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Depression and anxiety are part of the modern Australian experience. However, one social researcher has an ambitious plan to solve it.
As I think I’ve told you before, we’ve got a few young people with mental health issues in our family. Most of them are between 12 and 25, and most of them are suffering from anxiety and/or depression. Unfortunately, we are far from alone here. According to research done by the Black Dog Institute, about two million Australians suffer from diagnosed anxiety. And another two million have to deal with depression on a daily basis. These, of course, are only the people whose problems have been identified, and also not included in the count are their families and friends. This and next week, I would like to introduce you to two men who have made searching for the solution to this enormous problem their life’s work. Today: social researcher, Hugh McKay. Next week: Michael Marmot.
In his latest book, Australia Reimagined – Towards a more compassionate, less anxious society, social researcher Hugh Mackay calls it (rightfully, you’d say from the numbers) an epidemic. A wide-ranging plague that most of us struggle to cope with. If we are not in the hole ourselves, loved ones are. And it is difficult to figure out what to do for them. People who are anxious and depressed are usually so caught in their own heads that even getting them to look outside can be a bridge too far. This makes us as relative outsiders feel incredibly powerless. And it leaves them unhelped, if that is word.
But Mackay has come up with a solution that is so simple and evident that it is almost unbelievable that we haven’t thought of it before. Come to think of it, we have. President Kennedy said it best, all those years ago: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country”. It is an alternative therapy that consists of inversion: instead of trying to do something for the anxious and depressed, we can solve their problems by asking them to do something for us. Let me explain, using some of Mackay’s reasoning and some of my own. This is the argument. For too long now, we have been living in a society that revolves around individualism and consumerism, what Mackay calls the “twin vanities”. We have entangled ourselves in the QPL syndrome: the quest for the perfect latte. Because we feel we can’t control the world, we start renovating the bathroom, get a breast implant and demand the perfect latte. We believe that we will be happy when we get what we think we deserve. It is where entitlement comes from, and narcissism. The big problem, Mackay says, is that we have “lost sight of our true nature as people who belong to a society. We are, each of us, organically linked to the whole; its problems are our problems; the pain of any is the pain of all”.
In a riff on the well-known village that raises a child, Mackay says that it takes a village to keep all of us sensible and sane… Nothing relieves anxiety like a focus on someone else’s needs.
People are herd animals. Cut us off from the herd and we become anxious. We are simply not able to exist in isolation, we are not equipped for it. Of course, privacy is fine, but at the root of most anxiety is loneliness, exclusion, isolation and a feeling of alienation. We are social beings and our mental health depends on the community around us. When we become disconnected, we become afraid. It is an old fear that we remember from the caves: one human being is easy prey for a sabre tooth tiger, and security lies in the multitude. Out of that fear, our instinct is to put some more locks on the door, cut out more people, to try and avoid confrontations that can potentially harm us. This way we do exactly the wrong thing. By losing our connections and social cohesion, we retreat into a cocoon of self-absorption that makes our anxiety worse. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy: the more you disengage, the lonelier you become and the more your anxiety and depression can take hold. Of course, this is not only an individual problem. Anxiety, Mackay writes, is “the enemy within our walls, sapping our energy”, because of the people it affects, firstly, but also because an anxious society has “an unrealistic yearning for certainty” which shows itself in a penchant for black and white, them and us, and other fundamentalisms. It also has an “obsession with security and control”, and a fear of everything and everybody that is different. This way it becomes insular itself, and, as we know, anxious societies are easily provoked into wars and other craziness.
So if the problem at the basis of anxiety and depression is social fragmentation, then the solution is, like I said, obvious: connection. Think about it: what do we offer people with mental health problems? Talking therapies, mostly, that take them even more inside themselves. The result is that the self-absorption grows, and with it the anxiety. On the other hand, if you ask people to do something for others, they stop thinking about themselves for a moment. And when they then do the shopping for the old lady at the end of the street, they feel good about themselves, as well as about the society around them. Win-win-win. With connection comes compassion, the ability of people to imagine what it is like to be somebody else, and help make that existence a better one. And, as Mackay says, “when we make compassion our modus operandi, that is when we see anxiety levels go down”. That makes sense, right? When we are nice to other people, they are nice to us. Then we feel better about others and ourselves. Kindness, compassion, is our social capital, the fuel that keeps communities going. But it is also good for the individual. In fact, it is critical for our mental health. In a riff on the well-known village that raises a child, Mackay says that it takes a village to keep all of us sensible and sane. When we interact with others, we gain not only the famed belonging, but also a mind that worries less and feels better. Nothing relieves anxiety like a focus on someone else’s needs.
So: anxiety thrives on self-absorption. To heal anxiety we therefore have to step away from the ego a little and focus on the collective. It needs, as Mackay says, some “serious breaking down, analogous to a crisis or trauma in the life of an individual, before we are convinced of the need to reset our priorities and rethink our values”. But we have to do it, because “we live in ways that depart so radically from our true nature” that we are killing ourselves, and our society. The solution to anxiety and depression is not, I think, more attention for the person who is suffering, but less. We have to ask them to help us, so they can help themselves in the process. It might be an old saying, but that doesn’t make it less true: change starts with ourselves. And now we know what to do, we can start doing it. As Mackay writes: “it might not be a choice; our survival as a species might depend on it”.