“Depression is not just a private, psychological matter. It is, in fact, a social problem … The fact that depression seems to be “in the air” right now can be both the cause and result of a level of a societal malaise that so many feel.”
– Elizabeth Wurtzel, Prozac Nation
In a recent Ted Talk, “Depression is a Disease of Civilization.” professor Stephen Ilardi advances the thesis that depression is a disease of our modern lifestyle. As an example, Ilardi compares our modern culture to the Kaluli people — an indigenous tribe that lives in the highlands of New Guinea. When an anthopologist interviewed over 2,000 Kaluli, he found that only one person exhibited the symptoms of clinical depression, despite the fact the Kaluli are plagued by high rates of infant mortality, parasitic infection, and violent death. Yet, despite their harsh lives, the Kaluli do not experience depression as we know it.
Ilardi believes this is due to the fact that the human genome of the Kaluli (as well as all humans) is well adapated to the agrarian, hunter gatherer lifestyle which shaped 99% of people who came before us. Then two hundred years ago, we saw the advent of the modern wetern-industrialized culture which created a “radical, environmental mutation” that has led a mismath between our genes/brains/bodies and modern culture. As Ilardi concludes, “We were never designed for the sedentary, indoor, socially isolated, fast-food laden, sleep-deprived, frenzied pace of modern life.”
Evidence to support this idea comes from a study of 9,500 adults which found that people born near the end of the 20th century were three times more likely to develop depression than those born earlier. A person born in the 1930s was likely to have his or her first depressive episode between the ages of thirty and thirty five. If you were born in 1956, your initial episode occurred between twenty and twenty-five. This phenomenon — the early onset of depression and the greater prevalence of depression in young people — is reflected in a three hundred percent increase in the youth suicide rate in one generation.
When changes of this magnitude occur within a fifty-year period, social forces are clearly at work. Myrna Weissman, epidemiologist of Columbia University, blames such societal factors as an increase in stress, fewer family and community ties, and even nutritional deficiencies. Buddhist psychologist John Wellwood, whom I quote at length, provides his own compelling analysis of depression in our time:
Our materialistic culture helps foster depression. Not only do we lack a living wisdom tradition to guide modern society, but we find it more and more difficult to achieve even the ordinary worldly satisfaction of adult life: finding rewarding work, maintaining an intimate long-term relationship, or imparting a meaningful heritage to our children. Our sense of personal dignity and worth is quite fragile in a society where stable families, close-knit communities, commonly held values, and connection with the earth are increasingly rare. In a society such as ours where the motivating ideal is to “make it” through social status and monetary success, depression is inevitable when people fail to find the imagined pot of gold at rainbow’s end.
Furthermore, many in the psychiatric profession seem determined to view depression as an isolated symptom that can be excised from the psyche with the help of modern technology. The fact that drugs have become the treatment of choice indicates that we as a society do not want to directly face the existential meaning of this pathology. If we believe that depression is primarily physiological and treatable by drugs, we will not confront the ways in which we create it, both as individuals and as a culture. The view that depression is an alien force that descends on the psyche actually interferes with genuine possibilities for healing.
The theme of disconnection lies at the heart of the societal imbalance described by Wellwood. People who are depressed describe themselves as disconnected—from their bodies, their emotions, their spirits—i.e., from their core selves. The roots of this disconnection are to be found not only within the individual, but within society and its institutions. Here are just a few examples of how the values and lifestyles of Western culture promote and foster disconnection.
We Are Disconnected From Our Feelings
In our intellectual culture, feelings are devalued and considered a sign of weakness. Family therapist John Bradshaw describes the “no-talk, no feel” that is prevalent in family systems. Children are raised to suppress their feelings, especially those of anger and sadness. But when we are conditioned to lose touch with our so-called “negative” feelings, so too do we lose touch with our joy.
We Are Disconnected From One Another
Mother Teresa called America “the loneliest place in the world.” This loneliness is created by many factors: the dissolution of extended families (the number of Americans living in extended families has gone from 80 percent in 1945 to three percent in 1990), the breakdown of traditional communities, and our hurried way of life. Instead of true community, we now have pseudo-communities like malls (where children frequently hang out) and the Internet. While people on the Internet may sometimes experience community, sitting in front of a computer terminal for long periods, like watching television, can be isolating. Thus, one study found that the more time a person spends on-line, the more likely he or she is to experience symptoms of depression.
We Are Disconnected From Time
In her seminal book, The Overworked American, Harvard psychologist Juliette Schor documents that the average American works an extra 163 hours a year (or the equivalent of an extra month) compared to thirty years ago. As a result of the decline of leisure, we have less time to devote to our families and to our children. Child neglect has become endemic to our society. Children are increasingly left alone to fend for themselves while their parents work. Even when the parents are at home, overwork may leave them with little time or energy for their kids.
