A Fun Experiment

I’ve written a lot about diet lately, but let me get personal about it. I’ve had lifelong issues with diet, not that I thought about it that way when younger. I ate a crappy diet and it was the only diet I knew, as everyone else around me was likewise eating the same basic crappy diet. Even my childhood sugar addiction didn’t stand out as all that unique. Though I didn’t know it at the time, looking back at it now, I’m sure an unhealthy diet with nutrient-deficiencies and food additives (maybe along with environmental toxins or other external factors) was likely contributing factors to my learning disability and word finding difficulties (WFD) — see previous posts: Aspergers and Chunking; and Specific Language Impairment. As early as elementary school, there were also signs of what would later be diagnosed as depression. I knew something was wrong with me, but felt at a loss in that there was no way to explain it. I was just broken, inferior and inadequate. I didn’t even understand that I was depressed during my youth, although my high school art teacher once asked me if I was depressed and, in my ignorance, I said I wasn’t. Being depressed was all I knew and so it just felt normal.

I didn’t have the insight to connect my neurocognitive and psychological struggles to physical health. The crappiness of my diet only became apparent to me in adulthood, although I’m not sure when I started thinking about it. I grew up in churches where people were more health-conscious and my mother tried to do what she thought was healthy, even as good info was lacking back then. Still, a basic mentality of healthfulness was instilled in me, not that it initially did me much good. It took a while for it to lead to anything more concrete than doing what was the height of “healthy eating” in those day, which was skim milk poured over bran cereal and an occasional salad with low-fat dressing. That simply would’ve made my depression and learning disabilities worse as it surely was fucking up my neurocognition precisely as my brain was developing, but mainstream advice asserted that this USDA-approved way of eating would cure all that ails you. Fat was the enemy and fiber was a health tonic. Few at the time realized that fat-soluble vitamins were key to health nor that a high-fiber diet can block nutrient absorption.

Everything fell apart after high school. I despised life and wanted to escape the world. I dropped out of college and seriously considered becoming a hermit, but the prospect was too lonely and after moving out to Arizona I felt homesick. Then in going back to college, I attempted suicide. I failed at that as well and earned myself a vacation in a psychiatric ward. I was bad off, but having been raised in New Thought Christianity I was always looking for answers in self-help books and similar things. It would’ve been maybe in my early to mid 20s when I first read books that were explicitly about diet, nutrition, and health. I do recall, for instance, a book I picked up on low-carb diets and it wasn’t about the Atkins diet — it might have been an old copy of Vilhjalmur Stefansson’s Not By Bread Alone or it could have been something else entirely. Around that time, there was a minor incident that comes to mind. I told my friend that fast food was unhealthy and he didn’t believe me. It sounds odd now, but this was back in the 1990s. His mother was a nurse and regularly bought him fast food as a child. So how could it be bad? Many people at the time didn’t have much sense of what made food healthy or not, but obviously something had got me thinking about it. I knew that some foods were not healthy, even as what a healthy diet should look like was a bit hazy in my mind, beyond the nostrum of eating more fruits and veggies.

I lacked knowledge and there weren’t many sources of knowledge prior to my getting internet. Still, based on what limited info I could glean, I did start experimenting during that period. I began trying supplements to deal with my depression with the related low energy and low motivation, as therapy and medications had failed to put a dent in it. Around 1998, four years after graduating high school and a couple years after the suicide attempt, I tried vegetarianism for a time, maybe for a year or so, but it mainly involved eating as a regular meal a mix of Ramen noodles, eggs, and frozen vegetables cooked in the microwave — it was a poverty diet as I was living in poverty. I probably also was eating plenty of junk food as well, considering most cheap processed foods are vegetarian. Avoiding meat certainly doesn’t guarantee health — it didn’t fill me with joy and vitality. A bit later on I did finally try a low-carb diet, but it mainly consisted of eating processed meat because I was too depressed to cook. Even then, I might not have been getting many fat-soluble vitamins, as I didn’t understand nutrient-density. I wasn’t procuring pasture-raised meat, much less emphasizing organ meats, bone broth, wild-caught fish, etc.

My experiments weren’t well-informed and so weren’t done under optimal conditions. There was no one around to offer me guidance and so it didn’t work out all that well. I don’t give up easy, though. I went looking for guidance from dozens of psychiatrists, therapists, energy healers, body workers, and even a shaman. In my desperation, I’d try anything. Then I went to massage school where I learned Shiatsu massage and traditional Chinese theory, along with some other modalities. Even that didn’t change anything. My massage teachers were alternative health practitioners, one being a naturopath, but it seemed like no one understood what was wrong with me and so nothing could make a difference. My depression was an incomprehensible mystery. Rather than something being wrong with me, I was the problem in being inherently defective, so it seemed in my lingering dark mood.

