Our Culture May Be Making Us Sick: Mentally Ill America

Virtually everyone has had a personal experience with mental illness or has known someone who has. It’s a growing epidemic in our culture and the awareness many people are trying to create around it is expanding.

But what causes mental illness and why is it so prevalent in America? Some suggest that our culture is, in fact, “driving us crazy.”

Bruce Levine writes in his article, Living in America will drive you insane — literally:

“A June 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 70% of Americans hate their jobs or have “checked out” of them. Life may or may not suck any more than it did a generation ago, but our belief in “progress” has increased expectations that life should be more satisfying, resulting in mass disappointment. For many of us, society has become increasingly alienating, isolating and insane, and earning a buck means more degrees, compliance…inauthenticity. So, we want to rebel. However, many of us feel hopeless about the possibility of either our own escape from societal oppression or that political activism can create societal change. So, many of us, especially young Americans, rebel by what is commonly called mental illness.”

It seems more and more, our culture expects us to fit a mold and a norm. We need to conform even if it means sacrificing our personhood and our spirit. You can only imagine what long term effects this must produce. Things like severe depression, identity crises, and a laundry list of anxiety disorders.

In their book, The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, psychologists Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell examine why our society is becoming too self-absorbed.

“Narcissism—an inflated view of the self—is everywhere. Public figures say it’s what makes them stray from their wives. Parents teach it by dressing children in T-shirts that say “Princess.” Teenagers and young adults hone it on Facebook, and celebrity newsmakers have elevated it to an art form. And it’s what’s making people depressed, lonely, and buried under piles of debt.”

Sadly, narcissism is quickly becoming “normal” in our culture, when really it is a mental illness.

The Truman Show Delusion is a disorder where a person believes they are on a reality TV show and their lives are being filmed.  The term, based on the 1998 film The Truman Show, was coined by Joel and Ian Gold, two brothers – one a psychiatrist and the other a nuerophilosopher. Although this disorder has not officially been added to the DSM, it could very well be reflective of our culture which supports being ego-centric and gives people a platform for being famous for no reason. We endorse and promote dysfunction without realizing that is what it is – an abnormality.

So, if our culture can be partly to blame for causing the mental illness, can it also be blamed for its lack of the adequate treatment of it?

Antidepressants and other pills are dispensed like candy from a gumball machine at your local psychiatrist’s office. It seems there is no shortage in pills, but are drugs the answer? These drugs, in some cases, seem to address the symptoms but not the underlying cause. They also may add more complications than good.

Bruce Levine writes, “Examining the scientific literature that now extends over 50 years, Whitaker discovered that while some psychiatric medications for some people may be effective over the short term, these drugs increase the likelihood that a person will become chronically ill over the long term. Whitaker reports, “The scientific literature shows that many patients treated for a milder problem will worsen in response to a drug—say have a manic episode after taking an antidepressant—and that can lead to a new and more severe diagnosis like bipolar disorder.”

Aside from the cause, the treatment and the side effects, there are the stigmas that go along with having a mental illness. These are often the most difficult and harrowing of the side effects.

Many people are socially isolated and hide their illness from those close to them. They feel ashamed and inadequate and rightfully so. Our society looks at mental illness as a deficit and a weakness, rather than something that can be managed very well with the proper emotional and interpersonal support. However, most people do not get the support that they need for various reasons. Mainly shame and fear of judgment keeps them from reaching out. What’s more, someone who is in the middle of a severe depressive episode is not capable of reaching out for themselves…they more than likely need an advocate.

“More than 60 percent of Americans with mental illness do not receive treatment, many of them because they are embarrassed or afraid of being ostracized”, President Obama said, speaking at a White House conference on mental health.

Has America failed when it comes to treating its mentally ill? Many, including myself, would respond with a resounding yes! We have a long way to go at implementing treatment programs that reintegrate the severely mentally ill back into society with dignity and respect. In addition, our culture is materialistic, high-stress, achievement-oriented and overstimulated by excessive forms of media. It values people who are highly productive and wants its members to be half human and half robot. This puts an enormous amount of pressure on the population as a whole and marginalizes the mentally ill.

It’s important to understand that mental illness comes in varying degrees of severity. Even those people with mild to moderate depression and anxiety may still find it difficult to cope in todays high stress and faced paced world. Dysthymia is a milder form of depression that is sometimes defined as “a prolonged and persistent sadness.” It is not as intense as a major depressive episode but still can affect the quality of one’s life.

Fortunately there are many organizations that are helping people with mental illness live more fulfilling lives despite the challenges a diagnosis comes with.

If you or someone you know is seeking help with a mental illness, here are two organizations that work to provide helpful information:

World Federation for Mental Health and Bring Change 2 Mind

*Originally written for Portal to Peace: http://www.portaltopeace.com/index.php/mission/peace/item/our-culture-may-be-making-us-sick-mentally-ill-america or https://www.facebook.com/portaltopeace

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