Unity in Diversity: Rethinking Mental Health and Our Connection to Nature

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We are not only in the midst of a climate crisis, but also a “mental health” crisis… though I use this problematic phrase with hesitation. Unsurprisingly, this is not a pure coincidence. On the contrary, I believe that our widespread disconnection from “nature” as a globalised society lies at the root of these interrelated issues.

At some point, a line was drawn between “humanity” and the rest of the natural world. Many would say this began with the Scientific Revolution. Others would trace it back to medieval Christendom, and its distinction between the Heavens and the Earth, or even further, to the earliest human civilisations in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and the Indus Valley—with the introduction of agriculture, which forever changed the way we live, work, and communicate.

Whatever the case may be, this sharp divide is reflected in the language we use in everyday conversation, often implicitly. As I wrote in a previous article, the words “natural” and “artificial” are often treated as if they are antonyms—for example, when we say that we are going for a hike “in nature” to escape the depressing artifice of the city. Surely, if humans are the product of evolution by natural selection—as Darwin told us over a century and a half ago in The Origin of Species—and so we are continuous with the rest of life on Earth, then even our cities are part of nature.

Actually, nature is everywhere—it is inescapable, as long as we are alive—so how come we forget this fact so easily? And how is this historical detour relevant to the state of modern psychiatry? Or to the so-called “psychedelic renaissance” that is challenging conventional therapies?

Illustration of trees shaped like human heads

Copernicus and Galileo may have overthrown the geocentric view that the Earth lies at the centre of the solar system, placing the Sun at the centre instead (that is, adopting a heliocentric model). However, when it comes to the living world, many of us still think of humans as standing atop the animal kingdom, and at the centre of the universe—ranking ourselves as the most intelligent, the most creative, and the most empathetic species, despite overwhelming historical evidence that we can also be the most stupid, destructive, and self-centred of all.

One of my favourite quotes from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy captures the irony perfectly, in characteristically absurd humour:

“On the planet Earth, man had always assumed he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”

Despite frequent warnings from ecologists and environmentalists that all organisms—animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria alike—are interdependent and symbiotic, many of us cling to an anthropocentric view of the cosmos. That is, we automatically put human needs and values first, treating “nature” as a resource to be utilised for material gain—often to the detriment of the biosphere at large.

By holding to Newton’s materialist worldview and treating the world as a mechanical system—a clockwork universe, governed by invariant laws, with little room for free will—traditional science threatened to dislodge humans from our privileged position as beings divinely endowed with souls. Society responded by veering to the opposite extreme of humanism, defending the belief that there is something unique about humans—be that our capacity for language, imagination, self-consciousness, “rational” thinking, or something else.

This tension between materialism and humanism, and between the physical and mental (which many consider to be separate realms of existence, mysteriously connected, following in the dualist tradition of Descartes), has created a schism in our lives. Nowhere is this more evident than within the psychiatric sphere.

What is Normal? Defining “Neurotypicality” and “Neurodivergence”

Bodily illness is easy enough to define—diseases like cancer or COVID can be detected and treated with the right medical instruments—but the concept of “mental illness” is notoriously elusive. We cannot directly point at depression or anxiety, in the same way that we can point at a virus or bacterial infection. After all, what does it mean to be mentally healthy? We need some fixed reference point for comparison—an accepted standard of “normal” mental functioning, or “neurotypicality.” The problem is that there is no such thing. What is normal?

Neuroscientists certainly don’t have the answer. Brains are just as varied in structure as bodies—even if we could find the average patterns of neural firing for one person during one activity, they would contrast significantly from the next person on the street, not to mention between cultures with different norms. Even for one individual, brain activity looks completely different across moods, and in different phases of the sleep-wake cycle.

Every person has a unique history of past experiences, which have shaped all the little habits out of which our identities are constructed. We have all learned different ways of reacting to similar and novel situations. Of course, we are constantly being influenced by the people around us—but how can one standard of “mental health” fit all?

