We all have bad weeks. Not that you really need the details of mine, but it involved inordinate schlepping of stuff, car repairs, allergies, a really, really terrible stomach bug, and the baffling, depressing ascendancy of Sarah Palin.
In the middle of this, my week from hell, I tuned into Alternative Radio (Alternativeradio.org) and listened to Is America Making You Crazy? (spoiler: yes) a program by Dr. Stephen Bezruchka about mental illness in the United States. All of a sudden I felt like I was doing, if not well, then at least, you know, pretty ok.
I realize my beat is generally “the environment,” but it turns out that environment, in a broader sense, is driving us nuts: one in four college kids is now taking antidepressants; a quarter of the soldiers returning from Iraq are diagnosed with mental illness; a huge, growing percentage of children are on psychoactive medications, for either depression, or, more commonly, ADD/ADHD; and the overall incidence of “mental illness” has nearly doubled since 1987, when Prozac was introduced. Yikes. Yikes twice.
Why isn’t this being addressed as the epidemic it so clearly is? Dr. Bezruchka’s answers are fascinating, and thoughtful. The drug industry has a lot of power, and while other countries have found cognitive therapy to be cheaper and more effective at dealing with low-grade depression and anxiety, our leaders have decided that drugs are the only answer (remember how much money big pharma gives to politicians). My health insurance doesn’t cover talk therapy — does yours? Drugs are the sanctioned way of dealing with unhappiness, never mind that you might have a reason for being unhappy.
For example, Bezruchka points out that there are three countries that don’t mandate maternity/paternity leave: Swaziland, Papua New Guinea and, watch it now, the United States. A lot of people have kids — maybe they’d be happier if they could, if they wanted to, spend time with said kids? Sure, maternity leave costs money, but it’s not as much as the cost of lost productivity resulting from the stress/missed days of wracked-with-guilt-so-barely-functioning parents. Not to mention that the foundation of good mental health, according to many studies, is extended meaningful contact with one or both parents in the first years of life. Could it be that there’s a connection between too-busy parents and ADD-addled kids? Maybe creating a world in which everyone has to work all the time, to afford the car, the mortgage, the toys, the private school, the whatever-the-heck, just isn’t working?
We are the richest country on earth, but in a ranking of happiness, we come in 16th. With two percent of the world’s population, we have half the world’s billionaires, and we’re not happy. We are twice as rich as we were in 1950, according to a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, but we are no happier now. And we’re consuming 22 percent of the planet’s resources. What’s going on here?
Maybe, as the CSM suggests, it is consumption. More stuff=more unhappiness. Keeping up with the Joneses just means trying to keep abreast of our own insecurities — insecurities caused by the relentless efforts of marketers on behalf of car companies, furniture companies, and, yes, drug companies. Maybe we’re unhappy because we work so hard to be able to get all the stuff we think we need, only to find that once we have it we aren’t really any happier, and we’ve just wasted all our time making money, not hanging out with our friends and family, or reading that book we’ve always wanted to read, or…
No wonder we need medication — we’re frittering our lives away. And destroying our home, this planet, in the process. There’s got to be a better way, right? Less stuff. More time. Exercise and good food instead of antidepressants. There’s an important election coming up, and we all need to speak up loud and clear about what we believe in. This time around, there’s even more than happiness on the line.