In a recent newspaper article, Martin Amis wrote of the recently departed J G Ballard: ‘He kept asking: what effect does the modern setting have on our psyches – the modern sculpture of the highways, the airport architecture, the culture of the shopping mall, pornography and technology? The answer to that question is a perversity that takes various mental forms, all of them extreme.’
The tributes pouring in acknowledging the talent and imaginative brilliance with which Ballard explored examples of such perversity are well deserved, but his life work surely demands more than tributes. Doesn’t it beg us all to think again? Shouldn’t we be asking: is the way we are heading acceptable, and if not, when are we going to change direction? Not just in terms of the physical manifestation of our culture but also the way it expects us to behave, the work it expects us to do, the food it expects us to eat, the lies it needs us to tell ourselves, the authority it requires us to respect – and the effects all of these have on our mental wellbeing.
The connection between our environment and our mental health is greater and more important than we in the developed world seem prepared to admit or even contemplate. Yet there is a collective reticence on the issue so ingrained that it prevents us from asking simple and obvious questions about factors affecting human psychological wellbeing – like what is a natural way to live and what is not, and to what extent unnatural behaviours might affect our mental state.
Perhaps we can’t face those questions because we depend too much on the illusion of control that is conjured by living in manufactured environments. To admit that the structures in which we install ourselves might be as damaging to us who live within them as they are to the rest of life on the outside would be humiliating, for sure. Yet I believe that as long as we remain passive and cowardly, our attempts at addressing the rising levels of depression and other forms of mental illness in our society will be as derisory as our progress towards restoring any level of environmental stability.
Three quarters get depressed
And the mental health problems are burdensome indeed. Let’s just take the relatively common afflictions. According to a recent report from the charity Depression Alliance three quarters of us in Britain have suffered from depression or significant anxiety at some time and more than 10 million people alive today in the country will suffer from depression over the course of their lives.
The World Health Organization tells us that depression (‘a common mental disorder that presents with depressed mood, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, low energy, and poor concentration [and which can] lead to substantial impairments in an individual’s ability to take care of his or her everyday responsibilities’) affects about 121 million people worldwide and is a ‘leading cause of disability’. By leading, it means that depression is expected to be the second highest contributor to premature death or incapacitating disability by 2020.
Depression is no lightweight condition, neither individually nor collectively. Developed societies are particularly prone, and if you look at the rising costs of treatment and research you’d be forgiven for thinking that we haven’t a collective clue how to tackle it.
I know nothing about psychology, psychiatry or brain chemistry, but it feels intuitive that an unholy combination of unnatural behaviours, contrived pressures, artificial surroundings and collective denial of our place in nature has a lot to answer for. In fact it seems reasonable to speculate that these factors contribute to and comprise some sort of mass psychosis, which is inextricably linked to our individual states of mental disrepair. The first article I wrote for VIVID touched on the idea that we are all out of our minds in some way, this being the only imaginable explanation of our rational acceptance and continuation of our willful destruction of Earth’s ecosystems (and therefore likely ourselves alongside them). Surely the least we should expect from our mental health experts is that they give considerations such as these serious, public and professional attention.
Of course I would be hardly the first to propose such a train of thought. In his book Free To Be Human David Edwards says: ‘Rarely have psychotherapists sought the cause of neurosis in the economic and political system within which we live. Instead the underlying premise has always been that the neurotic individual is dysfunctional and the industrial system ‘normal’; in other words that neurosis should be essentially defined by the inability of the individual to function ‘normally’ within that system.’ (Thanks are due to blogger RuggedIndoorsMan for reminding me of this quote in his recent and excellent essay on the political role of music.)
The influence of Erich Fromm in Edwards’ analysis is apparent. In his 1955 book The Sane Society Fromm wrote: ‘Yet many psychiatrists and psychologists refuse to entertain the idea that society as a whole may be lacking in sanity. They hold that the problem of mental health in a society is only that of the number of ‘unadjusted’ individuals, and not of a possible unadjustment of the culture itself.’
This quotation too was prompted by seeing it elsewhere, specifically in an article in Z magazine by another free-thinking mental-health professional, alive and working today in the US, Bruce Levine. His piece on what he calls ‘fundamentalist consumerism’ includes the claim that ‘Human beings are every day and in numerous ways psychologically, socially, and spiritually assaulted by a culture which: creates increasing material expectations; devalues human connectedness; socializes people to be self-absorbed; obliterates self-reliance; alienates people from normal human emotional reactions; sells false hope that creates more pain.’