This creates a challenge when it comes to defining “mental illness”—or “neurodivergence” to use a more inclusive and non-pathologising, but similarly problematic, phrase. In the same way that there is no such thing as a “typical” organism—only biodiversity—there is equally no “typical” human brain or mind. We will always find tremendous variation, or neurodiversity (note the difference here from “neurodivergence,” which implies a reference point of “neurotypicality” for comparison). We are all weird, deep down—try as we might to hide it.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution and the standardisation of production processes, the same approach has been applied to human workers. In a capitalist society, we have to learn to advertise our skills to employers in job applications and interviews—creating a “marketable self” with selling points, as if we too are products on the factory line. But there are always those who do not fit the mould. People who dare not to conform, refusing to change themselves to fit into these universalised standards—and those labelled with “mental health problems,” who have no choice but to be marginalised from society. Across the globe, there is a growing population of so-called “NEETs” (standing for people “not in education, employment, or training”), incapable of getting their feet on the job ladder. Many of these people fall through the cracks, choosing to isolate themselves, rather than participate in a society they consider broken. They may feel they can never match social expectations, so decide instead to drop out of the system altogether.

A large part of the problem, as it so often does, comes down to language, and in particular, the labels we choose. Psychiatry has been built on the “mental illness” model, tending to pathologise issues wherever possible, labelling people with terms like “major depressive disorder” (MDD), “generalised anxiety disorder” (GAD), “social anxiety disorder” (SAD), “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (ADHD) or “autism spectrum disorder” (ASD), not to mention all the vague “personality disorders.”

The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, contains descriptions for over 150 “mental health disorders.” Maybe this is overkill… Don’t we all have our tics and quirks? Don’t we all have depressive moods and anxiety-triggers? How do we draw the line for what is “disordered” when we are yet to define “ordered” mental activity?

We need to recognise that conditions like anxiety, depression, autism, and schizophrenia are ultimately sociocultural issues, emerging from our political, economic, and social structures. They cannot be reduced to brain dysfunction within any individual—the story is far more complicated than that. It may well be impossible to give up on using labels entirely—we need some conceptual boxes to identify issues which are causing suffering to individuals, but perhaps these boxes could be broadened to be more inclusive and less constraining, if we change the way we collectively think about “mental health” and “mental illness.”

Anyone can read the DSM and match themselves to the criteria for some disorder or another. Probably several. Labelling our issues is meant to help us to receive the proper therapeutic support or psychopharmacological treatment, to alleviate suffering—but in many cases, it can have the opposite, detrimental effect on our wellbeing. By consistently believing there is something objectively “wrong” with us—that we are mentally damaged in some way—this can worsen the issue at hand, creating self-sustaining feedback loops of negative emotions and moods, which can be hard to escape. We may feel unable to heal ourselves.

Breaking the Loop—Exploring Alternative Therapies

So how can we break the loop? How can we let go of unhealthy patterns and habits that are holding us back? There is a growing body of research on the use of psychedelic substances for the treatment of conditions like depression and PTSD as an alternative to traditional pharmaceutical treatments like antidepressants. A number of studies have suggested that these mind-altering chemicals, which bind to serotonin receptors in the brain, can modify neural firing patterns such that global connectivity is increased, according to the entropic brain hypothesis. New connections may be formed between distant regions of the brain, sparking creative thoughts and ideas, and offering us new perspectives on ourselves, our relationships in life, and our relationship to nature as a whole. Meanwhile, well-trodden local pathways tend to become less active during a psychedelic experience—in particular, the “default mode network,” associated with mind-wandering, self-reflection, and ruminative thoughts, is dialled down. In contrast, this network is highly active in depression and anxiety.

Abstract painting

That said, it is dangerous to think of these chemicals as some kind of “miracle cure” to our problems as individuals and as a society. After all, utopia, literally meaning “no place,” is by definition unattainable—we can only come asymptotically closer, but never quite reach this state, except in our imagination. In order to tackle the ecological and psychological crises facing our civilisation, not only do we need to make high-level changes to our social, political, and educational systems, but also smaller changes to the little habits that make up our identities—since every choice we make has ripple effects on our environment.

