Modern Western Society - A Mental Health Hazard?
Many people living in modern Western society struggle to find a genuine sense of satisfaction and support. Everyone looks so busy on their devices, eyes cast downwards to an online location that is supposedly much more engaging than where they currently are. The extended family they enjoy spending time with live five hours away. Brothers and sisters live on the other side of the city, too far away to catch up with spontaneously, and too preoccupied with setting up Instagrammable activities and meals. Partners work late and then come home and sit on social media or Netflix for hours, zoning out in order to relax, not looking particularly receptive to questions or comments.
The elements that make the human mind thrive, which help us maintain a sense of safety and calm, seem to be lacking in our modern culture and environment. Although our society appears increasingly more open to people acknowledging that they are emotionally struggling and seeking professional help (which is very important), other elements of our modern social context appear to be contributing to the reported rise in mental illness. With the higher cost of living, increased work hours, longer commute times, lack of meaningful community events and rituals, and the constant bombardment with advertising, it’s no wonder that we feel less satisfied and connected. We are in touch with our friends more often thanks to social media, but how many of these interactions are face-to-face, meaningful human connections? Rituals and traditions are a thing of the past for many people, and families are increasingly finding themselves to be either relationally broken or geographically scattered across the country or globe.
Many people researching in the areas of mental and physical health have started to focus more on the effects of modern Western culture in their research. Richard Eckersley wrote a paper in 2006 attempting to summarise current research findings. This paper drew on evidence from numerous disciplines to argue that materialism and individualism are detrimental to health and well-being through the effects they have on psychosocial factors, such as personal control and social support. The research he examined found evidence linking cultural factors (via psychosocial pathways) to mental health and, through behavioural and physiological pathways, to physical health. Eckersley identified that a growing cost of the modern Western way of living is what he termed ‘cultural fraud’: the regular exposure to images of ‘the good life’ through marketing, which serve the economy but not the psychological needs of individuals, nor do they reflect social realities (leading to unrealistic expectations, increased frustration and poorer mental health outcomes).
I have spent years working as a Clinical Psychologist with clients who think there is something ‘wrong’ with them. I have no doubt that these people struggled immensely, however, there is a difference between emotionally struggling and being ‘wrong’. If you are finding it difficult to live happily and calmly in our society, this does not necessarily signal that there is a flaw in you and your coping skills. I have come to see the distress of many of the individuals I have worked with as a symptom of a society that is putting the profits of a select few powerful conglomerates above the happiness of the majority of people.
Eckersley, R. (2006). Is Modern Western Culture a Health Hazard? International Journal of Epidemiology, 35, 252-258.