The only thing that made much of a difference was exercise. I found that I could keep the worst symptoms of depression at bay through jogging, if only temporarily. At some point, I learned to jog before eating anything in the morning and I found that my hunger and cravings were less for the rest of the day. I had accidentally discovered ketosis and didn’t know what it was. It didn’t make sense that physical exertion minus food would lead to such results — rather counterintuitive. I was also occasionally fasting around then which also would’ve contributed to ketosis. That isn’t to say ketosis while in nutrient deficiency is a good thing. I’d have been better off in having avoided ketosis entirely and, instead, having filled up on nutrient-dense fatty animal foods. I needed healing and only high dosage of nutrition was going to accomplish that. I had been too malnourished for far too long at that point. Ketosis would’ve been great after a period of deep nourishment, but I didn’t understand either the significance of key nutrients nor how to implement ketosis in a more beneficial way.

At some point, I read Sally Fallon Morrell’s Nourishing Traditions (1995) where I was introduced to nutrient-density and fat-soluble viatmins along with traditional food preparation, but I was too depressed and too isolated to fully and successfully implement what I was learning. Depression is a real kick in the ass. Still, I was slowly accruing basic knowledge and making small changes when and where I felt able. I was limiting some of the worst problematic foods. In particular, I began cutting back on junk food, especially candy. And I replaced sugar with such things as stevia. Simultaneously, I increased healthier foods like probiotics and Ezekiel bread, although I’m not sure that the latter really is all that healthy (it has vital gluten added to it and it mostly starchy carbs). I tried to limit my sugar intake to foods that were relatively better, such as yogurt and kefir. I still was experimenting a bit with supplements, but wasn’t getting any clear results. My depression persisted and I see now that, even with these changes, I continued to lack nutrient-density. It just wasn’t clicking together for me. Maybe my depression had moderated ever so slightly, to the degree that I was a functional depressive and not in the total gloom and doom of my late teens to early twenties. I figured that was as good as it was going to get. I had survived that far and figured I’d be depressed for the rest of my life. Let me put this in perspective. This slightly lessened depression was, nonetheless, chronic and severe. For example, suicidal ideation persisted — maybe more as a background noise to my thoughts, but there, always there. I had this suspicion that eventually depression would catch up with me and then that would be the end of me. Suicide remained a real possibility in my mind, a persistent thought. It was hard for me imagine myself surviving into old age.

I carried on like this. I managed my life at a bare minimal level. I held down a job, I sort of kept my apartment clean, I fed my cats and sometimes changed their litter, and I more or less paid my bills on time. But depression had kept me working minimal hours and barely staying above poverty. There wasn’t only the depression for, over the decades, a crippling sense of shame had accumulated. I felt worthless, a failure. I wasn’t taking care of myself or at least wasn’t doing it well. Everything felt like a struggle while nothing I did seemed to make a difference. It was shitty and I knew life was just going to get worse as I aged and thinking about that made me feel more hopeless. To add to that general anxiety and despair, as I drifted through my thirties, I began gaining weight. I had always thought of myself as athletic. I played soccer from 1st grade to 11th grade and was always slim and trim, although I remember at one point after high school having been so inactive for a number of years that I felt winded just by walking up a hill — that was a strange experience for me because I had never been out of shape before that time. That was why I came to focus so much on exercise. Yet with age, mere exercise wouldn’t stop the weight gain, much less help with weight loss… nor any of the other symptoms of declining health. I was jogging multiple times a week for long periods, sometimes while wearing a heavy backpack as I hoofed it out to my parent’s place on the far edge of town. Still, the excess fat remained. That was rather dispiriting. Yet from a conventional viewpoint, my diet was balanced and my lifestyle was generally healthy, at least by American standards. I was doing everything right, as I understood it. Just the expected results of aging, most doctors would likely have told me.

I realize now that insulin resistance probably had set in quite a while back. I was probably prediabetic at that point, maybe even in the early stages of diabetes (I sweated a lot, in the way my grandmother did before her diabetes was managed with insulin shots). I know that I no longer handled sugar well, which helped keep my sugar addiction in check. About a decade ago, my friend and I visited a nearby donut shop and I got several fine specimens. Upon eating them, I felt sick with a slight headache. No more donuts for me. Sugar or not, my diet was still fairly high-carb, but I wasn’t yet fully aware of how starches and sugars sneak into everything. Then last year I randomly came across the paleo documentary The Magic Pill and watched it without any expectation. I suppose it was just basic curiosity, as is my habit. Something about it resonated with me. I showed it to my parents and they too found it inspiring. So, we all set about changing our diets — having mutual support from family was surely an important factor for motivation. The diet portrayed is standard paleo with a combination of low-carb and nutrient-density. What made the documentary compelling was how a wide variety of people were followed as they tried the paleo diet: a woman living alone with various health problems, a family with a young daughter with severe autism, and an Australian Aboriginal community that had lost their traditional way of life. It demonstrated the significant changes that could occur through diet. The transformation of the autistic girl was particularly impressive. The entire documentary was motivational. After that, I looked for some other documentaries to watch with my parents: The Perfect Human Diet, Carb Loaded, etc. Learning more reinforced this new view and brought together all that I had learned over the decades. I finally had a broader framework of understanding.

