Mental Health at the End of the World

21
1759

I’ve been thinking a lot about the end of the world. This is not just because of how much has been damaged by the pandemic; I have thought about the end of the world my whole life.

I’ve had the sense that I was born too late and always wanted to be born much earlier than I was because it would have been further away from the end of the world. I used to take solace in select nonfiction because what I was choosing to read and review for Real Change News focused 98% of its efforts on the direness of whatever social, economic or environmental problem it had in its crosshairs and spent the last 2% of its material on vacuous platitudes it called “solutions.”

This complete avoidance of positivity at all, let alone toxic positivity, was validating—I wasn’t called “Megativity” in high school for nothing. (Yes, ouch. But it only hurt because it was true).

Then, a few years ago, I got burned out. I hadn’t yet resolved my other lifelong neurosis—to save the world as a way to make up for/apologize for my own existence (I am aware of how thoroughly screwed up this is, so no need to point that out)—and I had reached my tolerance level with nonfiction authors not providing any actual, concrete solutions that we lay/little/insignificant individuals could do about the Worst Problem Ever they’d just spent 400 pages expositing in grave detail.

I wanted to fix things, damn it. Not just to finally justify my existence, but also because I was tired of suffering and being scared. I despaired about trying things that didn’t work even on the teensy scale of my personal life—doctors, therapy, yoga, whatever all I tried to break free of anxiety that runs corrosively hot but was stealthy enough to hide under faux-altruism and monstrously informed five- and ten-year plans—let alone the global transformation I’d known “forever” we needed.

I was frustrated and impatient with nonfiction authors for excusing their failure to provide guidance and direction with claims that “they are just here to educate” and “what readers decide to do with this information is up to them” because it felt like abdicating responsibility, as if purveying knowledge and information was “their part” in fixing this metastatic hell we’ve made for ourselves on this planet. I couldn’t figure out what I as an individual person could do about any of the rapidly advancing doom nonfiction so relentlessly harps on. Today I realized why.

I was trying to figure it out individually. I spoke against individual action when I was an environmentalist groupie: the idea that individual actions for greener personal lifestyles like biking rather than driving or taking shorter showers could add up to have any meaningful effect on climate change serves corporate interests because it gives the impression that we are all equally responsible for climate change and distracts from the drastic need for systemic change.

And yet, here I was hypocritically demanding answers from these authors (yes, I would contact every single one of them I could find email addresses for) about what individuals could do to solve all these problems.

I can’t believe how long it’s taken me to see the hypocrisy in that: I write about the dangers of individualism all the time, how self-care further entrenches isolation and how we need each other, how damaging loneliness is, how unhealthy our culture is because of the levels of loneliness we think is normal, etc. I’m kind of obnoxious about how much I rail against individualism and how much I mourn my own aloneness, self-induced by heavy social anxiety as it is. And yet, when it comes to facing global problems, I request answers for individual people.

It’s no wonder I’ve been deeply dissatisfied with any answers I do get. I don’t think individuals by themselves can solve these problems. The big names from the annals of history did not do what they’re known for on their own even if we don’t know the names of those who they couldn’t have accomplished all they did without.

I don’t even believe that aggregating individual efforts toward, say, decreasing their carbon footprint, would address the climate issue the way we need to address. But even if I did, that approach further entrenches the lie that is killing everything on the planet: the one that says we are alone.

There are times when I’d even like to believe that’s true, that I am alone and am therefore not responsible for or to anyone, but the current state of our society (not to mention quantum physics—remember when I talked about that?) clearly demonstrates that we are, at this point, woefully connected to each other.

That’s why we should stop encouraging people to seek what they as individuals can do. We shouldn’t allow individuals to bear so much responsibility, to wander so long and so far alone. We need to stop giving lip service to the extremely true and urgent fact that we are all connected, we need to work together, we are not alone, strength in numbers, etc.

