A society should always seek to address things at their root cause, as that leads to the creation of the most healthy and productive society as a whole. In the case of mental illness, despite the myth that has developed regarding the success in fighting mental illness since the advent of psychoactive medicines, in the U.S. we now are the most mentally sick society in the history of man. If the problems of mental illness and addiction were the result of a brain disease, the result of fixed genetic mutations causing chronic states of chemical imbalance, would not the expansive use of psychoactive medications starting in the 1950’s and then exploding since the 1980’s have reduced the rates of disability, suicide and addiction?
The realty is that prior to the 1950’s mood and anxiety problems were overwhelmingly acute and episodic states which resolved completely with time. Contrary to this idea that we have no choice but to medicate ourselves for life, there is in fact substantial evidence that having deeply supportive relationships and community, as well as lifestyle changes such as better food quality, time in nature and exercise, or practices such as yoga and meditation, can work as well or better than an antidepressant medication.
If this is true, can we ask ourselves if we are wrong in making much of mental illness problems of the individual, brain diseases causing states of chronic chemical imbalance, or placing the blame on the parents and nuclear family, ie., problem of bad parenting or poor behavioral control. The root causes of these illnesses may be better understood if we look at them as problems of living, such as the breakdown in community and loss of connection with nature in modern life, poor food quality, and the unaddressed trauma that arises from living lives of such disconnect and social isolation that is now so prevalent. And if this is the case, what should ‘treatment’ look like?
To give an analogy, our society faced in the 19th century with infectious disease, specifically with Cholera infection. Until the 1850’s nobody knew what caused cholera and it killed millions of people as a result. At the time the prevailing theories were based on assumptions and prejudices, myths based on cultural factors and lack of science, rigor and the courage to see things from outside the lens of the times. Then a physician named John Snow discovered that in fact cholera is an infection that is carried in the water system itself. The result was a concerted civic program that eventually lead to a proper sewage system and the eradication of cholera outbreaks in the West.
What the research tells us is clear – we are designed by evolution to require certain factors in our environment in order to be whole. As primates our survival is dependent on a potent biological drive for emotional connection that is found in community. Yet, most of us live lives that have grown less and less dependent on each other for survival, and our biological need for community leads us on endless searches for other ways to feel connected and whole. It is this change in the landscape of our lives since the early-20th century – such as the move from villages to cites and then suburbia, or the advent of TV, Internet and mobile devices that have replaced interdependence as the primary area of human experience – that has had the greatest impact on our emotional lives.
Symptoms are the signal to change.
From an Ecological perspective we must begin to think about why we become sick from chronic illnesses. We need to design models that inspire personal responsibility in order to change how we are living as a society. And we need to base our methods on grounded science on how man has thrived throughout evolution, in rhythm with nature, in deeply interdependent communities. For instance, when we buy a house plant we are given a ‘How to Care for Plant’ card. This is based on the study of how the health of the plant is best promoted, and we take good care to support that. Looking at the natural environment that our species thrives in, we can think about how to best support the individual’s innate healing capacity, promoting new skills of resilience and lifestyle change, and help people heal from trauma through connection and empowerment. Like a brace or cast for a strained muscle or a fractured bone, we can use medicines the way they were intended – as temporary fixes to provide stability while the real healing happens.
La Maida was created in an open home-setting in order to explore more deeply a communal based program for healing. We want to ask if community can again come together and heal together, as it did until very recently, taking action to solve problems as a community, and make changes to how one lives to be in better alignment with our needs. In groups we create new networks of support, centered around common hopes and shared problems, empowering us to make difficult behavioral and lifestyle changes as a community, share in practical information and common sense solutions.
When family as an evolutionary development was intended as a way individuals band together for health and safety, yet today the primary source of trauma happens in the family home, we are clearly on the wrong track. And to label the mental illnesses that arise from such early childhood trauma and adverse experiences is the corruption in our field. Whether it is the recent mosque mass shooting in New Zealand, or the college bribery scandal, I see the sadness and disillusionment in the faces of people young and old recently, and know we have to make this experiment work. The only solution is to once again come together, to regenerate values and practices that secure what is most essential in our human nature and potential.