An Alternative Theory on the Mental Health Crisis
“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a sick society.”
I have a secret that I usually keep locked up inside of myself, hidden from even those who know me well – I suffer from depression. At times it is a deep, bottomless depression, an intense loneliness, serious end-of-the-world thoughts going on in my head depression.
Admitting to that is tough, however it comes with another admission – I reject the idea that there is something wrong with me or that my depression is a disease. In fact I think that the whole framework of looking at mental illness solely as individual pathology is misguided. I don’t say this to minimize the pain of those who suffer from mental conditions, but rather as part of an attempt to re-examine mental health from a perspective that I feel is more humanistic, one that takes into account the interconnectedness of life and of human beings and their culture. This is not an attempt to project my experience onto others and I understand that every individual’s subjective mental experience is unique. It is simply an attempt to examine mental health from a different viewpoint, one that acknowledges the symptoms in the individual but places the causes at the level of the society. Possibly by looking at mental health issues in a new way we will be able to discover new solutions.
The topic of mental health is a hot button issue these days. Rates of depression, anxiety and other mental disorders have been on the rise, and the trend is particularly striking in young people. The suicide rate continues to increase. Unfortunately, the numbers show that even as new drugs and new techniques for treatment are developed, mental illness continues to proliferate. So where are we going wrong? What new paradigms can we examine to explain the growing levels of depression, anxiety, and other mental disorders?
The generally accepted narrative teaches us that mental health complications are rooted in individual pathologies. From this perspective it makes sense to look at brain chemistry or genetics or family relationships as the source of mental illness.
While these factors certainly play an important role, the problem is deeper than this. To fully understand what is going on requires a broader view that encompasses cultural and sociological factors. What are the effects of our globalized society and the culture that it creates on the mental health and behavior of individuals within that culture? How does our environment influence the ways that we interact with each other? After all, as human beings we are biological organisms operating in a complex ecosystem, and just like all other living organisms our behavior is a result of our responses to our environment.
The anthropologist and psychologist Gregory Bateson is known for his theory of the “ecology of mind”. This ecological perspective is a way of explaining how an individual’s behavior and the values and traits of their culture are highly interconnected. We cannot separate human behavior from the cultural and social influences of the environment. These different factors are constantly feeding back into one another. In order to analyze the singular elements of a system we need to understand their relation to the whole.
If we look at mental health from this ecological, interconnected viewpoint, it is impossible to focus solely on individual pathologies as the cause of the mental health issues that we see in our society. In order to diagnose the causes of our mental health crisis, we need to look deeper and examine what is happening with our culture and what is happening on our planet.
If mental health and behavior are continuously influenced by environmental factors, then a high percentage of mental illness in a population could be indicative of sicknesses not just in individuals, but also at the cultural level.
The truth is that no one fully understands how the human brain works. No one really knows the exact causes of mental illnesses and it is impossible to draw concrete conclusions about their origins. But even as we learn more and more about neurochemistry; even as we have more and more trained mental health professionals; even as more and more Americans are using prescription drugs for the treatment of mental illness; the unfortunate fact is that the number of people suffering from mental conditions is going up, not down. It may be beneficial to try different approaches and to start asking different questions. Up to now it seems that attempts to examine mental illness as a social health problem that has cultural and environmental influences have been largely overlooked.
Human beings are an incredibly social species, one of the few that spend their entire lives in groups. Our ability to communicate and cooperate is unique. It is this intensely social nature that makes humans so susceptible to the influence of culture. Anyone who has experienced the behavior of large crowds (such as at a professional sporting events) can attest to the fact that the behavior of individuals can be highly influenced by that of those around them. The groups we inhabit and the cultural values that structure our lives can have huge impacts on our individual behaviour and our mental well-being.
So what are the major cultural influences in our society and how do they affect us? What are the core values of the culture that we live in?
We live in a globalized society that is built around the ideal that growth, even unlimited growth, is good for us. This is why, when we hear politicians or economists talking, they will often mention the importance of growth. This structure based on economic growth creates a social paradigm that has profound effects on human behavior and on our environment.
