Why is one of the most pressing questions we can come to ask ourselves.
It speaks to our curiosity whilst promoting our sense of self. But why is not a simple endeavor by any stretch of the imagination.
It is simply the beginning. A beginning that often finds us at a tipping point.
And perhaps this is a tipping point, a point that has brought our state of mental health into question.
There is a principle in genetics that I have always found myself drawn to as I observe the world around me and that is environmental influences on gene expression.
Here’s what it means:
“The expression of genes in an organism can be influenced by the environment, including the external world in which the organism is located or develops, as well as the organism’s internal world, which includes such factors as its hormones and metabolism. ” – Environmental Influences of Gene Expression – Ingrid Lobo PhD.
I have come to think that our sense of awareness operates under a similar maxim.
As our environment changes, we become more susceptible to make observations we previously could not.
And I believe, this is happening right before our eyes regarding the dialogue around mental health in the United States and the observable rise in stress, anxiety and depression.
The conversation is fragmented throughout the airwaves and while we scramble to bring together a coherent and cohesive narrative, many are struggling with highly elevated levels of stress, anxiety and depression within our communities; particularly our youth.
Not many will disagree with the science behind this topic that suggests that there is a chemical imbalance at play.
But what is causing the chemical imbalance?
I have my suspicions as does everyone – I’m sure. But there is a nuance to my point of view that I hope to highlight in this discussion and it sources from an important perspective I attempt to illustrate in the book Logicrats: A New Paradigm – which is:
“We may very well be products of our environments and circumstances but, by the sheer fact that I am able to articulate numerous reasons and circumstances to why people would make one of two decisions […] it must strike you self-evident that we have the ability within us to remove ourselves from our expected nature. Furthermore, if we are to take this observation one step further, by developing this awareness, is it unreasonable to imagine making a choice that would have been considered otherwise inconsistent with our circumstances? – Logicrats: A New Paradigm
Suffice it to say, with these points in mind, I hope to do my part in unpacking the reasons why we may be experiencing a seemingly drastic rise in anxiety and stress and thus, an increase in mental illnesses.
So I suppose we shall get on with it but first, let’s talk business.
The Business of Definitions – Behavior Over Numbers
I cannot recall any time where there wasn’t a tug-of-war regarding trust between the individual and industry. To some extent, I would say it is healthy and necessary for there to be such a dynamic for the sake of ‘checks and balances’.
But be that as it may, healthcare is no exception.
Empathizing with this sentiment, and having a firm understanding around the susceptibilities industry can have in a capitalistic environment, some of my attention firstly turned to the definition of mental illness.
I wanted to rid myself of any suspicion that there may be an artificial increase in the statistics that have shown to reflect the rise of various forms of mental illness.
As you dig deeper into the hole of mental health, one very quickly discovers that mental illness is an umbrella term that encompasses a variety of conditions. Within the medical community, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) is used by clinicians and researchers to diagnose and classify mental disorders.
This book was first iterated in 1952 and is currently on it’s 5th revision which was published in 2013 (the 4th revision was published in 1994 for reference).
I found this excerpt particularly interesting from DSM 4 and I feel it is very important to understand:
Even though many specific mental disorders have been modified, consolidated and reclassified, from DSM 4 to DSM 5, the overall consensus of the definition of ‘mental disorders’ has not changed all too much.
“A mental disorder is a syndrome characterized by clinically significant disturbance in an individual’s cognition, emotion regulation, or behavior that reflects a dysfunction in the psychological, biological, or developmental processes underlying mental functioning. Mental disorders are usually associated with significant distress in social, occupational, or other important activities. An expectable or culturally approved response to a common stressor or loss, such as the death of a loved one, is not a mental disorder. Socially deviant behavior (e.g., political, religious, or sexual) and conflicts that are primarily between the individual and society are not mental disorders unless the deviance or conflict results from a dysfunction in the individual, as described above.” – Excerpt From DSM 5
Mental Disorders have many grey areas, as one could conclude from the definitions above. As the mainstream media and the common social dialogue begins to discuss mental health, it is important to understand and distinguish that the public interest is generally referring to the seeming rise of stress, anxiety and depression in the most recent 10-15 years; all aspects of mental health that can lead to serious consequences.