It was this low-carb paleo diet that was the starting point for me, although my mother never was quite on board with it. After looking online, she was drawn to the FODMAP diet in hoping it could help with her gut issues, specifically GERD and belching, but also osteoporosis (and indeed it did seem to work for her, as her former high-fiber diet apparently was the source of her problems), although her diet had some overlap with paleo. Going into my typical obsessive-compulsive mode, I gathered dozens of books on the subject, voraciously took in all the info I could find online, and began following various people on social media. I quickly figured out the basics and what was most essential while determining the points of disagreement and uncertainty. What I liked about the paleo and low-carb community was the attitude of curiosity, of exploration and experimentation. Try something and see what happens. And if it doesn’t work, try something else. There was no failure, a much more positive attitude about health. Within three months of implementing the paleo diet, I had lost 60 pounds of fat and I did it without starving myself. I simply figured out how to tap into the body’s natural mechanisms for fat-burning and hunger signalling. As I switched from general low-carb to ketogenic, my experience improved even further. It finally dawned on me that my depression had gone away, simply and utterly disappeared, decades of depression along with a lifetime of sugar addiction no longer an issue. I didn’t need to struggle against it. I wasn’t even trying to cure my depression, not that I realized this even was a possibility. It was a complete surprise.

It’s been a little over a year now. I’m still coming to terms with this new state of being. It’s strange. Depression had become part of my identity, as had sugar addiction and the roller coaster hangriness of insulin resistance. I now simply wake up in the morning feeling perfectly fine. It’s not that I go around feeling ecstatic, but the extreme low moods and funks no longer happen. I feel more balanced and relaxed. I used to fall into long periods of apathy and despair where all I could do was isolate myself until it passed, sometimes requiring days or weeks before I could rejoin humanity. How I functioned at all in such a state is kind of amazing, but not nearly as amazing as the miracle of its drama-free disappearance. Depression was there and then it wasn’t. I didn’t really notice it going away, until after it was gone. This leaves me in a strange position, as the decades of depressive thought and behavioral patterns remain. It’s hard for me to know how to not be a depressed person. I can’t quite wrap my mind around it. I don’t remember the last time I had any suicidal tendencies or fantasies. Yet the decades of damage to my body also remains as a reminder.

That hasn’t stopped me from getting back in shape and beyond. In fact, I’m in better shape now as I move toward middle age than ever before in my life. It’s not simply that I’ve been working out but that I enjoy working out. It feels good to me and I enjoy doing physical activity, pushing myself to the point of exhaustion. Unsurprisingly, I’m looking better. People notice and tell me. This sometimes makes me uncomfortable, as I’m not used to getting compliments. Just today I went to a picnic with a large crowd, some people I knew and some I didn’t. I met a friendly young woman and she was obviously flirting with me as we talked. It was a nice day and, having been out in a kayak, I had my shirt off. She told me that I looked “gorgeous” — the exact word she chose.* I’ll be blunt about this. No one has ever said anything like that to me in my entire life. I had never been a buff guy before and now I actually have muscles. It changes how I carry myself, how I feel.

It makes me realize why some fat people, after losing a bunch of weight, will sometimes gain their weight back just to feel normal again. The person I am now is not the person I’ve known myself for as long as I can remember. And I don’t know what to do with people relating to me differently. I’m sure people treat me differently not only because I look different but probably because I’m putting off a different vibe. I’m less sullen and dissociated than I used to be. An easygoing friendliness comes more naturally to me now. I don’t feel so crappy in no longer being on a crappy diet, but I’m not sure what it might mean to be healthy and happy. That is an odd concept to my mind. What if I could really be different? I take this seriously. In the past, I didn’t feel capable of being different, but all of that has changed. I don’t feel so irritable, frustrated, and angry. In place of that, I find myself wanting to be kinder and more forgiving. I want to be a good person. I realize that, in the past, how I could be an asshole and I was often open in admitting this basic fact of my former state, sometimes apologizing for my antagonistic moods. My life didn’t always feel like a net gain for the world and I’m sure some people might have agreed with that assessment. I could be harshly critical at times and that doesn’t make others feel better — I seriously harmed a number of relationships.

Now here I am. It’s a bit late in my life, but I have a second chance to try to do things differently. It will take some further experimentation beyond diet to find better ways of relating to others and to myself. That said, I’ll go on tinkering with my diet and lifestyle. It’s an ongoing experiment, all of it. Most importantly, it’s a fun experiment. The idea that I can try various things and discover what works is new to me. I’m more used to failure, but now I’m starting to see ‘failure’ as simply part of the experiment. There is no failure. Life doesn’t have to be hard. And I’m realizing that I’m not alone in this, as I’ve come across hundreds of stories just like mine. Sometimes simple changes can have profound effects.


* I must admit that it was a disconcerting experience. A young beautiful woman telling me in no uncertain words that I’m attractive. That is not the kind of thing I’ve grown accustomed to. I handled the situation as well as I could. It was kind of an amusing scenario. She was with her family. Along with her parents, she was visiting from Tunisia in order to see her sister who now works at the local university.