The abolition of individualism has got to be at the center of any “alternative” mental-health movement/theory/philosophy. Otherwise, it’s not “alternative.” Whatever mental health means, it’s not an individual endeavor/diagnosis/signifier.

I’m not simply referring to the axiom that it’s the systems that are sick, not the individual. I’m saying that mental health is a group effort. Fixing or abolishing systems that cause disability and disease is necessary, but it alone will not make us well. Finding our way back to each other, to really embodying our connectedness (which persists for good or for ill) is essential as well.

I’ve been thinking about why we haven’t done this, and how we got so far away from each other in the first place. It is, of course, much easier and much more immediately satisfying, to argue and point out what’s wrong with someone else’s viewpoint than to actively work to find common ground. It’s easy to argue we’re not the same, that forcing agreement or consensus is erasure. It’s easy to believe that we actually don’t have anything in common with people we dislike and to gravitate toward like-minded people and spaces where we can find validation and safety. This is all totally normal and totally human. We all need belonging and no one is going to belong everywhere. I’m talking about something bigger, though.

We are, of course, allowed to have people we belong with, without negating the fact that we are all connected. That’s precisely my point: our connectedness persists despite the ways we voluntarily divide each other. We have got to really reckon with the fact of our connectedness, that it cannot actually be changed, and that it can work for us or against us.

Another word for connectedness is dependence, which is probably one reason for the instinctive rejection of or resistance to truly owning and living into our connectedness. Mainstream mental health “services” don’t connect us at all; they place the problem on individuals and then patronizingly offers solutions. Mainstream individualistic culture denies human connectedness, or at best paints it as something we can choose to opt into rather than an immutable part of the human condition.

To truly be alternative, we can’t just believe that the problems are with the systems we are living under, but also that we actually are not alone, that we are all connected, for better or worse. We have to resist the urge to focus on differences (which is a slippery slope toward emphasizing and strengthening division), arguing with/correcting each other as our first line of defense, or else we are no difference than the mainstream.

What would it look like for those of us who which to challenge or eradicate the current “mental health” system to advocate for caring for others be a national priority?

We would stand up against this common kneejerk response to people sharing their pain to “go talk to a professional.” We would publicly stand up for the value of friendship and no longer outsource people’s need for empathy to professionals; there are more people feeling alienated by the professionalization of human connection than we may realize—there are even novels being published about it now.

We would heal our own tendencies to isolate and avoid the pain of interacting with other people without denying that it is indeed often painful to interact with each other. We would emphasize understanding and finding points of commonality rather than differences and correcting each other.

This sounds Polyanna-ish, but building healthy relationships is much, much harder than remaining divided. It is much more difficult (partly because it’s scary) to admit our dependence on each other, not as an illness but as a fact of our humanity, than it is to attend Codependents Anonymous groups every week.

It’s easy to misunderstand what I’m saying as “we all need to get along” or that we have to sacrifice what’s most important to us for “middle ground.” Connectedness is not about agreeing, false peace, or forcing a middle ground where none is possible or worth whatever effort would take to find/create it. It is about prioritizing a way of being that advocates for everyone’s basic needs being met at the very least, and recognizing that one of those basic needs is belonging.

They don’t have to belong with you, and you do not have to provide belonging to everyone. It’s not about you personally providing for everyone’s needs; it’s about living in the stance that everyone deserves their basic needs to be met. This includes your enemies, those who have hurt you and those who do not care about you.

The mental health benefits of releasing people who have hurt you, even if they’re not sorry, can be extensive. I have experienced some pretty serious abuse (by the church and at the hands of therapists, among others) and have experienced reduced anxiety, emotional freedom, all that good stuff after truly releasing the pastor, those therapists, and my ex, but that’s not why I advocate for coming into alignment with the fact that we are all connected, dependent on each other, starting with really living into the value of everyone getting their basic needs met.

Our connectedness to each other, our dependence on each other, is reality, whether we like it or not, by virtue of the fact that we share a single, closed-system planet and have central nervous systems that form in relation to our environments, which we and others are forming and changing constantly. I don’t know about you, but I want the people who I don’t have the option but to share space (this planet and mine personally) with to be as healthy as possible.