Psychedelic experiences can help us to notice some of the unhelpful patterns in our thinking, and our interactions with the world, but it is crucial that we then make concerted efforts to integrate these insights into our everyday lives and routines—or it is all too easy to slip back into our old ways.

Moreover, when it comes to the field of psychedelic research, we need to acknowledge the biases of the scientists designing and carrying out these studies, which are mostly funded by pharmaceutical companies with vested interests in the legalisation of psychedelics. Science and politics are always intertwined, and researchers are never entirely objective—they are only human, not robots. If we design a study with our preconceived ideas and conclusions already in mind, we will be inclined to find the kind of results we are looking for, to support those conclusions. In doing so, we may ignore significant limitations of our methodology and findings.

In this case, researchers have paid little attention to the potential risks and side-effects of psychedelic usage, which have not yet been fully explored. For example, there have been widespread reports of “HPPD” (hallucinogen persisting perception disorder). This is a little-known condition characterised by long-term changes to our sensory experience, including effects like “visual snow,” which may interfere with our daily activities, causing distress.

As useful and transformative as psychedelic substances may be as catalysts for healing, personal development, and societal change, as well as entheogenic tools for spiritual, artistic, and philosophical exploration, their effects can be unpredictable, varying drastically from one individual to the next—they are certainly not for everyone, and on the contrary, may pose a considerable risk to some, especially those predisposed to conditions like schizophrenia. However, there are other methods to break rigid habits that keep us trapped in anxious and depressive thought-loops, which may be more effective in the long-run.

For example, by engaging in any activities in which we are fully immersed in our body and the present moment—including meditation exercises, mindful walks in “nature,” or any kind of artistic and musical activities. During these activities, we can forget or lose ourselves in the flow of sensation, movement, and creativity—with practice, becoming increasingly attuned with our environment in these specific contexts, as they become familiar and comfortable. We can learn to ground ourselves in the flux of experience, to avoid getting caught up in anxious or depressive thoughts, and dragged into cycles of unhelpful rumination.

All these activities have something in common—they have the power to dissolve the boundaries between us. They can help us to reconnect with each other and our shared world, and to realise the underlying unity beneath the apparent diversity of life. Think about a concert, where the entire crowd is moving and singing in perfect synchrony—in these beautiful moments of shared experience, our vastly different life journeys, cultural backgrounds, and states of mind and health are all forgotten. It doesn’t matter if at other times, we consider ourselves to be depressed, anxious, autistic, or anything else—for that brief time, we are all simply human beings, bound together by invisible threads of rhythm and emotion. As we are drawn deeper into the moment, the sense of separation between our bodies and identities breaks down, offering a glimpse of something greater—a bigger picture, beyond our everyday thoughts and worries.

Such experiences are revealing of the divisions we have created, between “humanity” and “nature,” and between the “normal” and “abnormal.” If we could be just as inclusive and accepting of differences, across all the other dimensions of our lives, then maybe the challenges our society is facing would not seem so insurmountable. If we can work together and embrace the diversity of human skillsets, rather than pushing towards uniformity—and by sharing a sense of responsibility towards each other, our environment, and life as a whole—perhaps we could tackle both crises, ecological and psychological, at once.

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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.