So, this young woman wasn’t going to be around long. Developing a romantic relationship didn’t seem to be in the cards, even if I had wanted it, but I feel ambivalent about romantic relationships these days. I’ve become comfortable in my bachelorhood with its lack of complications. Even so, I played along with the flirtation. As I sat near her with her family at the picnic table, she kept wanting to feed me. And how I could I decline food offered by a beautiful woman, even when she offered me carbs. That is my new plan for carb cycling — I’ll eat carbs every time a beautiful woman feeds them directly to me.

Anyway, combined with introversion and shyness, the lifetime of depression has made me reticent. I’m not confident around the opposite sex, but I’ve had long years of training in hiding any anxieties. Still, I didn’t know what purpose there was in flirting with this nice-looking person who would soon be gone. She said she might be back to visit again in a few years and that seems like a long time when you just met someone. I convinced myself there was no point and didn’t give her my contact info or ask for hers. But now I feel some regret.

I was acting according to my old self, the one who was ruled by his depression. Maybe it was irrelevant that I might not see her again. I should have left the door open for the possibility. These are the kinds of habits I need to learn.

Physical Health, Mental Health

There is a growing field focused on the relationship between diet, nutrition, neurocognition, and psychiatry. I’ve written about this previously (The Agricultural Mind; Ketogenic Diet and Neurocognitive Health; & Fasting, Calorie Restriction, and Ketosis). But there aren’t many well known experts in this area.

One of the better known figures in this convergence of fields is Dr. Georgia Ede, a psychiatrist with a medical degree and a B.A. in Biology. She has completed a graduate course in nutrition at Harvard where she also completed her residency. Besides psychiatry, her employment includes as laboratory research assistant, psychopharmacologist, and nutrition consultant. Her writings regularly appear in Psychology Today.

Another major expert is Dr. Ann Childers. She is a psychiatric physician for children and adults. Besides being a lecturer and podcaster, she has written chapters for textbooks. She is a member of the American Psychiatric Association, the American Medical Association, the Nutrition and Metabolism Society, Obesity Medicine Association, and Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association.

There is another authority in this area, Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride. She holds a degree in Medicine and Postgraduate degrees in both Neurology and Human Nutrition. After years working as a neurologist and neurosurgeon, she now practices as a nutritionist and used to run the Cambridge Nutrition Clinic. She is the founder of the widely used Gut and Psychology (GAPS) Diet.

I’ll mention some other names. Carol Simontacchi was a certified clinical nutritionist and hosted a nationally syndicated radio show. She was also a writer, including a book on this topic, Crazy Makers. Last but not least, there is L. Amber O’Hearn. By education, she is a data scientist. In dealing with her own physical and mental health issues, she tried a ketogenic diet and then a carnivore diet. She is a major figure and speaker in the low-carb community.

An up-and-comer is Dr. Paul Saladino, a convert to the carnivore diet and emphasizes the importance of nutrition. He has a Bachelor of Science in Chemistry and a Master of Health Science and Physician Assistant degree. He worked as a PA in cardiology, but got frustrated with the inadequacies of conventional medicine. He went back to school to get his MD with a focus on integrative and functional medicine, during which time he studied under the famous Dr. Andrew Weil. At this time, he also got certified as a functional medicine practitioner. He recently completed his residency in psychiatry and has had a private practice for a while.

Heck, while I’m at it, I’ll also give honorable mention to some others: registered dietitian nutritionist Vicky Newman and clinical psychologist Julia Rucklidge. Both support their views with scientific evidence. Newman basically recommends a low-carb diet without ever explicitly calling it that. She also takes a fairly holistic approach with more knowledge that is common in alternative health, such as the importance of pastured and grassfed livestock.

Rucklidge is more conventional in her recommending a Mediterranean diet. From what I can tell, she is unaware of functional medicine, traditional foods, paleo, low-carb, keto, carnivore, etc. On the other hand, she gets extra credit points for talking about how good nutrition improves the psychological and behavioral outcomes among depressives, autistic children, ADHD adults, trauma patients, prisoners, etc.

For good measure, let me also recommend Dr. Eric Berg, a chiropractor. He has no particular specialty in psychology, psychiatry, or anything similar. But he is is one of the best presenters on useful knowledge for diet and health. His talks are always clear and concise and he occasionally focuses on neurocognitive health.

* * *

Ketogenic Diets for Mental Health: A Guide to Resources
by Georgia Ede

Your Brain on Plants: Micronutrients and Mental Health
by Georgia Ede

Affects of Diet and Mental Health
by Georgia Ede

Schizophrenia, Depression, and the Little-Known “Mental Heatlh”/DietaryLink
interview with Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride

A Carnivore Diet for Physical and Mental Health
interview with L. Amber O’Hearn

The World Around Us

What does it mean to be in the world? This world, this society, what kind is it? And how does that affect us? Let me begin with the personal and put it in the context of family. Then I’ll broaden out from there.