We Are Disconnected From Our Sense of Morality
In 1991 and 1992, the Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics conducted a survey of the ethical behavior of 8,965 young adults. They found that six in ten high school students and one in three college students admitted to cheating on exams in the previous year. Moreover, one in three high school students took something from a store without paying. (An extreme example of this behavior recently occurred in my neighborhood; the student-body president of the high school where I tutor was sentenced to 12 years in prison for committing 19 armed robberies. According to his friends, he did it to gain “thrills and excitement.”) The authors of the study concluded that such a precipitous decline in ethics has been caused by two factors—a pervasive cynicism about the need for ethical conduct in order to succeed, and the failure of parents, schools and businesses to consistently impose natural consequences for unethical behavior.
Moral and ethical values are usually imparted to children in their families. When parents abdicate responsibility for raising children, their children are more likely to be influenced by the pernicious violence and nihilism that infects much of the entertainment industry—i.e., video games, music, and TV.
We Are Disconnected From Curiosity and a Sense of Wonder
Anyone who has spent a day with a five-year-old child knows that children possess an innate love of learning. Somehow, between kindergarten and the sixth grade, this natural curiosity gets stamped out. In his acclaimed book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, award-winning teacher John Taylor Gatto asserts that public schools (which he calls “jails for children”) suppress the self-knowledge, curiosity and solitude that are essential to learning—replacing them with emotional and intellectual dependency, conditional self-esteem and fear of self-expression. Gatto poses the question, “How can we restore children’s love of learning and put them back in touch with their special genius?” In searching for an alternative to public schools, he prescribes a combination of independent study, community service, large doses of solitude, and learning through apprenticeships.
We are Disconnected From the Earth
Nowhere is our disconnection more evident (and more dangerous) than in our relation to Mother Earth. In his book, Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit, Al Gore diagnoses our ecological problem as being a symptom of a dysfunctional, addictive civilization. Gore writes:
I believe that our civilization is addicted to the consumption of the earth itself. This addictive relationship distracts us from the pain of what we have lost: a direct experience of our connection to vividness, vibrancy, and aliveness of the rest of the natural world. The froth and frenzy of industrial civilization masks our deep loneliness for communion. The price we pay is the loss of our spiritual lives.
We Are Disconnected From Our Spirit
As Gore says, the ultimate disconnection in this culture is the disconnection from our spirit. This is why Mother Teresa repeatedly stated, “The main problem facing the Western world is that of spiritual deprivation.” In trying to fill that inner void, we vainly turn to alcohol, sex, drugs, workaholism, compulsive gambling, and a host of other addictions. Yet no amount of money, status, power, or sensual pleasure can create the connection to the deeper spiritual self that alone grants us peace.
Many of the ills I have listed are, I believe, a misapplication of capitalism as practiced by the corporate culture. The threefold human crisis of deepening poverty, environmental destruction and social disintegration can be traced to economic models that make growth the ultimate goal and that treat people as mere means. While the profit motive is not inherently evil, when money is worshipped as a false god (i.e., when it becomes an all-consuming priority, to the detriment of living systems and the natural world), evil deeds result—the exploitation of young children in overseas sweatshops; the oppression of American workers in electronic sweatshops; the unequal distribution of the earth’s resources, so that twenty percent of the earth’s people are chronically hungry or starving, while the rest of the population, largely in the North, consume eighty percent of the world’s wealth; the marketing of fast food to children teenagers; the inhumane treatment of farm animals in factory farming; the decimation of the rainforests; and ultimately, the destruction of the earth’s biotic capacity to produce life.
There is, however, another way. Business can move towards sustainability and create a real ecological economic system. In his visionary book, The Ecology of Commerce, Paul Hawken writes:
The ultimate purpose of business is not, and should not be, simply to make money. Nor is it merely a system of making and selling things. The promise of business is to increase the general well-being of humankind through service, creative invention and ethical philosophy.
Hawken argues that we have the capacity to create a new and different economy, one that can “restore ecosystems and protect the environment, while bringing forth innovation, prosperity, meaningful work and true security.” Among other things, Hawken’s “restorative economy” would:
- Reduce absolute consumption of energy and natural resources in the North by 80 percent in the next half century (the technology already exists to accomplish this).
- Provide secure, stable and meaningful employment for people everywhere.
- Honor market principles.
- Exceed sustainability by restoring degraded habitats and ecosystems to their fullest biological integrity.
- Be fun and engaging, so that people eagerly participate in cultural transformation.
Paul Hawken and other visionaries such as E.F. Schumacher (Small is Beautiful), David Korten (The Post Corporate Era: Life After Capitalism) and David Suzuki (The Sacred Balance) lay out clear and practical road maps that can lead us to sustainability.
The theme of this article is that we can no longer afford to view depression solely as a problem of the individual. The health of the society and the health of its individuals are inextricably linked. To end the worldwide epidemic of depression, we must combine individual psychological therapies with new social and economic systems that respect the earth and more fairly distribute the worlds resources. Such models already exist. What we need is the political will to implement them. If we can do so, we will be able to create a more equitable culture that optimizes the mental and emotional health of each of its ciitizens.
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More about Douglas’ approach to healing can be found at
Healing From Depression
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.