Monday, March 9, 2009

Industrial Disease: What Are We Doing To Ourselves?


The average working couple in America spends 20 minutes a day together.

"Family time" has become a goal, an achievement, rather than a natural consequence of being a family.

Most Americans are trapped in a vicious cycle of overwork and over-consumption.

Dropping in on a neighbor is practically nonexistent.

Keeping busy and multitasking are praised, while slowing down is frowned upon.

This from Therese Borchard, writing on the Huffington Post. She was drawing from a book by Abby Sexias, "Finding the Deep River Within."

"The disease of a-thousand-things-to-do," is how Ms Seixas describes it. I would give it another name: industrial disease.

In 2004, a major World Health Organization survey of 14 countries and two Chinese cities found Nigeria and Shanghai with the lowest prevalence of mental illness, way lower than the US and Europeans. In mood disorders, the Nigerians were at the very bottom (less than one percent over 12 months compared to nearly 10 percent in the US).

Maybe Nigerians are too worried about where their next meal is coming from to ruminate on the things we do. But I have a strong suspicion that they have something we haven't got, things we lost a long time ago, things our kids will never know about.

The beginning of the industrial revolution in the mid-eighteenth century coincided with a sudden explosion in mental illness. It didn't take people long to finger the stresses of urban life as the culprit. The asylums - literally sanctuaries - that sprang up in nineteenth century were beautiful country estates with farms attached. They were the product of the various reform movements of the age that included abolition, self-improvement, and enlightened Christianity.

In other words, way back when, people actually recognized that if you treated the mentally ill with compassion, took them away from stressful environments, and gave them opportunities to take pride in their work then their condition might actually improve.

The inaugural 1844 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry (then called The American Journal of Insanity) reported on an institution in Utica, then in operation for 18 months. According to the report, of 433 patients admitted, 123 had recovered.

It was only later that these same institutions became the chambers of horrors that shame us as humans.

So, have we learned anything over the intervening years?

Yes. If we place families under impossible financial obligations with absurd expectations, force both partners to labor late into the night in high pressure corporate sweat shops devoid of fresh air and natural light, sleep-deprived and alienated from nurturing communities, sooner or later they will go crazy and drive other people crazy.

Not only that, see what happens when we over-school and over-regiment their kids.

Our brains simply weren't built for this.

If you scroll back to some of my recent blogs, you will note a number of short home-made nature videos. They are there for a reason. Since moving to a rural environment more than two years ago, I noticed something astonishing - my mental health improved, dramatically so. I work from home. I keep my own schedule. When I need a mental health break, I take it. All I have to do is step outdoors.

Welcome to my world.

Your world - and your responsibilities - are certainly a lot different. But your brain undoubtedly has the same limited warranty as mine. This is a tough world, growing tougher by the day. Survival depends on your creativity in carving out sanctuary - asylum.

It's a principle as old as the hills. Our ancestors understood it. Nigerians and other societies probably still do. We are incredibly slow learners in a painful process of relearning.


Anonymous said...

Boy--this whole thing is so true. How we live is not what we evolved for. Of course, some things ARE better too, like hygiene and mostly regular meals. But the scheduling stress and constantly turning night to day is not good for us. I am not that well at the moment, but I know I am a lot better than I would be living in an urban environment and working a job that required swinging shifts (I used to be a nurse.)I am trying to convince myself that early retirement, being a housewife and digging out long ignored artistic projects and aspirations are as 'ok' as being an urban success story.
Notice that our society frowns on the unbusy and is incredulous if someone doesn't want a cell phone that could launch the space shuttle. I am not in touch with everyone I know 24/7, I am having enough trouble holding on to my sanity already.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Anonymous. "Cell phone that could launch the space shuttle"- love it. :)