“Some mental disorders aren’t merely common—they’re the norm”, or so a recent Science News article, Rates of common mental disorders double up, reports. Note the tallest bar in the graph, which shows a recent prospective study of 1000 New Zealanders assessed for mental disorders eleven times between the ages of 3 and 32. No doubt, such a study done in the USA would at least equal New Zealand’s 50% anxiety number. Something is bizarre about saying 50% of the population has a mental health issue.(1)
All right, my first thought was how can it be that half the human population has a “common mental disorder”? Disorders are presumably non-normal events, unless you’re living at the edge of a black hole. Can something so common be non-normal?
The larger issue for me is that researchers are focusing on what is a symptom of our culture rather than underlying causes. This is especially so if mental disorders are the norm now. Given that the norm now is a 50/50 chance of having a mental disorder, perhaps something more fundamental is taking place. I imagine this something, lying at the heart of our normal culture, is something we may not wish to see.
I suspect an increasing sense of disconnection that people feel causes most mental disorders we see now. The remarkable popularity of Facebook, email, cell phones, and social outlets in general comes out of our deep-seated need to feel more connected than we do. Simply put, we have a social thirst that goes unquenched. I can’t imagine members of close-knit tribal groups — our ancestral norm — being this socially thirsty. They had the true social security that a life-long bond of interdependent relationships provides. The unintended consequence of civilization is the loss of the close-knit tribal life style. Tribal loyalty was a core factor in the social bond. The closest match to this type of bond now-a-days is the nuclear family. Alas, diverse facets of civilization now compete for the attention and loyalty of each family individual, which leaves even the nuclear family divided.
I suppose many people will find this view untenable. After all, we’re taught that civilization is progress and thus a boon to humanity. Certainly, civilization has been a boon materially speaking. However, we want to have our cake and eat it too. The idea that trading up from tribal life to civilization leads to mental disorders is hard to entertain if one values civilization and naively expects progress to be a win win. As I’ve noted before, the world we see tends to reflect what we expect to see which is largely what we’ve been taught to see. That makes a researcher’s task difficult, especially any researcher in the social sciences, where cultural expectations may easily color observations.
(1) Perhaps this 50% anxiety level reflects our disease… as chapter 71 more literally puts it, Realizing I don’t’ know is better; not knowing this knowing is disease.