I’m not naïve enough to think that abuse and violence stems only from unmet needs, but I do know that I am a mess when my basic needs go unmet. For one, I ruminate more acutely on the end of the world. Then again, at the risk of sounding like those nonfiction authors I’d complained about earlier, maybe that’s because this also feels like reality at the moment in so many ways for so many of us, if not all of us—we are all connected, after all.

We’ve tried depriving people of what they need, even shaming them for needing, since at least the dawn of capitalism. We’ve tried severing ourselves from each other and from the knowledge that we come hard-wired to need each other since at least the advent of Western civilization. We’ve tried division and oppression and medicalization and “therapy” in countless iterations since time immemorial. And what we’ve gotten is a nearly ended world.

I don’t know that there is a way to remedy the predicament we’re in—many say it’s too late to do so—but even if they’re right, I still think it would be interesting to see what would happen if we as a human species gave the fact of our connectedness and advocating taking care of everyone accordingly a try. Before you find/make all the holes or list out all the reasons this won’t work or why we shouldn’t even try, I invite you first to genuinely try to imagine what such a world would feel like.

***

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.

21 COMMENTS

  1. Deep!

    Nice piece.

    And hello fellow world saver.

    I enjoy you.

    Your searching mind is scrupulously thorough. Could say much much much more but it can keep for another time. I am busy today. All I will say is that for me “oneness” is holy. It is my notion that our spirits are all part of beautiful “oneness” and before our births when we incarnate into our fleshy earthly bodies our memories are dialled down about that celestial belongingness. But not so dialled down that we dont have a lingering hunch that connectedness is superfluous. We seek it all our lives. But “oneness” is not about erradicating differences but adoring differences. People get mixed up and think differences are like people shouting “my difference is correct and your diffrence is horrid” and “I am right and you are wrong”. But that is just bad behaviour “overlayed” on top of neutral innocuous triggering differences. All differences are arbitrary and harmless. I am not against difference. And I take delight in allowing myself to be different. And what we allow in ourselves we tend to equally champion in other people. So if I allow my difference without calling it “right” or “wrong”, I am more free about allowing other people to freely love being different from me. I am in favour of difference. I am against bad behaviour. These two things are not the same. There is a subtle felt distinction. I am for everyone loving their unique differences of opinion, faith, ideology, activism, feelings and so on. It is bad behaviour that curtails connectedness. It is bad behaviour that is what unwelcomes the different to stay as beautifully harmlessly different as they choose to be. The different should not be suppressed or vilified or ostracized for ANY reason. Gentle persuasion is okay, everyone thinks their own difference is magic and cannot wait to share its fabulousness. That is fine but rank bullying of other peoples diffence to the extent of demanding that people you have never met have to be all the same as you is bad behaviour. Difference is benign. It is how an observer of a difference gives “significance” and “interprets” a difference, as being right or wong according to their questionable rules or beliefs is where bullying can overlay a difference and abuse can kick off. After that grows a mob punishment of the different for their differentness being deemed “wrong”. Don’t get me started on where such bad behaviour, that favours the “I am right” stance in humans arises from.

    But here is a clue…

    f e a r

  2. This is spot on, as usual, Meghan. And what you say here about connection is why I am such a huge advocate for intentional community. We have been so divided that I think we are all suffering to an extent with the loss of connection and community.

    If I could strike just one phrase from the English lexicon, it would be “That sounds like a topic to discuss with your therapist.” It seems to be the modern version of not “airing dirty laundry in public” – the pretense among polite society that certain topics are too personal or, in modern parlance, beyond the ability for laypeople to help each other with, requiring professional assistance. The feedback loop of judgements -> self-stigma -> isolation -> poor coping ability -> judgements -> self-stigma -> isolation -> worse coping… ad nauseum.