There is a question that many people seem to ask at this point in the overall discussion, so let me just put it out there:
Are pharmaceutical companies and big businesses taking advantage of the grey area?
While the mainstream dialogue can be seen dividing itself into team ‘yes’ and team ‘no’ on this question, I submit to you a different way to look at it.
In understanding the broadness of ‘mental illness’, the question -‘are pharmaceutical companies and big businesses taking advantage of the grey area? – is a non-sequitur to the main question which was – is big business somehow artificially influencing the statistics to show a rise in stress, anxiety and depression(?).
Meaning, since we have determined that our understanding of mental illnesses and disorders, in the context of the medical community, has grey areas – it is reasonable to conclude that ‘big business’ has no meaningful way of manipulating numbers to make it look as if stress, social anxiety and depression is on the rise in any significant way.
It would behoove us not to notice how seamlessly the two questions can be conflated.
Having said that, let me be clear to say –
Of COURSE the broad outlook on mental disorders creates an opening for businesses and pharmaceutical companies to attempt to service the need.
Of COURSE we may discover 10-15 years down the road that various methods in treating mental illness may not have been particularly correct or most effective.
But here’s the punchline about business.
The business of business is business.
There is nothing noble nor ignoble about businesses. Businesses have a very simple function and mandate in society. If there is a value that can be delivered to a buyer at a cost lower than the buyer’s willingness to pay – you just might be in business.
Notice this does not constitute causation nor does this constitute virtue in itself. As a collective, we must be mindful of the general function and behavior of business (or anything else for that matter) and its relationship within the framework of our economic and social systems and govern accordingly.
Can industry go awry? Yes. Is industry the culprit in the context of mental illness – I just don’t see it.
In consideration of all of these things, there is one additional qualifying statistic that helped me conclude that stress, anxiety and depression are genuinely on the rise.
Often times when collecting data around stress, anxiety and depression it is through self-reporting surveys and behavioral data is often overlooked.
*Disclosure – It may be pertinent for me to emphasize that I am NOT a medical professional nor a behavioral scientist…so please take my extrapolations with a grain of Pink Himalayan Salt.
Hospital Admissions For Non-Fatal Self Harm Patients (Male and Female) from 2001-20015. (Click Here For Peer Reviewed Medical Publication and Source)
Needless to say, the statistics above were enough to convince me that there is an extraordinary [troubling] upward trend in stress, anxiety and depression in the United States.
Unpacking the Why
So here we are.
Back to the most pressing question. Why.
Why is this happening?
As I mentioned earlier. I feel as our environment changes, we become more susceptible to make observations we previously could not.
While many people are focused on the ‘chemical imbalance’, I’m curious to what may be causing the chemical imbalance.
In this way, I feel there are certain things that have developed over the last 10-15 years that have come to reveal a vulnerability that we were inevitably going to have to face.
Perhaps that time is now.
The Masquerade Ball – The Masks We Wear and Social Media
There is something about the concept of a masquerade ball that has always drawn me in.
My mind often falls into a cliche of what a masquerade ball may have been like, say, a couple hundred years ago.
The sound of horse carriages approaching a large estate over cobblestone streets.
Extravagant entryways; grandeur.
The sound of what would now be considered classical music and the murmur of high society as parties arrive in disguise.
A starry evening where, through invitation, one could disenthrall themselves from the burden of social judgement.
An evening where, through invitation, one could seek truth amongst the affair.
An evening where, through invitation, one could explore ideas or thoughts without the fear of being cast unworthy or undeserving.
There’s a romance to it; a night where anything could be and certainly, in its truest form.
“Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth” – Oscar Wilde
I think there is a truth to the statement that we all seem to put on a mask as we walk out the front door.
I have often come across a proclaimed Japanese Proverb.
The Japanese say you have three faces. The first face is what you show to the the world; the second face you show to your closest friends and family and third face you never show anyone. It is the truest reflection of who you are.
It always found it interesting how the third face is still a mask.
I think there is a battle we all face within ourselves that constantly struggles between truly accepting our current thoughts and values as a hedge of last resort; in an effort to shield ourselves from experiencing true and absolute (perceived) failure.
