The First Impression

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Is Culture Making You Mentally Ill?

The perils of a culture gone wild

These are the facts: worldwide, depression is the third most significant strain on health and well being. In the general population, anxiety disorders are more prevalent than any other class of mental illnesses. Anti-depressants are the top most prescribed drugs across the globe, and use of anti-anxiety meds are on the rise as well. In fact, they are one of the top five most prescribed drugs in the United States. Some experts contend that we are, “surely the most neurotic generation in history” (as quoted by Kenny, 2003, p. 2).

As mental illness has been on the rise now for decades, it is less a question of if our culture is making us more prone to mental illness today than previous eras and more what we can do to identify aspects of culture that is inciting our dysfunction. We also need to start identifying how to combat cultural hazards to our mental health. In fact, the more industrialized the culture, the more at risk we appear to be for pathology. Take, for instance, the finding that while depression is the eighth highest case of disease burden in lower income countries (still a high number!), it shoots all the way up to first place in more industrialized countries (see CDC link, 2011 for details). Similarly, anxiety disorders tend to be higher in developed countries compared to less developed ones. Greater awareness and less stigmatization of mental illness today cannot account fully for the staggering incidence of pathology (with mood and anxiety disorders on the rise in particular) across the globe.

Frankly, the culture is making us sick. We are a sleep deprived, over-stimulated, media saturated, multi-tasking, caffeine and gas guzzling, always on to what is bigger and better, materialistic culture (with no end to the madness in sight)! The culture has become more competitive, and we aren’t just comparing ourselves to the Joneses, we are comparing ourselves to the very photo-shopped Kardashians and Jolie-Pitts. Corporations are bombarding us with messages that we can have it all—if only we consume their products, take their drugs, buy their cars, eat their foods—the list goes on and on. We are consumers in every sense of the word, and when we inevitably get sick, when we break down for one reason or another, we consume once more. Yes, the cure is really just a distortion of the disease.

What’s an average person to do? Here’s the rub: While we can identify the dysfunctional aspects of our culture, culture itself is intangible, and to alter or change these dysfunctions requires systemic changes outside the scope of any one person’s control. So while a cynic may be compelled to retort “not much,” what each person can do is become more attuned to the obvious and subtle ways that culture may be driving his behaviors and/or expectations. Moreover, just because we live in a given culture, this doesn’t mean that we should wholly accept every aspect of the culture itself. It is important to resist against those forces of a culture that serve to incite our pathologies.

Learn to say no to working around the clock. Turn off the technology, if even just for an hour a day. Trust me, you really don’t need that new iPhone app (or the newest version of the iPhone, for that matter) or whatever the new “next best thing” is that is currently trending. Take time to take a pause from whatever may be frazzling you when you feel particularly stressed out. Turn off the TV. Be wary of any messages from the media that may make you feel bad about yourself or somehow less than. In fact, a great tip I found in an article about how messages from the media incite negative body image notes that one way we can combat negative self-assessments when confronted with images from the culture is to ask ourselves, “Am I being sold something here?” (Wiseman, 2012, p.7).

These small steps can go a long way towards detaching ourselves from the dysfunctional aspects of industrialized societies. And don’t worry—I will continue to be on hand to identify more perilous traps as they come from our sometimes maddening culture.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2011). Burden of Mental Illness. Retrieved from http://www.cdc.gov/mentalhealth/basics/burden.htm .

Kinney, U. (2003, October 11). Happiness is…being sad. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2003/oct/12/medicineandhealth.b... .

Wiseman, E. (2012, June 9). Uncomfortable in our skin: the body-image report. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/jun/10/body-image-anx...

Copyright Azadeh Aalai 2012

Azadeh Aalai, PhD, is a Tenure-Track, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Queensborough Community College in New York.

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