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The One Crisis That Causes Them All

Part I of III: How modern life damages mental health, and how to prevent it.

Key points

  • The incidence of mental disorders is increasing.
  • Schizophrenia and related disorders are worsening, and well-being is declining.
  • Modern life is the only constant among all these changes.
  • By understanding the effects of modern life on our brains, we can learn to mitigate these effects.
Modern Life
Source: Photo by DSD: Pexels

We live in a time of crises. The opioid crisis, the adolescent mental health crisis; suicide, gun violence, loneliness, burnout, and compulsive social media use to name but a few.

Unfortunately, the list of mental health crises is much longer. In fact, most mental disorders have become more widespread or severe over the last few decades. To worsen matters, our individual sense of well-being has been sinking lower for just as many years.

Depression, anxiety disorders, suicide, alcohol and other substance abuse, ADHD and autism have all become more common at least since 1990. Although supporting data is lacking due to a lack of earlier scholarship, things appear to have been worsening since the 1960s or even before.

The pattern for severe mental illness (schizophrenia, other psychoses, and bipolar disorder) is different, but not much better. Their prevalence has not changed, but they begin earlier in life, thus commencing a more difficult path for the afflicted person.

Lastly, our overall well-being: the sense that we are ok and feel contented with life, has been dropping for years.

No one I’ve talked to about this has been surprised to hear it. There is a sense that something essential or very basic has gone wrong with our inner beings. And this sense is correct. What the pattern of illness and well-being shows is there is really only one crisis: the gradual loss of control of our mental health. These changes all occur in the same types of places: modern, industrialized societies. The only constant over the decades in which all these trends have appeared is the incessant march of modern life.

Pull back the camera to 30,000 feet and you’ll see that the more modernized a society, the more of all the above. All societies have all these problems at some baseline level. None are immune. But the more technology and social isolation a culture brings, the more unhappiness and mental illness it will produce.

To jump to the end, modern life doesn’t cause mental illness and poor well-being per se. It causes vulnerability to all these things. To give an analogy: Imagine a large city with terrible air pollution. There will be more asthma, bronchitis, COPD (chronic lung disease usually seen in smokers), pneumonias, and lung cancers. All different lung diseases, all made more likely by pollution. Pollution is modern life; lungs are our brains/minds and thus our mental health.

We could easily say we were not made to live with the pressures of modernity, or our brains are just not wired for this. All true enough. But what exactly does this mean? Research now offers an answer and thus a way to better control our destinies.

The path to that answer lies through an understanding of just what modern life does to us that is so harmful. It is not only that life is fast and pressured, with too much screen time, loneliness, and competition. These are certainly part of the explanation, but they still leave us the question of what happens to us when exposed to these modern ingredients. Are they poisonous? Radioactive? We need to know.

We all know by now that modern life can heal many of our sicknesses, produce enough food, protect us, and entertain us. Now it even answers our questions throughout the house and can open a window to neighbors anywhere on the planet for a chat. And it has done these miraculous tasks while allowing many (but not all) of us who were held back by culture or even intentionally marginalized, a place at the table. But it has asked much in return. By understanding this we can find the key to our problem.

Until the last 100 years or so we lived in groups. Tribes, bands, neighborhoods, families. Whatever we called it, we were not alone. Groups gave us both social connections and a culture with all its teachings. Even if you left the group, you had learned or at least seen quite a bit. How to cook and clean up; argue and give in; become a friend, lover, partner; fix, trade and buy things; eat, rest; believe, worship, or go it alone; raise a child; get sick and better; work hard or not; be the person you want to be. All of this was done in particular ways within a network of friends, family, and fellow group members. Skills, memories, and feelings carried this lifetime of learning. Until recently in human history this was how everyone learned to live. It has never been otherwise.

Now without groups we are alone and without the skills, memories and feelings that remind us how to live. In the modern era we must think our way through things, usually by ourselves. Life is not only permeated with technology that demands we gain new proficiencies and have our faces glued to screens all day, but that we treat the skills mentioned above like more gadgets. We get the instruction manual from Google and try to figure out whatever life task is at hand. All along knowing full well that the directions will change soon, and we will have to relearn the job.

Growing up around things and reading about them are very different tasks for our minds. Like the technology we are constantly faced with, we must work with concepts instead of what we see, touch and experience. Life is an unending set of complex abstractions that will need reformatting at some point. When that time comes, technology will give us loads of choices with menus galore. Whether it’s a smartphone app or dealing with new work or family responsibilities, our minds are always filled with new things to re-invent or reformat. We don’t live life; we figure it out.

In spite of how difficult this sounds, we mostly get by. This is not just our good fortune. We have designed a world that complements the most powerful part of our brain. This brain area can do all this figuring, complexity, abstraction, and reformatting with remarkable ease. That is, until we made the tasks non-stop and high pressure.

This amazing brain region is the prefrontal cortex (PFC hereon in); the subject of the next post. By understanding the PFC, we will not only understand ourselves, but exactly how modern life does its damage and how to prevent it.

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