4 COMMENTS

    • Mental health is the problem, not the psyche. Monism – empty materialism and spiritual naivety are the problems. Not suffering, not psychosis and death – those are the base of psychological identity, not a problem to solve by empiricism. Normal and their lack of wisdom and extremely low rhetorics, is the real problem. Monists who are using psychological identity of others as an empirical problems to solve are psychopatic traitors and a secret weapon against psyche. They are using people without rights, which were stolen by psychiatry, for their own survival – like parasites. And every symptom of the psyche is a danger for their own ego fundamentalism. Monists are disaster, not psyche. Hebrew culture of monotheistic man, destroyed Hellenic one. That is why we have degradation and labels, not the rights to pathology, which is not something evil. Monists and their sick materialism is evil, not pathology. Monists do not have a definiotion of the psyche, they have material status and well being, which is degradation for psychological man. Definition of the psyche and pathological worth gives you a right to be, material status gives nothing for psychological man. For autistics and schizophrenics to live among empty materialistic barbarians, it is a death sentence. This is deliberate action of marxism. Rats are rats. Psychological man is a psychological man. They are slaves, we are real humans. Psychological man is real, monistic man is a pathological liar.

  1. https://youtu.be/AIpPn6GHrM0

    Back to thank you Richard D Lewis for your thankyou. If you like my music you might like this. It is understated but good to walk through a meadow with. I actually meant Richard Sears. But when I saw you had replied it touched me deep. You and I have opinions at varience yet we found a bridge. This has often been my learning at MIA. The temptation in comments sections is to be “right” about a cherished idea or fervid planet saving impulse and this makes us all seek out opposing views to spar with, in order to reach that “rightness” sense of order, in the “right” “wrong” dynamic. It is easier to remonstrate about what we do not want, not what we do want. Bickering becomes essential to that end. But we just add fuel to fire in causing yet more bickering, until the whole world is aflame with what we do not want.
    I recall the angels saying to me one day…

    “You can be right or you can be love”.

    It is much safer to be “right”. Love is dangerous. It dissolves both lover and beloved. And dissolving feels like the disintegration of identity that occurs in madness. Which is why people are on the whole loathe to love anyone until pushed. Love feels like loss of self. But it returns self in a dozen voices from appreciators, as a lost the found bonus prize.

    I hardly know what I am saying, as is often the case. But I just knew that towards the end of last month I had gotten to a point of exhaustedness about arm wrestling in the comments section. I was doing so to apparently take care of my kind of a world, to ensure it would not be dismantled by the burning wheels of human progress, but in my joining everyone on social media all doing much the same fighting, to conserve or manifest their ideal world I was destroying it by giving people a day when their comment had been daubed by my graffiti. My backchat. My snippy plucking up of key words like a pathologist tweezering up telltale carpet fibres to show what influencers had been there.

    It began to feel never endingly tawdry to be critiquing people all day. I began to reflect on why I exist at all. Was it really to do the show of comments oneupmanship. Was I given six senses for that? Could I sniff a comment like a flower? Could I devour it like a bowl of succulent strawberries? Could I shake a dazzle of raindrops from it? Could I gather it in a heap of planks and build a bridge with it?

    This last I decided I must do.

    Ordinarily we despise the different not because they are unloveable but because they are. It is a love that dare not be lest it cost us loss of self. The different threaten our selfhood because the different could so easily consume us. And then being so absorbed we would become the different. So extraordinary efforts are brought to bear to keep the different away from us. We scour comments for signs of such difference and seize on them with the relish of the born again, born back into our self, not like “them”. But then we sit triumphant with our self and sit and sit and sit and sit and sit and sit and then what?

    What happens to bonds of affection?

    It is easier to tell people what you do not want in life…the stress, the marginalizaton, the oppression, the rejection, the alienation, the loss, the mockery, the list is endless. So very long that it is easy to spend a lifetime checking the boxes of it. It is much more dangerous to ask for what you do want. Or even be aware of wanting anything. Wanting is shameful.

    So we go online to go to war with our wanting anything by reading out the list of inexcusables and frightfuls and scandalous outrages as if sorting those things out “is what we want”.

    Well, I am not so sure it is.