    Where I have become stuck is in developing strong connections. It takes a LOT of time and energy and caring to build up and maintain strong relationships. It’s a lot easier to remain in an echo chamber and in the safety of like-mindedness where you don’t have to do much but except for stay in line with the herd. But God help you if you object to the herd mentality and find yourself alone again because you’ve gone against the group-think. Society has become a bit like perpetual high school. We can do better.

    • I’m not sure I agree. There are power differentials that exist in almost any relationship. It is the negotiated terms of the relationship that allow or disallow connectedness. If the person in the higher power position chooses to be respectful and genuine and chooses not to use that power over the other person, I think connectedness is still possible. But if one person actually views himself as superior and is willing to disregard or condescend or otherwise use his/her “power over,” then I agree there can be no connectedness between them. To connect, there needs to be sufficient safety for both parties.

  3. There are some good realizations here!

    I am constantly gobsmacked by how upset people can get about families, organizations and other social necessities. But there is a grain of truth in the attitude that we are all capable of a totally independent existence. It’s just that most of us would find this unbearable, and you can’t do it while coexisting with a human body.

    There are many levels of connectedness – or it could be called interdependence – that we should realize exist and learn to appropriately embrace. Therapy MUST address all of them, and indeed this is one reason I ended my traditional therapy (because it didn’t).
    These levels of connection include: 1) Our body (yes, it is NOT us, but something we are conected to!) 2) Our sexual partner (if we have one) and children 3) The groups we work with and enjoy time with 4) All of mankind 5) The rest of biology 6) The rest of the physical universe 7) The rest of the spirit world and 8) Everything else, often referred to as a Supreme Being or Creator.

    My training involves all these connections to some extent, probably 2) being the weakest one in my own experience.

    I now use a therapy paradigm that involves training a bunch of students to deliver a certain type of therapy, then pairing them up to deliver that to each other. There is one supervisor to watch over us while we do this, and another one to assess our individual technical needs and progress.

    Likewise, all group members, but particularly staff, are trained in group skills and how to be better group members.

    The aim, though, is not to eliminate individuality, which we see as the base or core on which everything else is built. We are expected to, and usually do, become stronger individuals as we become more skilled at being group members and helping each other. If our training left out any of the major kinds of connection, it would be much less effective. It is clear to us that the traditional therapeutic approach of most psychologists, psychiatrists and doctors is far too limited to handle anything other than temporary emergency situations. I used to cut these healers some slack for not yet coming up to speed. But I don’t like to do it any more. Now better alternatives in all the healing arts are everywhere in use, and the traditional people have no excuse beyond laziness or apathy.

    Step out of the way! The alternative mental health practices are HERE and are taking over!

  4. I wrote an essay once on “Love”. The main book I used to gild that lily theorized that “love” is impossible without “justice”. And for justice to happen you need “equality of power”.

    I like Sam’s comment. I also like Steve’s comment. And I like l_e cox’s comment. To me wisdom is a rope bridge requiring not simply one rope but many braided ropes, or ways of seeing.

    I remember seeing a therapist who sat looking at the bruise of my fresh black eye and she said…

    “Tell me something…what’s it like to live with someone you can never, ever be angry with?”.

    Years hence, I now know, that like a little child, you cannot love someone whom you are not free and safe to be angry with.

  5. The search for an “alternative” to psychiatry/mental health is misguided and destined to repeat the same patterns and assumptions, and serve the continued reign of alienation as our humanity becomes more and more commodified. The only true alternative to human suffering will come about not as a result of programs or techniques but of our values becoming more than dollar values, which can become possible only through revolution. (Just a reminder.)

      • A revolution is indeed an alternative.

        Which revolution would you prefer?

        And then what will be the outcome of your preferred revolution? Will it resemble your ideals, or more something else?

        The End of the World is a beautiful revolutionary beginning.

        Maybe not for us, but some other being.

        We must not be envious or spiteful towards those beings that inherit the earth. If they also succeed, they will also dismally fail.

