Is our economic system responsible for the rise in mental illness?
World Mental Health Day
Just as I was thinking about where we get our ideas from and how we are conditioned into seeing the world in a certain way, along came World Mental Health Day on 8th October which did a good job in opening our eyes to the extent of mental illness, the severe lack of government services and the misery suffered by millions of people.
But, I felt there was something missing. Among the outpourings of sufferers and their families and the promises of the government to improve services little attention was paid to just what is going on in our world which is causing such an explosion of anxiety, depression and stress.
Why are suicide rates so high that we need a Minister for Suicide Prevention?
Why has suicide overtaken car accidents as the leading cause of injury-related death in the US?
Material Wealth v Wellbeing
My searching for meaning in our mad 21st Century world has led me to believe that our economic system, based as it is on material wealth without paying attention to our all-round well-being could well be playing a huge part in the mental distress of so many people.
Israeli historian Yuval Harari pointed out that although over millennia Homo Sapiens has advanced intellectually, cognitively and technologically, our emotional, psychological and spiritual needs have changed little. He said:
‘Our eating habits, our conflicts and our sexuality are all a result of the way our hunter-gatherer minds interact with our current post-industrial environment, with its mega-cities, airplanes, telephones and computers …
Today we may be living in high-rise apartments with over-stuffed refrigerators, but our DNA still thinks we are in the savannah.”
The Hierarchy of Needs
Yes, that could be it: Our mental distress could well be because our emotional, psychological and spiritual needs, which are much like our pre-historic ancestors, are not being met in the modern world.
As long ago as 1943 Maslow’s ‘Hierarchy of Needs’ identified human needs as a pyramid. Once our physiological needs for air, food, drink, shelter, warmth, sex and sleep have been met we move on to higher level needs: to have friends and feel we belong, for self-esteem and to fulfil ourselves including creative activities.
Globalisation, dedicated to providing more and more ‘stuff’, might be good at providing for the basic needs of the world’s population (and, of course, that is pretty important!) but it’s questionable whether it does much to help our overall wellbeing.
- What happens to our need to belong to the group and to our ‘street cred’ when we can’t afford the latest fashions and must-have gadgets and gizmos?
- What happens to our self-esteem when we can’t keep up?
- Do we feel any sense of achievement when we are monitored minute by minute on a robot-like job in an Amazon warehouse?
- What happens to our spiritual life when we are removed from the natural world and feel overwhelmed by the noise and demands of daily life?
- What happens to our need to feel we belong, to our friendships and our family ties when we are living half a world away from our roots, our culture and those we hold dear?
- What happens to our sense of security and predictability when our neighbours speak a different language and when we approach old age with our children living half a world away?
- What happens to our self-esteem when we cross oceans to live among often hostile strangers who may sneer at our religion, our dress and our way of life?
Moving beyond excessive material consumption
I’m left thinking that although supportive services, crisis intervention and medication all have a part to play in mental health they are in a sense a sticking plaster. Perhaps what we really need is to build a world where we move beyond excessive material consumption and choose co-operation and caring over competition and greed.
I’m reminded that as long ago as 1968 former US Senator Robert Kennedy, speaking about Gross Domestic Product, the measure of our success as a country said:
‘Our Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armoured cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials ……. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.’