Now if all of these costume changes were not reason enough to be susceptible to stress, anxiety and depression – perhaps we could add social media and the internet into the equation for funsies.
Contrary to popular opinion, I don’t feel social media has necessarily created a problem as much as it has revealed and exacerbated a vulnerability we are all susceptible to as human beings.
For millennia, human beings have evolved through the need to survive and protect themselves from beasts, disease and the potentially brutal strength of mother nature.
Only [arguably] in the past 200 hundred years have human beings been able to give more collective attention towards quality of life rather than life itself (survival).
And although our life expectancy has nearly doubled in the last 200 years, our biology, from my perspective, has yet to catch up.
The part of our brain that controls our survival instinct.
The part of our brain that still interprets the potential failure of our subjective interpretation of success as a matter of life or death.
The part of the brain that still interprets any contradiction to the worldview we hold to be true as a matter of life or death.
The part of the brain that still interprets not receiving social validation for our ideas, ambitions and effort as a matter of life or death.
For millennia philosophers have understood that we don’t see life as it is but rather in the context of our hopes, fears and attachments.
Mind you, I am speaking in terms of the ‘wealthier’ or let us say, more fortunate side of the modern human experience.
It does not escape me that there are many places on earth, places that I have been well acquainted with, where life has much more to do with survival than we the fortunate can appropriately fathom.
Many times, as I observe the modern condition, I come to think we have advanced so quickly technologically and medically that our biology is still playing catch up.
We no longer require the lizard brain the way we used to and it will take great deal mental effort and social engineering to disenthrall ourselves from this predictable nature.
The vulnerabilities of our lizard brain may have been less obvious despite the suggestive research around urban vs rural living (Peer Reviewed Study – urban vs rural differences in psychiatric disorders) and noise annoyance in association with depression and anxiety (Noise Annoyance Study).
But the rise and development of social media, I feel cements the presence of these vulnerabilities.
Social Media has effectively urbanized our entire world and brought everything that comes with it 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, on demand.
Welcome To The Safe Zone
There has been a strange phenomena that has come to surface on our university campuses around the nation.
Constitutional lawyer Greg Lukianoff and American moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt explore several aspects of this phenomena eloquently in a recently published book The Coddling of the American Mind that came to expand and follow up on the identically titled article published in The Atlantic back in September of 2015.
As both Greg and Jonathan attempt to explain through research, kids born after 1995 – now considered ‘Generation Z’ -can be seen developing much differently than kids born in previous years.
“Many Baby Boomers and Gen Xers can remember riding their bicycles around their hometowns, unchaperoned by adults, by the time they were 8 or 9 years old. In the hours after school, kids were expected to occupy themselves, getting into minor scrapes and learning from their experiences.
But “free range” childhood became less common in the 1980s. The surge in crime from the ’60s through the early ’90s made Baby Boomer parents more protective than their own parents had been. Stories of abducted children appeared more frequently in the news, and in 1984, images of them began showing up on milk cartons. In response, many parents pulled in the reins and worked harder to keep their children safe.
The flight to safety also happened at school. Dangerous play structures were removed from playgrounds; peanut butter was banned from student lunches. After the 1999 Columbine massacre in Colorado, many schools cracked down on bullying, implementing “zero tolerance” policies. In a variety of ways, children born after 1980—the Millennials—got a consistent message from adults: life is dangerous, but adults will do everything in their power to protect you from harm, not just from strangers but from one another as well.” – The Coddling of the American Mind (The Atlantic – pub 2015)
This type of ’emotional reasoning’ has developed into a trend that has begun to dominate campus discussions and debates. Claims for the ‘right not to be offended‘ can be seen making headlines throughout various campuses around the country and has created a hyper-sensitivity that seems to have been further enabled and exacerbated by the administrative body.
The story behind theoretical Evolutionary Biologist and Former Professor at Evergreen State College Bret Weinstein is just one example of this alarming trend.
Being a critic of Evergreen State College‘s annual ‘Day of Presence / Day of Absence’ – a day where the college allows students of color to take a day of absence, so that their importance and contribution is felt at the University, Brett found himself in hot water in 2017.
