Despite our increasing knowledge of the brain and nervous system, mental illness continues to blight the lives of millions of people. Some argue that the roots of this failure lie in our reductive approach. For example, if someone visits their physician complaining of anxiety or depression, he will usually put it down to bad brain chemistry and dish out some pills. Critics argue that such an approach is too simplistic and narrow. After all, people do not become unwell in isolation, and mental illness should not be separated from the broader social and cultural context.
Mental Illness Today
Some of the statistics are indeed alarming. Take Canada, for example, a nation often held up as a model of peace, stability, and wealth. By 40, half of all Canadians will have, or have experienced, a mental illness, costing the economy a staggering $51 billion a year. Or take the UK, where mental illness is the single most common reason people miss work. At the global level, it costs around $2.5 trillion a year – more than cancer, diabetes, or heart disease.
Unfortunately, mental illness rarely affects the victim alone. Imagine a 30-year-old married man crippled by depression, low self-esteem, and anger issues. To escape his pain, he begins to drink and take drugs. He loses his job because he frequently misses work and is often hungover or high when he does turn up. Now he sits at home all day, drinking, claiming benefits, and contributing nothing to society. He has violent rows with his wife and hits his children. Finally, he ends up in prison – again at the taxpayer’s expense.
Of course, people become mentally ill for all sorts of reasons. And no doubt genetics and brain chemistry play their part. But the pressures and fears created by globalization, though harder to identify, are also worth considering.
So what exactly is globalization? In essence, technological development has led to the compression of time and space: huge distances can now be covered at astonishing speed; people living on the other side of the world can instantly communicate with one another; and we can share goods, services, and information with almost anyone else on the planet.
Of course, globalization is nothing new. Indeed, it could be argued that even the Roman or Mongolian Empires shared certain traits with our globalized world (think of a Roman centurion stationed in the north of England, playing with dice bought in Syria, eating olive oil imported from Greece, and reading a letter from a friend in Rome). But true globalization really began in the 19th century, with the arrival of things like steam ships, trains, and the telegraph. Later there would be aeroplanes, telephones and, eventually, computers, the internet, satellites, and container ships.
Goods, information, and even people are now moving around the world on a scale, and at a speed, never seen before. One of the consequences of this has been the appearance of transnational institutions, like the I.M.F., U.N., and European Parliament, and huge, multinational companies with offices and workers based all around the world.
Loss of Control
Naturally, this has left individuals feeling smaller and more insignificant than ever – and less in control of their lives. People have always been swept up in wars, revolutions, and recessions of course. And yet, when borders were more stable and power more localized, there was at least the illusion of control.
Take work, for example. A hundred years ago, the average worker generally knew his employer by sight. They may not have liked him, may have been exploited by him, but he was at least familiar. They may even have passed his house on their way to the factory, field or office. Today, many literally never meet their boss or their work colleagues; some don’t even know what they look like. And people are often employed by multinational companies who have no sense of duty or responsibility to a particular town or village, who avoid tax, exploit local resources, and flout government regulations.
Migration is another major source of tension and fear. Obviously there has always been migration, but it is now occurring on a far greater scale, often against the wishes of those on the receiving end. Europe is a good example of this. White Europeans have a very low birth rate, while sub-Saharan Africans have the highest birth rate in the world. A “migration crisis” is now unfolding in Europe as increasing numbers of migrants from Africa and the Middle East enter the European Union, often illegally. The sense that this cannot be stopped or even controlled frightens people and possibly explains recent political events, like the British withdrawal from the E.U. and the rising popularity of Marine Le Pen in France.
Loss of Identity
Closely related to the loss of control is a loss of identity. Human beings are tribal creatures with an inbuilt need to belong to a larger group. Obviously this tribal instinct brings huge dangers and, looked at rationally, it may be absurd to cry at the sight of a flag or the sound of a national anthem. But human beings are not entirely rational creatures.
Identity is of course a complex issue and most individuals have multiple, sometimes even conflicting, identities. But globalization often threatens sudden, fundamental change to this identity. Again, this can produce fear, anxiety, and even a sense of loneliness and depression. Indigenous peoples, for example, often have very high rates of addiction, suicide and mental illness, which might be explained by their lost sense of identity and control.
Relativity of Values
Imagine a businessman finishes work at his Singapore office. He is hungry, but he struggles to decide between an Italian, Japanese, and Greek restaurant. As he waits for his food, he sits and reads a Sherlock Holmes novel he bought in London. In the kitchen, the Thai and Indian chefs are listening to Jamaican reggae. He receives a text message on his Japanese phone from his daughter in Australia. She is really into Buddhism, though her Greek boyfriend, who was raised a Jew, is now an atheist. He dreams of going to Oxford to study classics – especially Plato. And yet his favorite book is The Bhagavad Gita.
This hypothetical example is common in today’s globalized world: different nationalities, multiple beliefs, and all jumbled together. Throughout most of human history, however, the majority of people lived in relatively small, homogenous communities and had little contact with those who worshipped other gods, believed in different myths, or practised different rituals. Though it may seem suffocatingly dull, there is also comfort and security in such unquestioned, absolute faith. And religious, ethical, and cultural beliefs are much easier to accept when they are shared by everyone you know.
Today, beliefs are constantly undermined by exposure to different viewpoints. A girl raised as a Mormon, for example, may go to college in Chicago, New York, or London, where she meets Christians, Muslims, Hindus, atheists, New Agers, Zen Buddhists etc. In lectures and bookshops she encounters the writings of philosophers, historians, and novelists whose ideas begin to undermine the beliefs on which she was raised. Even those who do cling to a rigid set of beliefs and values often do so with a quiet sense of unease.
Some find this brings a sense of freedom and relief. Some even find it exhilarating. But for many, the sense that their beliefs and practises are not only relative but absurd brings fear, emptiness, and disorientation. Post-Modernists refer to this as the loss of a “grand narrative”, by which they mean a single story or explanation that makes sense of the world. Today, thanks to our endless exposure to so many different points of view, it is harder and harder to find such a narrative, leaving some lost in a kind of nihilistic despair.
Not only do people now feel more connected to the rest of the world, they are also more exposed to its horrors. Images of conflict in the Middle East, tribal massacres in Africa, or earthquakes in China, can now be shown live and in high definition on the evening news. And there is no escape. Few things have done more to increase anxiety levels than 24-hour-news. And because of globalization such events seem both closer to home and more threatening. Such things have always happened of course, but sixty or seventy years ago people could detach themselves, as if they were occurring on another planet. Today they seem to be happening next door.
Opting out of globalization is very difficult. Individuals, like nations, must earn a living and cannot afford to be left behind. This forces them to keep up with the latest technologies and trends, whether they want to or not. So, for example, people may feel it impossible to resist a multinational company’s new HQ in their town. The company may have a bad reputation, but the community needs the jobs and taxes their business will provide. As with so many things in life, the question is not how to escape but how best to adapt.