    There have been a fleet of nature articles of late. Dear to my heart is nature. I welcome such fine writing. However, anything good in life can get borrowed as a convenient mascot or emblem. In former eras there was a place that the weary human could wake up in after they had deceased. Olympus, or Sheol, or Valhala, or Christain Heaven. It was, from time to time, used as an incentivizer to encourage peasants to behave impeccably on this mortal coil. I believe this is starting to happen with respect to ordinary normal nature. Nature is being “revered” like a mystical heaven. Everyone is coaxed to bemoan not getting anywhere near nature, as if scoundrels are preventing us all from “feeling feelings” in response to nature. Yet there are more blades of grass on our planet than there are humans to wistfully marvel at them. Nature is all around us but who would have thought it. We trudge around miserably as if we cannot get access to it. And even when we are given a whole meadow to cavort in we cannot bear it. It is godforsakenly unbearable to be near mountain nor impudent puzzing stream because we simply cannot “feel it anymore”. We are impotent. It is “logic” that has made us incapable of sinking sumptuously back into the universe, since “human logic” was designed by thinkers to make us thrash and flail our way out of being mute or messy like nature is.

    Here comes the many “righteous” bickering campaigns that want to “unite” us with nature, as if it was deliberately stolen from us by certain rascals in suits. Nothing to do with us. Nothing to with our castrated emotions. We have the yearning for heaven in our private distress and so it must be somewhere. The campaigners say the new heaven is called nature. But in order to “have a piece of heaven” that is nature we must be devoid of flaw or sin. What sin means these days is just sounding “different”. If we are too “different” then we cannot “enter heaven”, the meadow or mountain or stream. We can try to but we will not be experiencing the born again thrill of selfhood that comes from being “right”?

    The campaigners say we can only meet the Lord of cure, the fixer of whatever it is we have got, if we “think” the “right” thoughts about nature.

    But being “logical” about nature is not “feeling” in “love” with nature. It is not “feeling” so to the extent of merging messily with nature.

    But nobody is to blame for our own individual person having a non-acceptance of “feelings”. To regard it all as some bureacrats fault that we do not “love our own feelings” is like blaming an obstetrician for our not loving our infant newborn. Luckily it is within our own grasp to accept our “feeling life”. This becomes more empowering than waiting on an exuctive in a suit to grant us the power to “feel”. Our ability to “feel” is a kind of heaven. Even our unwanted “feelings” can be intensely heavenly.

    But in the future all manner of campaigns will want to drive “logic” into a vaunted position and have a heirarchical notion of nature as being a heaven that you must “earn”, by thinking in the “right way”, and not just about nature but about everything. They will blame you for the worsening of nature. As if you hurled a brick onto an implaccable mountain. For every human human constructed heaven there cometh a hell. For that is the main intention. To have a place to bundle all the “different” away to, or make offerings of them.

    I grow uneasy upon hearing of how my vision about climate change has been true all along, that it is getting worse. Much worse than we realise. But nature does not “do” heaven or hell. Nature is always beautiful stupefying terrifying nature but it tries not to be “personal”. Nature does not give a flying squirrel for how “logical” we are. Climate change is bad but humans will adapt to it. So it is not the end of the world. But other humans will ever want to say that is. To induce good behaviour through blame. And yet other humans will say there is no climate change at all. These two extremes mark the problem of our era. The lack of middle way common sense at the heart of the human. This is because the human has lost touch with heart. To find a way back from those edgy extremes will take visiting those extremes long enough to find out that both those extremes are lacking in compassion.

    I need to pee.

  2. I want to clarify my prior comment because I have just listened to a man online “logically” trying to argue me out of my knowing that climate change is happening. He was in a popular chat show.

    Let me be clear that from my own understanding climate change is as true as the time, over a decade ago, that I heard from my angels that there was going to be a global pandemic coming out of China. The one that recently showed up.

    Climate change is being denied because climate change is “illogical”, like “feelings”.

    Climate change is going to go rapidly downhill. At present people are encouraged to tell the crying emotive climatologists, and supposedly manipulative borderline biologists and ecologists and meterologists that they are not doing proper science because science does not “do” weeping. It is bone dry. As dry as the ox and the camel bleached to a scribble of chalk white calcium on the blackboard of the desert night sky. Nobody sees how bad it truly is. Some earthy campaigners lash themselves to trees to see if body language can say what “logic” refuses to listen to. Such campaigners are called petulant and childish and mad. All the usual names that castigate the “feeling”.