Referring to the event as “an act of oppression” Brett found himself in the middle of very heated and borderline hostile student demonstrations.
Needless to say, our universities and college campuses are at the forefront of very important questions around free speech; should schools be a safe space? If so for whom? If so for what?
We are seeing an aggressive pressure by student bodies to require teachers to give content and trigger warnings within curriculum and lectures and be trained on microaggressions – all terms that can be seen surfacing in social discourse virtually overnight in 2014-2015.
The meaning of ‘safe space’ has oddly changed from a space where you are safe to speak your mind and seek better understanding to a space where you can expect not to be emotionally or intellectually confronted concerning any ideas you hold to be true.
This paradigm has been further reinforced as of 2013 where the Department of Justice and Education can be seen broadening the definition of sexual harassment to include verbal conduct that is simply “unwelcome”.
“Out of fear of federal investigations, universities are now applying that standard—defining unwelcome speech as harassment—not just to sex, but to race, religion, and veteran status as well. Everyone is supposed to rely upon his or her own subjective feelings to decide whether a comment by a professor or a fellow student is unwelcome, and therefore grounds for a harassment claim. Emotional reasoning is now accepted as evidence.
If our universities are teaching students that their emotions can be used effectively as weapons—or at least as evidence in administrative proceedings—then they are teaching students to nurture a kind of hypersensitivity that will lead them into countless drawn-out conflicts in college and beyond. Schools may be training students in thinking styles that will damage their careers and friendships, along with their mental health.” – The Coddling of the American Mind (The Atlantic)
So here we are.
In the middle of the noise and – my oh my, is it noisy.
History may come to show that the trends I describe above were marginal in the face of a larger picture but to the best of my ability, I feel understanding and overcoming them would serve as a great step towards human solidarity and greater mental health.
Both the current negative effects of social media and the controversies on our university campuses operate on a fundamental misconception that has been present within our humanity since the very beginning.
And in that regard, it would be prudent for me to underline the fact that I feel social media and the controversy we are seeing on our university campuses are not the cause or effect of our mishaps but the revealing of a vulnerability we as human beings have carried with us from the beginning.
As I mention in the book Logicrats: A New Paradigm in the identically titled chapter “Puppet Masters” (available at fine books stores everywhere),
WE ARE NOT OUR IDEAS.
Yet we live and act as if we are. We have come to interpret contradictions to the ideas we hold to be true (or hope to be true one day) as literal extensions of ourselves. Thus, when they are threatened, contradicted or suggested to be unobtainable – we react as if we have been attacked.
We retreat. We see red. We become stressed. We experience anxiety. We become depressed. We become non-responsive to the outside.
At the core, we must silence the lizard brain and unlearn this habit because it will not serve us in the way we hope.
We must realize that we ARE the masters and our thoughts are the puppet; we cannot allow the inverse to be true.
Unlearning this habit will assist us in fostering a more favorable environment and perspective for free speech; which in turn will lend itself as an antidote for the growing tension on our university campuses.
Silencing speech, and thus ideas, do not rid us of the ideas. They force them underground – where they cultivate without the light of reason.
If we fail to do this, we will continue to foster an environment where people fear to voice their thoughts and ideas; and social media continue to add fuel to the fire.
We are already seeing early signs of this paradigm through society.
Welcome to a new dinner table.
A dinner table where everyone is invited – not just your trusted company.
A place where everyone has a say in what you may be thinking, saying or asking.
A place where your reputation is always on the line.
A place where your insecurities can be exposed to the world at 4G speeds.
A place where you must be mindful of what you say or ask because who knows who has a cell phone pointed at you.
Final Final Thoughts
In addition to this dynamic, there is a premise at play within our social fabric that needs to be challenged; that needs to be overcome.
A premise that suggests that failures can and should be avoided, fear can and should be eliminated, judgement can and should not be given or received and life can and should be lived without experiencing stress.
I fear these notions will not yield what we hope.
At some point in my lifetime, the general culture became hypersensitive to notions like failure, fear and judgement.