        And if enough time lapses between success and failure then worry not, for along comes the unexpected apocalyptic event no-one bargained for, or was willing to endorse.

        Be kind as often and for as long as you can. For as long as there is bread enough to share.

        And live in hope that you will not live in a time when cruelty is the only way to get through a day.

  6. Although, I respect the author’s opinion and insight, the list of society’s ills and the suffering that each one of us must endure at times is only cured by “individualism.” A collective society is nothing but a communistic society. We are here on earth to be interdependent not dependent on each other. It is in the sovereignty of each person that can only be known as the sovereignty of God where our answers lie. Each person must come to his or her own conclusions about life on his or her own with the help of God, that is. No one can live another person’s life not should. Collectivism spawns interference in the life paths of others, which is similar to nations interfering in the activities of other nations. This is nothing but against Universal Law; which is against God’s Law. Although, we need each other and can be as one body; each one of us must realize the only way to be successful as one body is when each part of the body sees how valuable it individual effort and contribution is. To deny the individualism of each human being on earth and try to make a collective is just wrong, just plain wrong. Psychiatry enables this to the umpteenth degree. We are not robots. We are proud individuals. Please do not allow that dignity to be taken away or perhaps, we might all become extinct; living in “hell.” Thank you.

    • Truth all over the place here, thank you Rebel. We are, indeed, self-sovereign, by nature. We’ve been lied to, manipulated, and frightened out of this–in essence, out of our natural power and freedom, along with our innate sense of abundance and belongingness.

      Getting back to our authentic natural selves (that is a process of healing and waking up to a few things, new truths) is to be in harmony with ourselves. Then we can shine our light for others in support, encouragement, whatever, if we can feel our own light, that sense of freedom which deep down inside is there, allowing that natural interdependence to occur, based on how we have the natural capacity to operate from compassion if we allow ourselves to, starting with self and extending out to others. This would be natural, and would be for our own well being and for that of others–win/win individual and collective, everyone growing and evolving together, from their own perspectives and realities.

      I’d call that a functional society, and safe because it is based on integrity. When not, it should be called out immediately to avoid enabling. It’s everyone’s responsibility to stop abuse in its tracks, espeically if it is coming directly at us, and that is very tricky in a toxic/abusive/dysfunctional family/social/professional system. We live and learn about this, I don’t know any other way. It is a courageous path, I’ll say that. Thank you, Megan, for the light you are constantly shining on this issue.

      Tons of great quotes here, Rebel, I especially like this one–

      “each one of us must realize the only way to be successful as one body is when each part of the body sees how valuable it individual effort and contribution is. To deny the individualism of each human being on earth and try to make a collective is just wrong, just plain wrong.”

      I’d certainly call it self-defeating, happens all the time! If we try too hard to control others by demeaning them, shaming, scaring, lying to others–aka gaslighting, the usual tricks–to throw them off kilter and deny their personal truth, it eventually comes back in a humbling way. Respect for others should come back in a mutually respectful way. If not, I say get out, and don’t look back.

    • A collective society is nothing but a communistic society.

      And….? So were the early Christians.

      We are here on earth to be interdependent not dependent on each other.

      “Dependent on each other” is another way of saying interdependent.

      Recognizing and respecting each other’s individuality is not individualism; individualism is putting the interests of the individual above those of the collective. This is what psychiatry reflects when it identifies the problem as originating within the individual rather than resulting from systemic oppression inherent in the external power structure. If this is what Megan means I support her general thrust.

      • Humans are social animals/beings. Most don’t do well when isolated. We seem to thrive when living in communities. The failure of psychiatry to even notice let alone try to understand this simple fact makes it impossible for psychiatry to ever be of any help to anyone. The Rat Park experiment alone puts the lie to the vast majority of psychiatric research – obviously, if community and activities can change even a rat from a cocaine addict into a “normal” community member, the idea that addiction or “mental illness” is inherent in the person seems pretty stupid.

