The more work I do on behalf of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, and the more involved I am with suicide prevention in Missoula, the more I ask myself: why are there so many broken, hopeless, lonely, and despairing people in this world? Is it possible that mental illness and suicide might be social phenomena rather than individual ailments and actions, and that our efforts to diagnose and treat (and hospitalize and incarcerate) isolated individuals is a losing battle when we ought to be diagnosing and treating the social order that isolates them in the first place?
George Monbiot, writing at The Guardian, has come to just that conclusion: "Neoliberalism is creating loneliness. That’s what’s wrenching society apart," he writes. "Epidemics of mental illness are crushing the minds and bodies of millions. It’s time to ask where we are heading and why."
The facts are in plain view, says Monbiot; we are simply unwilling to see them for what they are: an indictment of modern capitalism and its celebrated "creative destruction." That phrase glosses over the inconvenient truth that what capitalism destroys includes human lives and the social fabric that used to hold them together. As Monbiot writes:
What greater indictment of a system could there be than an epidemic of mental illness? Yet plagues of anxiety, stress, depression, social phobia, eating disorders, self-harm and loneliness now strike people down all over the world. The latest, catastrophic figures for children’s mental health in England reflect a global crisis.
The education system becomes more brutally competitive by the year. Employment is a fight to the near-death with a multitude of other desperate people chasing ever fewer jobs. The modern overseers of the poor ascribe individual blame to economic circumstance. Endless competitions on television feed impossible aspirations as real opportunities contract.
Consumerism fills the social void. But far from curing the disease of isolation, it intensifies social comparison to the point at which, having consumed all else, we start to prey upon ourselves. Social media brings us together and drives us apart, allowing us precisely to quantify our social standing, and to see that other people have more friends and followers than we do.
We have made the choice to value competition over cooperation, autonomy over connectedness, and material affluence over meaning, which might be all well and good except that human beings have not evolved to thrive in such an atmosphere and too many of them (of us) find it unbearable:
There are plenty of secondary reasons for this distress, but it seems to me that the underlying cause is everywhere the same: human beings, the ultrasocial mammals, whose brains are wired to respond to other people, are being peeled apart. Economic and technological change play a major role, but so does ideology. Though our wellbeing is inextricably linked to the lives of others, everywhere we are told that we will prosper through competitive self-interest and extreme individualism.
It’s unsurprising that social isolation is strongly associated with depression, suicide, anxiety, insomnia, fear and the perception of threat. It’s more surprising to discover the range of physical illnesses it causes or exacerbates. Dementia, high blood pressure, heart disease, strokes, lowered resistance to viruses, even accidents are more common among chronically lonely people. Loneliness has a comparable impact on physical health to smoking 15 cigarettes a day: it appears to raise the risk of early death by 26%. This is partly because it enhances production of the stress hormone cortisol, which suppresses the immune system.
The intrinsic demands of modernity seem to create casualties faster than modern technology and modern pharmacology can cure them. What, though, is the alternative? Monbiot suggests that what is required is nothing less than "the reappraisal of [our] entire worldview":
Anyone can see that something far more important than most of the issues we fret about has gone wrong. So why are we engaging in this world-eating, self-consuming frenzy of environmental destruction and social dislocation, if all it produces is unbearable pain? Should this question not burn the lips of everyone in public life?
This does not require a policy response. It requires something much bigger: the reappraisal of an entire worldview. Of all the fantasies human beings entertain, the idea that we can go it alone is the most absurd and perhaps the most dangerous. We stand together or we fall apart.
Fifty years ago, the Beatles sang about Eleanor Rigby and about "all the lonely people; where do they all come from?" Today, even if we admit our responsibility for producing those lonely people, we still have no answer to the question that comes next: what are we to do with them all?