As human beings we all have a basic need for belonging, a need for community, and a need to feel that we are loved and accepted for who we are. Unfortunately our global society imposes a culture that hijacks these fundamental human needs for the purposes of the market and growth. In doing so, the culture encourages values and behaviors that are good for the globalized market, but bad for our individual and collective mental health. It teaches us that in order to have a sense of belonging we need to be constantly consuming. We need to always have the newest technology or gadgets in order to be connected and to be participants in our society. It teaches us that our individual sense of identity, as well as our deep desire for connection and friendship, can be attained through our acquiring all of the products and services that the advertising industry is selling us. This culture teaches girls and women that their attractiveness and ability to be loved is dependent upon their achieving an unattainable view of beauty. It teaches us that our personalities and our sexuality need to fit neatly into predefined categories. It turns everything in the world, including human beings, into commodities. Our global economy is a system that imposes culture from above; it is a system in which the need for growth determines the nature of our culture and the values of our society.
The values that this global culture promotes are those of imperialism – growth, competition, and domination. However subtly, it creates and enforces systems of oppression. The global society we live in is a system in which positive social interaction and cooperation are discouraged. Success in this society requires us to compete with those around us for limited resources, while the benefits of growth are filtered to an incredibly tiny segment of the population. Global society is a winner-take-all environment in which pathological behavior is rewarded and individuals displaying the most anti-social traits are the most successful. Obedience to authority, skill at manipulating people, and the ability to overlook the suffering of others are all qualities that are encouraged in this society.
If you are maladjusted to this culture it doesn’t mean that something is wrong with you. In fact, it may mean that something is right with you! There is a huge amount of evidence showing that human beings are actually innately cooperative, not competitive or selfish. If competition and selfishness were the norms of human behavior we would tend to see them in our most basic social structures. But this doesn’t seem to be how families or friendships work. There are plenty of examples of cooperative tendencies in human beings. To take just one, think about when you’ve shared a meal such as pizza with friends. If humans were inherently selfish, then why is everyone hesitant to take the last slice? This is not to say that humans cannot also behave in selfish or greedy ways, but the idea that these are our natural tendencies is likely misguided. Evolutionary psychologists have shown that cooperative groups of human beings would have been able to out-compete those groups whose members were more selfish, and therefore the genes that encourage cooperation would have provided an evolutionary advantage.
A society built around the values of growth, competition and manipulation is one that requires us to go against tendencies toward cooperation and pro-social behavior. Being maladjusted to this type of culture may very well be a sign of a healthy human being. As the psychologist R. D. Laing said – “Insanity is a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.”
The good news is that an interconnected viewpoint of mental health and culture allows for solutions that work across multiple levels, both the individual and the society. I certainly don’t claim to have all or even any of the answers, but I do believe in asking questions and thinking outside of the box. I believe that a re-imaging of our culture of consumption, growth, and competition is possible. We can change the stories we tell ourselves about how our society works and we can choose the ideals that we want to shape our culture.
Psychologist Bruce Levine has a theory that likens those suffering from mental illness to canaries in a coalmine. They are the ones with unique sensitivities to environmental stimuli. When coal miners saw their canaries falling off of the perch they knew that something was wrong, they knew that conditions in the mine had deteriorated and it was time to get out. Could it be that our mental health crisis is a sign of something deeply wrong within our culture; a signal that it is time for us to get out of the mine before it is too late?
There are other instances where biological systems go awry and display unlimited growth. It occurs in the human body, in which case this growth is the disease known as cancer. Is it possible that the human species, global society as its own interconnected organism, is afflicted with a cancer? We are growing exponentially on a planet that is finite. It may be more than just our mental health that is dependent upon our ability to cure our addiction to growth. The next step is ours to take. Do we continue on our path toward extinction, or will we begin the process of healing ourselves and healing our culture to build the kind of societies that can successfully inhabit this planet?