gloomy perspective were interpreted as serious clinical depression, was led on a nightmare journey through the American psychiatric system. Doctors described Farthing as suffering from pervasive negative anticipation: a belief that everything will turn out for the worst, whether it’s trains arriving late, England’s chances of winning any national sports events, or his own prospects of getting ahead in life. The doctors reported that the satisfaction he seemed to get from his pessimism was particularly pathological.

“They put me on everything—lithium, Prozac, St. John’s wort,” Farthing says. “They even told me to sit in front of a big light for half an hour a day or I'd become suicidal. I kept telling them this was all pointless, and they said that was exactly the sort of attitude that got me here in the first place.”

Dr. Isaac Horney, a psychotherapist, explored Farthing’s family history and couldn’t believe his ears. Farthing spoke of growing up in a gray little town where it rained every day, of treeless streets lined with identical houses, and of passionately backing a football team that never won. Although Farthing had six months of therapy, he mainly wanted to talk about the weather. “I felt he wasn't responding to therapy at all,” says Horney, who recommended electroconvulsive therapy.

Farthing takes up the story: “Hopeless case? I was all strapped down on the table, and they were about to put the rubber bit in my mouth when the psychiatric nurse picked up on my accent and said, ‘Oh my God, I think we're making a terrible mistake!’ ” Identifying Farthing as British changed the diagnosis of clinical depression to rather quaint and charming. He was immediately discharged from the hospital with a selection of brightly colored leaflets and an I Love New York T-shirt.

A satirical piece reprinted from Living Lightly (Summer 2004), a quarterly magazine that covers people and organizations creating a positive and sustainable future; www.positivenews.org.uk.