Child psychologist Oliver James, author of the best-selling book Affluenza and proponent of the concept of ‘selfish capitalism,’ would probably concur. His idea that materialism lies at the heart of many of our problems extends to a comparative look at different countries and cultures, and he reports in The Psychologist that the more a country is governed to encourage individual material gain at the expense of the greater social good, the higher is its incidence of depression.
If mainstream psychology and psychotherapy were allowed to acknowledge and integrate these perspectives – to consider that, as psychologist Ronald David Laing once said: ‘Insanity sometimes is the sane response to a mad society’ – we might find ourselves with a powerful new tool to help unpick the social, economic and political structures that have such detrimental effects on us all and to remake society with full health in mind. We need to explore the true reasons for our distress in order that we can confront them. What this requires, as with so many of our current crises, is the freedom to be honest.
If we had that freedom, people suffering from depression and other mental illnesses, people secretly nursing a lack of purpose, people grappling with a sense that they are phony or that their world is surreal, people who feel their lives lack meaning, all of these people could speak up with pride: “We’re right! Our lives do lack authenticity. We are living a lie. It’s not surprising our brains and bodies have shut down in a self-protective response to it all.” Their recovery would surely be accelerated simply as a result of their perspectives having credibility. It seems obvious that a major barrier to recovering from an illness characterised by low self-esteem is that the illness itself is viewed as an indication of abnormality or inadequacy. Yet the solution to this – to acknowledge the illness as a signal that the sufferer is especially receptive to reality and responding naturally – is rarely entertained because of what it says about society.
Routes out of the loop
There are plenty of sources of inspiration for psychologists, psychotherapists, other therapists and individuals wanting to explore these thoughts further. Bruce Levine’s book Surviving America’s Depression Epidemic, which redefines depression and offers countermeasures to the problems identified in his article above, has received glowing reviews and is clearly a pioneering and mind-shifting offering to the field.
There is also ecopsychology, a slowly emerging sub-field of psychology that seeks to establish how our links to the natural world affect our mental health and how re-forming them might improve it. After a slow gestation period the field is starting to attract much-deserved respect, evidenced by a recently launched journal dedicated to the area.
Ecopsychology proposes that the study of the mind should encompass the world in which that mind exists, including the physical environment, based on the understanding that humans and nature are deeply bonded. It suggests that Western society’s presumption of a separation between humans and nature is a dangerous illusion that denies us the experience of these bonds and provokes in us a degree of mental suffering that manifests in the psychological illnesses and imbalances we experience today.
While this illusion of separation has allowed us to develop our sense of individuality, it has simultaneously caused us to become partially psychologically atrophied. Ecopsychology offers ways of reviving and nourishing the starved parts of our inner selves. In his 1992 book The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology pioneering ecopsychologist Theodore Roszak wrote ‘Other therapies seek to heal the alienation between person and person, person and family, person and society. Ecopsychology seeks to heal the more fundamental alienation between the person and the natural environment.’
The connections – or ‘interconnectedness’ – that form the basis of the ecopsychological framework ring many bells: the concept plays a huge part in Eastern philosophies and religions including Taoism and Buddhism and is also evident in the worldviews of various tribal or indigenous societies, many of whom appear to escape the restlessness and destructive tendencies of more complex societies and live sustainably for tens of thousands of years. Ecopsychology attempts to explicitly recognise the lessons that can be learned from such cultural perspectives. Its spin-off practice, ecotherapy is now also gaining some professional acceptance – although we still appear to depend on research to show us (for example) that mindfulness meditation when coupled with cognitive behaviour therapy can help people with depression; as can a walk in nature; and the fact that discoveries such as these are considered ‘startling’ shows how far we still have to go.
For those of us not practising or receiving therapy, there are several avenues we can explore independently to preserve or help restore our mental balance. We shouldn’t be surprised or put off by the cliché that even small acts, like spending time outdoors each day and tuning in to what’s around us; like planting a tree or even a garden; like actively promoting local environmental initiatives, like practising yoga or meditation, can all bring what seem like disproportionately large psychological rewards. Acts such as these are crucial steps towards the people that we really are – like the first and most blissful droplets of water from the glass that will quench our thirst.
Inner peace will come ultimately from recovering our deepest sense of interconnectedness. Perhaps outer peace will come from that sense defining and being an integral part of our social interactions. Being culturally conditioned as I am, I don’t yet have the capacity to understand what interconnectedness truly feels like, so I shall end by referring you to Buddhist scholar and eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, widely regarded for her Work that Reconnects. Some of her workshops may now be freely viewed in video form here.