You don’t have to scroll for too long through your social media feeds before you come across a social media influencer, an inspirational blog or guru selling you on their method of avoiding fear, failure and judgement through ambiguous motivational quotes and ‘meditation techniques‘.
Heck, there are apps for meditation now!
As well intentioned as much of this may be, many of these messages might be perpetuating the very anxiety and stress we are attempting to rid ourselves of.
And while, as a Logicrat, I do not particularly care what you think but how you think, below are just some of the ideas that have afforded me a life with less stress and anxiety.
You may find some of the ideas below a bit….shall we say ‘unreserved’ but this is my blog.
And on this blog, everyone is entitled to my own opinion.
Reacting vs. Responding
Meditation at its core speaks to a very powerful idea that suggests that there is a way to train your state of attention and awareness in order to bring mental processes under greater voluntary control; thereby fostering a greater sense of mental well being.
98% of the conversation around meditation, in the web of social, fails to even come close to alluding to this core tenet.
The closest scientific term that resembles this is the idea of meta-cognition or the ability to think of your thoughts.
In the corporate world, this idea is typically sold through high ticket seminars and is sometimes referred to as reaching your executive state or executive mindset.
One way to analogize this process is to understand the difference between reacting and responding. If someone comes up to you and makes a negative remark about your looks or character, you have two distinct ways to approach the words you just received.
Reacting to the remarks would be to immediately feel negative emotions about yourself, perhaps anger towards the individual confronting you, etc.
Responding to the remarks would be to realize that negative comments have been spoken, understand why you would have negative emotions towards yourself and the individual confronting you and then proceed in trying to understand why that individual is saying what they are saying to you.
Maybe they are projecting their own insecurities on to you?
Maybe they are trying to cope with negative issues in their life and cannot find any other way to process them but to be negative towards you?
Do they even have a valid point in criticizing you?
Once you begin to deploy this type of awareness towards occurrences in your life, you quickly begin to cultivate and foster habits around patience, mindfulness and empathy.
But keep in mind, in life –
YOU WILL FAIL.
Your interpretation of the failure will determine your likelihood of success.
Oh and by the way, your ‘failure’ is more than likely a subjective and arbitrary line in the sand you drew at some point in your life (probably through the influence of someone else or something you saw) – draw a new line.
YOU WILL EXPERIENCE FEAR IN LIFE.
It is impossible not to experience fear in different stages of your life. What determines your level of success is how you learn to manage the feeling of fear in critical moments.
Courage is not the absence of fear but intent and action in the face of it.
To take an example from (Seth Godin), take the best marathon runner in the world versus the second best marathon runner in the world. It is not as if the best marathon runner did not get tired in the race – he just knew where to put the tired long enough to win.
We, as a collective, must come to terms with the fact that the majority of the things we work towards or deal with everyday have little or nothing to do with our actual survival and are simply subjective challenges we have created for ourselves through conscious and subconscious influences.
This is NOT to say life is not riddled with misfortune, pain and suffering.
Yes, life IS as difficult as you think it is – perhaps worse.
Yes, EVERYONE feels as terrible as you do right now; at some point in their lives.
Yes, there is as much suffering as you fear and perhaps even more.
Yes, it can get as BAD as you fear and perhaps worse.
But YOU are also MORE than you think you are.
And that is typically what our minds cannot comprehend due to the lizard brain.
One of the foundational tenets of developmental psychology when dealing with anxiety is NOT to assist in the avoidance of the source of the anxiety but to rid the anxiety through gradual and incrementally safe exposure.
By attempting to avoid the experience of fear, stress and anxiety we are ironically retaining fear, stress and anxiety.
But something quite miraculous can happen when we confront our fears voluntarily that cannot even have a chance at occurring with our eyes closed. We have the ability within ourselves to prevail in the face of adversity in real time. It is the key to our survival – we adapt.
I suspect, like our immune system, our mental health becomes less susceptible to a negative state of being through the gradual confrontation of stress opposed to the avoidance of stress all together.
Once we begin to instill these notions amongst ourselves, I am confident that we will have taken great strides towards human solidarity and improved mental health.
Oh, and take off the damn mask – no one gives a shit if you fuck up .
You’re not that important.