        • As long as it’s a peace-loving, fair-minded, just, safe, grounded, ever-evolving and functional community, equally respectful of all of its individual members, where no one is deprived of their freedom of expression and creativity, then sure, that sounds great. I imagine it would be very healing to anyone looking for it. Do you know of any?

          • Well, no community just IS that way, it has to be CREATED that way and continue to be created that way over time. I have experienced that from time to time in my life, but only for a little while. It is difficult to get everyone on board with that kind of ongoing creation. We’ve all grown up in an oppressive society and we all need healing!

          • Absolutely, Steve, it has to be created for it to even exist. So consider what I say as a vision, from which all things created begin, which I’m certain I share with others, at least many people whom I know. It’s not an original idea in the slightest, but even with all the chatter about it over the generations, it has mysteriously (well, sort of, and less and less so as time goes by, just hard to know what to do about it) remained elusive, and it has become a chronic frustration for people, I have noticed, to the point of tragedy.

            I believe it would start in the home, our first community. Eventually, we do have to individuate, but we have to be aware of what we’ve internalized from that first community which is not in alignment with our true nature. We each have one and it is not duplicated, we are unique in that sense, purely.

            But these days, that’s a lot of sorting and sifting and soul searching, can be confusing for a while until new clarity is reached. That’s a journey to take, evolving self-awareness. For most of us, this seems to have been the case, that our natural experssion is stifled early on because it is not aligned with some unacknowledged yet practiced expectation to serve the community at one’s sacrifice, or it is invalidated. That’s a terrible double bind, and I believe it’s an abusive expectation. Doesn’t have to be, in an inclusively supportive system, but it has been.

            Adults in families more often control their children rather than respect their individuality from the get-go, if it is too far away from the “family norm,” and an innocent baby behaving according to its nature (and often in unconscious protest to evnironmental stress) can be blamed for upsetting the balance in the family, that is not uncommon. That’s where the problem begins, it’s oppressive right away. Psychiatry only follows suit and takes that example. They all came from families, too, or at least what can be called “first environment.” We all did, and that is something from which to individuate, which in no way means to abandon, it means to distinguish oneself from the community at large, which is vital if one wants to live freely creative and find the role which suits them best.

            To me, that would translate to personal fulfillment, at no one’s expense because everyone would be free to follow their path to fulfillment without fearing sabotage from others, no cut-throat competition which most often overshadows a sense of humanity and moral compass. That’s where it gets incredibly messy, but that’s what it is right now.

          • Thanks, KS. I wonder how these work for people? I see there’s one in my own town, perhaps I can stop by and check it out, I’d be curious to know.

            Personally, I prefer my privacy on a day to day basis, but we’ve opened our doors plenty of times to offer food and support, even to make music with others. Just this morning I delivered a batch of mint chocolate chip cookies to my favorite shopkeepers, which I also shared with my next door neighbor yesterday over coffee. We live in a neighborly town!

            Moving to a small rural town surrounded by nature and offering plenty of alternative living along with families and retirees, was more healing to, both, my partner and me, than I can say after leaving San Francisco, where neighbors would barely look each other in the eye passing each other on the sidewalk, much less offer good cheer spontaneously. Urban living has simply become unhealthful, imo.

            I’d like to see it occur organically, giving and receving love, just because it feels good. And may it spread like an ocean of light into a new healing version of planet Earth…

  7. Megan,

    I get the feeling that you are blurring individualism with individuality, while bringing up many relevant points. There is no collectivity without individuals, individuals that are as important as any conglomeration or interconnected web. You’ve pointed out many discrepancies of the diagnoses, alienation, etc. of individualism, but I fear you either reversed into the opposite of your previous positioning or never had a full view of the importance of individuality. The 1 is required for any larger number. I guess in some ways you are not denying that, you are just highlighting that 1 cannot or should not do it alone, especially in the long run.

    I like Jung’s differentiation of individuation vs. individualism.

LEAVE A REPLY