Mental Health, Social Health and Cultural Health

Random Street Art... Near our apartment in Adelaide, South Australia.

Random Street Art... Near our apartment in Adelaide, South Australia.


Recently I have been musing on how much of the divisiveness, war and conflict we see in the world may be grounded primarily in 'mental health' issues rather than ideological, religious or cultural differences. How much fear, suspicion and insecurity act as the driver behind aggressive zero-sum gaming behaviours (and how much it shapes the formation/adoption of the ideologies that can look like the primary drivers).

A more cynical friend of mine recently claimed that we are doomed as a species because we are inherently selfish, needy and greedy. My response was that whilst we have he capacity for selfishness and greed, we also have the capacity for empathy, compassion, love, consideration and much else that is positive. My argument at the time was that you will get that which is emphasised through personal and cultural consciousness.

I am thinking back to this discussion with my friend because I am reading Bessel van der Kolk's excellent book The Body Keeps The Score and learning much about how disruptive developmental stress and trauma can be. I have highlighted so much from this book, but here is the line that had me step out reflect on that conversation and hit Facebook right now:

"Everything about us - our brains, our minds and our bodies - is geared towards collaboration in social systems. This is our most powerful survival strategy, the key to our success as a species, and it is precisely this that breaks down in most forms of mental suffering."

So what if much of what we see as political issues are really mental health (and, perhaps extensively, cultural health) issues. Van der Kolk also says...

"The neural connections in the brain and body are vitally important for understanding human suffering, but it is important not to ignore the foundations of our humanity: relationships and interactions that shape our minds and brains when we are young and that give substance and meaning to our entire lives."

If this is so, political solutions that inflict trauma upon other human beings are highly questionable at best (like bombing civilian populations or incarcerating and humiliating drug addicts). It's like hitting kids when they do 'wrong' - and obvious and simple solution, but one that is demonstrably deeply flawed (go google for the studies if you need to) from the perspective of raising emotionally and cognitively well adapted human beings.

So what do we need instead? Sam Harris in his excellent (though not perfect) book The Moral Landscape argues for taking the wellbeing of conscious entities (both individually and in aggregate) as being the basis for our decisions about how to live and organise human living. This seems like a pretty good idea to me. From this perspective we can begin to have informed conversations about what makes sense in terms of personal and political action.

So how can we move towards global wellbeing? It's a big project, no doubt... but surely a worthwhile one. And there are people out there, I believe, who are already engaging with it. I myself make a commitment to be part of that project both in my personal and professional life, and if by doing so I can be a domino in a grander conscious shifting chain, then I will consider myself to have 'done good'.

If you have any questions on this, or perspectives of your own you'd like to share, please do make use of the comments section below!

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