I’ve often talked about my own set of related issues. In childhood, I was diagnosed with learning disability. I’ve also suspected I might be on the autistic spectrum which could relate to the learning disability, but that kind of thing wasn’t being diagnosed much when I was in school. Another label to throw out is specific language impairment, something I only recently read about — it maybe better fits my way of thinking than autistic spectrum disorder. After high school, specifically after a suicide attempt, I was diagnosed with depression and thought disorder, although my memory of the latter label is hazy and I’m not sure exactly what was the diagnosis. With all of this in mind, I’ve thought that some of it could have been caused by simple brain damage, since I played soccer since early childhood. Research has found that children regularly head-butting soccer balls causes repeated micro-concussions and micro-tears which leads to brain inflammation and permanent brain damage, such as lower IQ (and could be a factor in depression as well). On the other hand, there is a clear possibility of genetic and/or epigenetic factors, or else some other kind of shared environmental conditions. There are simply too many overlapping issues in my family. It’s far from being limited to me.

My mother had difficulty learning when younger. One of her brothers had even more difficulty, probably with a learning disability as I have. My grandfather dropped out of school, not that such an action was too uncommon at the time. My mother’s side of the family has a ton of mood disorders and some alcoholism. In my immediate family, my oldest brother also seems like he could be somewhere on the autistic spectrum and, like our grandfather, has been drawn toward alcoholism. My other brother began stuttering in childhood and was diagnosed with anxiety disorder, and interestingly I stuttered for a time as well but in my case it was blamed on my learning disability involving word recall. There is also a lot of depression in the family, both immediate and extended. Much of it has been undiagnosed and untreated, specifically in the older generations. But besides myself, both of my brothers have been on antidepressants along with my father and an uncle. Now, my young niece and nephew are on anti-depressants, that same niece is diagnosed with Asperger’s, the other even younger niece is probably also autistic and has been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and that is only what I know about.

I bring up these ailments among the next generation following my own as it indicates something serious going on in the family or else in society as a whole. I do wonder what gets epigenetically passed on with each generation worsening and, even though my generation was the first to show the strongest symptoms, it may continue to get far worse before it gets better. And it may not have anything specifically to do with my family or our immediate environment, as many of these conditions are increasing among people all across this country and in many other countries as well. The point relevant here is that, whatever else may be going on in society, there definitely were factors specifically impacting my family that seemed to hit my brothers and I around the same time. I can understand my niece and nephew going on antidepressants after their parents divorced, but there was no obvious triggering condition for my brothers and I, well besides moving into a different house in a different community.

Growing up and going into adulthood, my own issues always seemed worse, though, or maybe just more obvious. Everyone who has known me knows that I’ve struggled for decades with depression, and my learning disability adds to this. Neither of my brothers loved school, but neither of them struggled as I did, neither of them had delayed reading or went to a special education teacher. Certainly, neither of them nearly flunked out of a grade, something that would’ve happened to me in 7th grade if my family hadn’t moved. My brothers’ conditions were less severe or at least the outward signs of it were easier to hide — or maybe they are simply more talented at acting normal and conforming to social norms (unlike me, they both finished college, got married, had kids, bought houses, and got respectable professional jobs; basically the American Dream). My brother with the anxiety and stuttering learned how to manage it fairly early on, and it never seemed have a particularly negative affect on his social life, other than making him slightly less confident and much more conflict-avoidant, sometimes passive-aggressive. I’m the only one in the family who attempted suicide and was put in a psychiatric ward for my effort, the only one to spend years in severe depressive funks of dysfunction.

This caused me to think about my own problems as different, but in recent years I’ve increasingly looked at the commonalities. It occurs to me that there is an extremely odd coincidence that brings together all of these conditions, at least for my immediate family. My father developed depression in combination with anxiety during a stressful period of his life, after we moved because he got a new job. He began having moments of rapid heartbeat and it worried him. My dad isn’t an overly psychologically-oriented person, though not lacking in self-awareness, and so it is unsurprising that it took a physical symptom to get his attention. It was a mid-life crisis. Added to his stress were all the problems developing in his children. It felt like everything was going wrong.

Here is the strange part. Almost all of this started happening specifically when we moved into that new house, my second childhood home. It was a normal house, not that old. The only thing that stood out, as my father told me, was that the electricity usage was much higher than it was at the previous house, and no explanation for this was ever discovered. Both that house and the one we lived in before were in the Lower Midwest and so there were no obvious environmental differences. It only now struck me, in talking to my father again about it, that all of the family’s major neurocognitive and psychological issues began or worsened while living in that house.

About my oldest brother, he was having immense behavioral issues from childhood onward: refused to do what he was told, wouldn’t complete homework, and became passive-aggressive. He was irritable, angry, and sullen. Also, he was sick all the time, had a constant runny nose, and was tired. It turned out he had allergies that went undiagnosed for a long time, but once treated the worst symptoms went away. The thing about allergies is that it is an immune condition where the body is attacking itself. During childhood, allergies can have a profound impact on human biology, including neurocognitive and psychological development, often leaving the individual with a condition of emotional sensitivity for the rest of their lives, as if the body is stuck in permanent defensive mode. This was a traumatic time for my brother and he has never recovered from it — still seething with unresolved anger and still blaming my parents for what happened almost a half century ago.

