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Is an Increase in Individualism Damaging Our Mental Health?

Rising rates of individualism may be having negative mental health consequences.

A just-published research study in the journal Psychological Science indicates that North Americans are becoming even more individualistic. Over 40% of marriages now end in divorce, and for the first time in American history, more than 50% of the adult population are unmarried. Likewise, over one-quarter of households consist of people living alone, and this rate is rising.

Relatedly, there has been a precipitous decline in membership of organizations that traditionally brought meaning, purpose, and social opportunities to people and their communities. This decline includes churches, labor unions, and fraternal organizations. In the words of Harvard Professor Robert Putnam, more and more people are 'Bowling Alone.'

Parallel to this decline has been a massive increase in the use of social media, as well as an upsurge in the use of computer games and other related solitary pursuits. All this means less time socializing and more time alone.

This is concerning given that research consistently shows that social support and social ties protect individual mental health, especially in the face of acute and chronic stress. For example, classic research by British sociologists Brown and Harris illustrates how social support can help prevent the onset of a depressive episode. This is especially so when faced with particularly harmful events such as unemployment, divorce, and bereavement.

Other researchers have linked increasing rates of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to social factors. Irish psychiatrist Dr. Patrick Bracken argues that the impact of traumatic events was historically cushioned by extensive social supports and healing communal rituals. For example, returning soldiers from the world wars were routinely treated as heroes by their families, their communities, and society as a whole. This was embodied in government programs, such as the creation of the Veterans Administration (VA), and the G.I. Bill. Since the Vietnam War, returning soldiers have been treated more equivocally, leaving many feeling ashamed, unappreciated, and abandoned. This may not be an ideal healing environment after a trauma.

Rising individualism has also been implicated in suicide. For example, one study found that districts with rising rates of young male suicide also had the largest rise in the proportion of people living alone, as well as decreasing proportions of married people. This finding is consistent with the classic work of French sociologist Emile Durkheim, showing that socially embedded people had lower rates of suicide in comparison to the socially isolated. This social isolation can be piercingly painful, as poignantly portrayed in the short film below.

For these reasons, many mental health interventions attempt to prevent and diminish isolation by integrating people with mental illness into communal settings. These include efficacious interventions such as alcoholics anonymous, supported employment, and therapeutic communities. These interventions could be considered attempts to reconstitute helpful social and communal networks that may be lacking in the lives of people with mental illness.

From a mental health perspective, the rising individualism reported in the journal Psychological Science is disturbing. The amassed mental health research indicates that social support, social ties, and community integration acts to buffer mental illness and improve mental health. Contrariwise, intense individualism can lead to more isolation, more loneliness, and more alienation.

The conclusion? Social activity is good for your mental health. Avoid it at your peril.

More from Rob Whitley, Ph.D.
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More from Rob Whitley, Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today