“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.