One of his allergies was determined to be mold, which makes sense considering the house was on a shady lot. This reminds me of how some molds can produce mycotoxins. When mold is growing in a house, it can create a toxic environment with numerous symptoms for the inhabitants that can be challenging to understand and connect. Unsurprisingly, research does show that air quality is important for health and cognitive functioning. Doctors aren’t trained in diagnosing environmental risk factors and that was even more true of doctors decades ago. It’s possible that something about that house was behind all of what was going on in my family. It could have been mold or it could have been some odd electromagnetic issue or else it could have been a combination of factors. This is what is called sick building syndrome.

Beyond buildings themselves, it can also involve something brought into a building. In one fascinating example, a scientific laboratory was known to have a spooky feeling that put people at unease. After turning off a fan, this strange atmosphere went away. It was determined the fan was vibrating at a level that was affecting the human nervous system or brain. There has been research into how vibrations and electromagnetic energy can cause stressful and disturbing symptoms (the human body is so sensitive that the brain can detect the weak magnetic field of the earth, something that earlier was thought to be impossible). Wind turbines, for example, can cause the eyeball to resonate in a way to cause people to see glimpses of things that aren’t there (i.e., hallucinations). So, it isn’t always limited to something directly in a building itself but can include what is in the nearby environment. I discuss all of this in an earlier post: Stress Is Real, As Are The Symptoms.

This goes along with the moral panic about violent crime in the early part of my life during the last several decades of the 20th century. It wasn’t an unfounded moral panic, not mere mass hysteria. There really was a major spike in the rate of homicides (not to mention suicides, child abuse, bullying, gang activity, etc). All across society, people were acting more aggressive (heck, aggression became idealized, as symbolized by the ruthless Wall Street broker who wins success through social Darwinian battle of egoic will and no-holds-barred daring). Many of the perpetrators and victims of violence were in my generation. We were a bad generation, a new Lost Generation. It was the period when the Cold War was winding down and then finally ended. There was a sense of ennui in the air, as our collective purpose in fighting a shared enemy seemed less relevant and eventually disappeared altogether. But that was in the background and largely unacknowledged. Similar to the present mood, there was a vague sense of something being terribly wrong with society. Those caught up in the moral panic blamed it on all kinds of things: video games, mass media, moral decline, societal breakdown, loss of strict parenting, unsupervised latchkey kids, gangs, drugs, and on and on. With so many causes, many solutions were sought, not only in different cities and states across the United States but also around the world: increased incarceration or increased rehabilitation programs, drug wars or drug decriminalization, stop and frisk or gun control, broken window policies or improved community relations, etc. No matter what was done or not done, violent crime went down over the decades in almost every population around the planet.

It turned out the strongest correlation was also one of the simplest. Lead toxicity drastically went up in the run up to those violent decades and, depending on how quickly environmental regulations for lead control were implemented, lead toxicity dropped back down again. Decline of violent crime followed with a twenty year lag in every society (twenty years is the time for a new generation to reach adulthood). Even to this day, in any violent population from poor communities to prisons, you’ll regularly find higher lead toxicity rates. It was environmental all along and yet it’s so hard for us to grasp environmental conditions like this because they can’t be directly felt or seen. Most people still don’t know about lead toxicity, despite it being one of the most thoroughly researched areas of public health. So, there is not only sick building syndrome for entire societies can become sick. When my own family was going bonkers, it was right in the middle of this lead toxicity epidemic and we were living right outside of industrial Chicago and, prior to that, we were living in a factory town. I have wondered about lead exposure, since my generation saw the highest lead exposure rate in the 20th century and probably one of the highest since the Roman Empire started using lead water pipes, what some consider to have been the cause of its decline and fall.

There are other examples of this environmental impact. Parasite load in a population is correlated to culture of distrust and violence (parasites-stress theory of values, culture, and sociality; involving the behavioral immune system), among other problems — parasite load is connected to diverse things, both individually and collectively: low extraversion, higher conscientiousnessauthoritarianism (conformity, obedience), in-group loyalty (in situations of lower life expectancy and among populations with faster life histories)collectivism, income inequality, female oppressionconservatism, low openness to experience, support for barriers between social groups, adherence to local norms, traditionalism, religiosity, strength of family ties, in-group assortative sociality, perceived ‘ugliness’ of bodily abnormalityhomicide, child abuse, etc. Specific parasites like toxoplasmosis gondii have been proven to alter mood, personality, and behavior — this can be measured across entire populations, maybe altering the culture itself of entire regions where infection is common.

Or consider high inequality that can cause widespread bizarre and aggressive behavior, as it mimics the fear and anxiety of poverty even among those who aren’t poor. Other social conditions have various kinds of effects, in some cases with repercussions that last for centuries. But in any of these examples, the actual cause is rarely understood by many people. The corporate media and politicians are generally uninterested in reporting on what scientists have discovered, assuming scientists can get the funding to do the needed research. Large problems requiring probing thought and careful analysis don’t sell advertising nor do they sell political campaigns, and the corporations behind both would rather distract the public from public problems that would require public solutions, such as corporate regulations and higher taxation.

