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Reexamining the Root Cause of Mental Illness


Recently, the CDC reported that suicide rates have increased by more than 30% in half of US states and increased in all but one state since 1999.

When we see such steep rises in mental illness and suicide in such a short period of time, it challenges the current paradigm that mental illness is simply a brain disease or genetic inheritance. At a time of such extreme culture wars where tribalism and blame of the “other” is raging across our country, we are all affected by an epidemic of which we have yet to confront the root causes.

In what is supposed to be our most healthy and able age group of 18-40, 1 out of 5 individuals use psychoactive medication. 1 out of 9 children are currently medicated for disorders such as attention deficit, depression, anxiety, and PTSD.

While the U.S. is only 5% of the world’s population, we now consume more than 80% of opiate pain medicines worldwide.
The terrifying rise in school shootings also speaks to a reality that there is something terribly wrong in how we are living.
If these problems of mental illness and addiction were the result of purely a brain disease, would not the expansive use of psychoactive medications have reduced the rates of disability, suicide, and addiction by now? And are we best served by labeling individuals and controlling symptoms when there may be a broader environmental, cultural, or societal role to examine and address?

When the first psychoactive medication for depression was introduced in 1955, those disabled from mental illness were at 1 in 468 Americans; now it is 1 in 76.

Prior to the 1970’s, research indicated mood and anxiety problems were overwhelmingly acute and episodic states which resolved naturally on their own. While the psychopharmacology industry has spread the idea that chemical imbalances are the primary cause of mental illness, the public remains unaware that such a reductionistic explanation misses other highly prevalent causes. 
If we look at the research across the sciences, it indicates that the breakdown of core lifestyle factors such as community, time in nature, whole foods, and active lifestyles- which were part of our day-to-day life just a few generations ago- are the root cause of a highly significant percent of mental illnesses and highly impactful on prevention.
Contrary to this idea that we have no choice but to medicate ourselves for life, we must be willing to examine broader aspects of our society and culture to address the root cause of such a steep rise in illness, suicide and addiction.
In the 1850’s we learned that clear water systems reduced millions of deaths from waterborne infections. Heart disease and stroke patients are told by their doctors what foods and lifestyle factors are linked with their health and recovery, tested for cholesterol, and encouraged to reduce stress. Why do we treat mental illness differently? I believe this difference exists because, as a society, we have not fully come to terms with our collective decisions and values. 

Modern Western society has undergone tremendous shifts in family structure and community since the early 20th century.

We have benefited from advances in technology, communications, transportation, social justice, and the economy beyond the dreams of our ancestors. However, these advances have also come with such radical changes that the greatest anxiety of our age is a growing sense of isolation and meaninglessness. The landscape of our lives has seen dramatic dislocation and erosions of intimacy, authenticity, and a sense of belonging. This is the true root cause of so much suffering we are now facing.

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