    It is precisely the indifference to human “feelings” that has caused our current climate change. An overly “rational” dismissive disregard of the “feelings” of other creatures and biodiversity. An Amazonian rainforest is petulantly and childishly getting in the way of “logical order”. Get rid of it with a lit match. Man The Chain Saw Smoker. The gaudy tropical birds of paradise can meet the same fate as the ox and the camel because just like “feelings” they getting in the way and are hardly necessary are they? Who would miss the trees and the songs of trees? Who would miss your “feelings” of sadness or joy or rage or loss? With a lot of “reason” you can be made “reasonable”, to the extent you “feel nothing at all” about your bewildered wayward gulf stream and your choking sky. Don’t worry, “logic” will build a sky. It has built and built and built so much that touches the sky. So “logic” can plan a brand new improved sky. One with a dimmer switch so you do not have to see the bones of the old sky.

    The angels keep telling me…

    “The sky is the limit”.

    What they mean is for me to hurry up. If I want to write my little poems about my sky, your sky, our sky, I ought to leave the comments sections and focus on these muses of mine.

    I can vouch for the knowing that the future is good. But that does not mean it is going to be arrived at without effort. I do not especially mean collective effort. The pitfall of “consensus opinon” that drives collective effort is that it allows “logic” within it to be captured and enmired by imposter leaders who are extreme bullies intent on halting progress with miriade fussy “rules”. Even collective protests can turn ugly with “rules” and aggressive control in that way. I just mean the effort is more like the discipline of the mystic, who with gracile dignity removes themselves from contaminating influences that upset their equillibrium, their emotional sensitivity. That which the overly “rational” bully would call petulant and childish and silly.

    There is a rebellious climate change campaign group who are merrily derided for holding up commuters. When the Ice Age comes, and I feel it is en route, hastened by climate change, then to the naesayers a three meter high snow drift will deter lunch and the school run much more childishly.

    I am the acquaintance of a few climate change deniers, I have no animosity towards them. In fact a measure of climate change denial is wonderful for when “feelings” cave in. Nobody should go about their day in a state of abject misery about climate change. Feel “feelings” yes. Become a wallowing nihilistic paralysed heap in a dark bedroom is bad for emotional wellbeing. A balance is what contains common sense. You are only one little human scrap. You did not cause climate change. You personally did not wake up on a wednesday several years back and mendaciously decide to bring about the collapse of the globe’s Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation or the Larsen B Ice Shelf.

    All that said, in future there are factions that might blame certain puny humans for doing just that, in a blamefest that has nothing to do with “feeling” concerned about the climate, or “feeling anything”. The castigations and blame will come from the piously overly “logical” and their bullying need to be “right”. To which you must be made to feel all “wrong”.

    When the penny drops about how bad climate change really is then many will want to do all they can to adjust to it, but many who are stressed into being overly “logical” puppets on strings will want to “blame” and “blame” and “blame” strangers for causing climate change. They will do so because “blaming” IS adaptation to some. Blame comes from “judgement” which comes from a reflex toward “logic”. Blame is an adapting “away from” getting emotional. Blame is sometimes a defensive way to avoid “feeling” inmost emotions of want and need. Blame comes from fear. It comes from anger and mostly anger comes from fear of loss. Blame is not acceptance.

    Instead, when humans accept their many emotions what comes next is calm. Just like when you are a snivelling broken mess and someone accepts you, you feel calm. What the world needs most of all in the future is calm. The effort is about being “calm”.

    The effort therefore is an acceptance of the childishness of crying about a road construction flattening a butterly.

    For if humans had never been “logically” talked out of weeping at a crumpled dead painted lady or a fallen bird of paradise then there would be no climate change.

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