In our society, almost everything gets reduced to the individual. And so it is the individual who is blamed or treated or isolated, which is highly effective for social control. Put them in prison, give them a drug, scapegoat them in the media, or whatever. Anything so long as we don’t have to think about the larger conditions that shape individuals. The reality is that psychological conditions are never merely psychological. In fact, there is no psychology as separate and distinct from all else. The same is true for many physical diseases as well, such as autoimmune disorders. Most mental and physical health concerns are simply sets of loosely associated symptoms with thousands of possible causal and contributing factors. Our categorizing diseases by which drugs treat them is simply a convenience for the drug companies. But if you look deeply enough, you’ll typically find basic things that are implicated: gut dysbiosis, mitochondrial dysfunction, etc —- inflammation, for example, is found in numerous conditions, from depression and Alzheimer’s to heart disease and arthritis — the kinds of conditions that have been rapidly spreading over the past century (also, look at psychosis). Much of it is often dietary related, since in this society we are all part of the same food system and so we are all hit by the same nutrient-deficient foods, the same macronutrient ratios, the same harmful hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated vegetable oils/margarine, the same food additives, the same farm chemicals, the same plastic-originated hormone mimics, the same environmental toxins, etc. I’ve noticed the significant changes in my own mood, energy, and focus since turning to a low-carb, high-fat diet based mostly on whole foods and traditional foods that are pasture-fed, organic, non-GMO, local, and in season — lessening the physiological stress load. It is yet another factor that I see as related to my childhood difficulties, as diverse research has shown how powerful is diet in every aspect of health, especially neurocognitive health.

This makes it difficult for individuals in a hyper-individualistic society. We each feel isolated in trying to solve our supposedly separate problems, an impossible task, one might call it a Sisyphean task. And we rarely appreciate how much childhood development shapes us for the rest of our lives and how much environmental factors continue to influence us. We inherit so much from the world around us and the larger society we are thrown into, from our parents and the many generations before them. A society is built up slowly with the relationship between causes and consequences often not easily seen and, even when noticed, rarely appreciated. We are born and we grow up in conditions that we simply take for granted as our reality. But those conditions don’t have to be taken as fatalistic for, if we seek to understand them and embrace that understanding, we can change the very conditions that change us. This will require us first to get past our culture of blame and shame.

We shouldn’t personally identify with our health problems and struggles. We aren’t alone nor isolated. The world is continuously affecting us, as we affect others. The world is built on relationships, not just between humans and other species but involving everything around us — what some describe as embodied, embedded, enacted, and extended (we are hypersubjects among hyperobjects). The world that we inhabit, that world inhabits us, our bodies and minds. There is no world “out there” for there is no possible way for us to be outside the world. Everything going on around us shapes who we are, how we think and feel, and what we do — most importantly, shapes us as members of a society and as parts of a living biosphere, a system of systems all the way down. The personal is always the public, the individual always the collective, the human always the more than human.

* * *

When writing pieces like this, I should try to be more balanced. I focused solely on the harm that is caused by external factors. That is a rather lopsided assessment. But there is the other side of the equation implied in everything I wrote.

As higher inequality causes massive dysfunction and misery, greater equality brings immense benefit to society as a whole and each member within it. All you have to do in order to understand this is to look to cultures of trust such as the well functioning social democracies, with the Nordic countries being the most famous examples (The Nordic Theory of Everything by Anu Partanen). Or consider how, no matter your intelligence, you are better off being in an on average high IQ society than to be the smartest person in an on average low IQ society. Other people’s intelligence has greater impact on your well being and socioeconomic situation than does your own intelligence (see Hive Mind by Garett Jones).

This other side was partly pointed to in what I already wrote in the first section, even if not emphasized. For example, I pointed out how something so simple as regulating lead pollution could cause violent crime rates around the world to drop like a rock. And that was only looking at a small part of the picture. Besides impulsive behavior and aggression that can lead to violent crime, lead by itself is known to cause a wide array of problems: lowered IQ, ADHD, dyslexia, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, etc; and also general health issues, from asthma to cardiovascular disease. Lead is only one among many such serious toxins, with others including cadmium and mercury. The latter is strange. Mercury can actually increase IQ, even as it causes severe dysfunction in other ways. Toxoplasmosis also can do the same for the IQ of women, even as the opposite pattern is seen in men.

The point is that solving or even lessening major public health concerns can potentially benefit the entire society, maybe even transform society. We act fatalistic about these collective conditions, as if there is nothing to be done about inequality, whether the inequality of wealth, resources, and opportunities or the inequality of healthy food, clean water, and clean air. We created these problems and we can reverse them. It often doesn’t require much effort and the costs in taking action are far less than the costs of allowing these societal wounds to fester. It’s not as if Americans lack the ability to tackle difficult challenges. Our history is filled with examples of public projects and programs with vast improvements being made. Consider the sewer socialists who were the first to offer clean water to all citizens in their cities, something that once demonstrated as successful was adopted by every other city in the United States (more or less adopted, if we ignore the continuing lead toxicity crisis).

