“A Cure for Darkness” by Alex Riley

“Depression is something that I’m very familiar with, but the book isn’t just about me; it is not a memoir,” states science writer Alex Riley about A Cure for Darkness: The Story of Depression and How We Treat It. “It is a history of depression from around the world, how it manifests itself in different cultures and, most importantly, how we treat it. An estimated 315 million people live with depression and it is set to become the leading cause of disability bar none” (Alexriley.co.uk).

Riley’s own treatment has included cognitive behavioral therapy and antidepressants, but at times he’s had his doubts about their effectiveness. These led him to researching what else has been out there to help those with depression.

A psychiatrist reviewing A Cure for Darkness on Goodreads notes that Riley first covers pre-1900’s history, which of course includes much about Freud, then 20th-century advances in both biological and talking therapies, and finally what’s happening today as well as what’s in our future. “For example, here, Riley talks about the insights from recent neuroimaging studies and the little-understood links between depression, inflammation and diet, as well as the use of deep brain stimulation (DBS) and psychedelic drugs in the treatment of the condition.”

This reviewer concludes: “What Riley successfully demonstrates throughout this book is that depression is an incredibly complex and diverse clinical condition. He shows how our understanding of the biological, psychological and sociocultural mechanisms underpinning depression has improved, alongside the sometimes empirical, sometimes scientific treatments. By doing so, he sheds light on the reasons why successful treatment of depression can be such a huge challenge for clinicians and patients alike.”

A critique excerpt from Kirkus Reviews:

Treatments would rise and fall—e.g., various forms of lobotomies—and some would rise again (electroshock therapy). Riley discusses numerous studies and anecdotes to illustrate the positives and negatives of each approach to treatment, including modern-day investigations into cognitive behavioral therapy, psychoactive drugs (ayahuasca, LSD, etc.), and deep brain stimulation, often employed for patients whose ‘depression seemed intractable. A diversity of drugs—antidepressants, antipsychotics, tranquilizers, mood stabilizers—couldn’t budge their mental anguish.’

Although very favorably reviewed by many experts, some early lay readers have found A Cure for Darkness to be more textbook-like than they’d have preferred, particularly noting that this is not a self-help book.

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