“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a sick society.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti
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 depression.
Admitting to this is tough, but 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 is more humanistic, taking into account the interconnectedness of human beings and their cultures. This is not an attempt to project my experience onto others: 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 society. Possibly by looking at mental health in a new way we will be able to discover new solutions.
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?
The generally accepted narrative tells us that mental health problems 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? After all, as human beings we are biological organisms operating in a complex ecosystem, and just like all other living organisms our behavior is at least in part a response to our environment.
The anthropologist and psychologist Gregory Bateson is known for his theory of the “ecology of mind”, which posits that human behavior can’t be separated from its cultural context. The two are highly interconnected , and are constantly feeding back into one another. In order to analyze the individual elements of a system we need to understand their relation to the whole.
From this ecological, interconnected viewpoint, it is impossible to see individual pathologies as the cause of our society’s mental health crisis: if mental health and behavior are continuously influenced by cultural factors, then a high percentage of mental illness in a population could be indicative of sicknesses not just in individuals, but in society as a whole.
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 train more and more mental health professionals; even as more and more Americans use prescription drugs to treat mental illness – the unfortunate fact is that the number of people suffering from mental conditions is going up, not down. We need to try different approaches and to start asking different questions.
So what are the major cultural influences in our society and how do they affect us? What are the core values of the culture we live in?
We live in a globalized society that is built around the idea that growth, even unlimited growth, is good for us. This is why politicians and economists so often emphasize the importance of growth. This growth-based culture has profound effects on our behavior and 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 globalized culture hijacks these fundamental human needs for the purposes of the market and growth. In doing so, values and behaviors are encouraged that are good for the global market, but bad for our individual and collective mental health. We are taught that in order to have a sense of belonging we need to be constantly consuming. We need to have the newest technological gadgets in order to be “connected” and to be full participants in society. We are taught that our individual sense of identity, as well as our deep desire for connection and friendship, can be attained only by acquiring the products and services that advertisers are selling us. This culture teaches girls and women that their attractiveness and ability to be loved depends upon achieving an unattainable level 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. The global economy is a system that imposes culture from above; it is a system in which the need for growth has a profound impact on culture and values.
The values that this global culture promotes are those of imperialism: growth, competition, and domination. However subtly, it creates and enforces systems of oppression. We live in 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 filter upward 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.
To be maladjusted to this culture 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. For example, think about when you’ve shared a 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 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 innate 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 seeing mental health and culture as interconnected allows for solutions that work for both the individual and society. I certainly don’t claim to have all the answers, but I do believe in asking questions and thinking outside of the box. I believe that a re-imagining 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 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, 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 growth is the disease known as cancer. Is it possible that global society is like an organism afflicted with cancer? The economy is 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 a path toward extinction, or will we begin the process of healing ourselves and our culture, so we can build the kinds of societies that can successfully inhabit this planet?
Photo credit: Santhosh Sivaramalingam, winner of the Planet Local Photo Contest 2014