There is no reason to give up in hopelessness, not quite yet. Let’s try to do some basic improvements first and see what happens. We can wait for environmental collapse, if and when it comes, before we resign ourselves to fatalism. It’s not a matter if we can absolutely save all of civilization from all suffering. Even if all we could accomplish is reducing some of the worst harm (e.g., aiming for less than half of the world’s population falling victim to environmental sickness and mortality), I’d call it a wild success. Those whose lives were made better would consider it worthwhile. And who knows, maybe you or your children and grandchildren will be among those who benefit.

Stress and Shittiness

What causes heart disease – Part 63
by Malcolm Kendrick

To keep this simple, and stripping terminology down things down to basics, the concept I am trying to capture, and the word that I am going to use, here to describe the factor that can affect entire populations is ‘psychosocial stress’. By which I mean an environment where there is breakdown of community and support structures, often poverty, with physical threats and suchlike. A place where you would not really want to walk down the road unaccompanied.

This can be a zip code in the US, known as postcode in the UK. It can be a bigger physical area than that, such as a county, a town, or whole community – which could be split across different parts of a country. Such as native Americans living in areas that are called reservations.

On the largest scale it is fully possible for many countries to suffer from major psychosocial stress at the same time. […] Wherever you look, you can see that populations that have been exposed to significant social dislocation, and major psychosocial stressors, have extremely high rate of coronary heart disease/cardiovascular disease.

The bad news is we’re dying early in Britain – and it’s all down to ‘shit-life syndrome’
by Will Hutton

Britain and America are in the midst of a barely reported public health crisis. They are experiencing not merely a slowdown in life expectancy, which in many other rich countries is continuing to lengthen, but the start of an alarming increase in death rates across all our populations, men and women alike. We are needlessly allowing our people to die early.

In Britain, life expectancy, which increased steadily for a century, slowed dramatically between 2010 and 2016. The rate of increase dropped by 90% for women and 76% for men, to 82.8 years and 79.1 years respectively. Now, death rates among older people have so much increased over the last two years – with expectations that this will continue – that two major insurance companies, Aviva and Legal and General, are releasing hundreds of millions of pounds they had been holding as reserves to pay annuities to pay to shareholders instead. Society, once again, affecting the citadels of high finance.

Trends in the US are more serious and foretell what is likely to happen in Britain without an urgent change in course. Death rates of people in midlife(between 25 and 64) are increasing across the racial and ethnic divide. It has long been known that the mortality rates of midlife American black and Hispanic people have been worse than the non-Hispanic white population, but last week the British Medical Journal published an important study re-examining the trends for all racial groups between 1999 and 2016 .

The malaises that have plagued the black population are extending to the non-Hispanic, midlife white population. As the report states: “All cause mortality increased… among non-Hispanic whites.” Why? “Drug overdoses were the leading cause of increased mortality in midlife, but mortality also increased for alcohol-related conditions, suicides and organ diseases involving multiple body systems” (notably liver, heart diseases and cancers).

US doctors coined a phrase for this condition: “shit-life syndrome”. Poor working-age Americans of all races are locked in a cycle of poverty and neglect, amid wider affluence. They are ill educated and ill trained. The jobs available are drudge work paying the minimum wage, with minimal or no job security. They are trapped in poor neighbourhoods where the prospect of owning a home is a distant dream. There is little social housing, scant income support and contingent access to healthcare. Finding meaning in life is close to impossible; the struggle to survive commands all intellectual and emotional resources. Yet turn on the TV or visit a middle-class shopping mall and a very different and unattainable world presents itself. Knowing that you are valueless, you resort to drugs, antidepressants and booze. You eat junk food and watch your ill-treated body balloon. It is not just poverty, but growing relative poverty in an era of rising inequality, with all its psychological side-effects, that is the killer.

The UK is not just suffering shit-life syndrome. We’re also suffering shit-politician syndrome.
by Richard Murphy

Will Hutton has an article in the Guardian in which he argues that the recent decline in the growth of life expectancy in the UK (and its decline in some parts) is down to what he describes as ‘shit-life syndrome’. This is the state where life is reduced to an exercise in mere survival as a result of the economic and social oppression lined up against those suffering the condition. And, as he points out, those suffering are not just those on the economic and social margins of society. In the UK, as in the US, the syndrome is spreading.

The reasons for this can be debated. I engaged in such argument in my book The Courageous State. In that book I argued that we live in a world where those with power do now, when they identify a problem, run as far as they might from it and say the market will find a solution. The market won’t do that. It is designed not to do so. Those suffering shit-life syndrome have, by default, little impact on the market. That’s one of the reasons why they are suffering the syndrome in the first place. That is why so much of current politics has turned a blind eye to this issue.

And they get away with it. That’s because the world of make belief advertising which drives the myths that underpin the media, and in turn out politics, simply pretends such a syndrome does not exist whilst at the same time perpetually reinforcing the sense of dissatisfaction that is at its core.

With Brexit, It’s the Geography, Stupid
by Dawn Foster

One of the major irritations of public discourse after the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote has been the complete poverty of analysis on the reasons behind different demographics’ voting preferences. Endless time, energy, and media attention has been afforded to squabbling over the spending of each campaign for and against continued European Union membership — and now more on the role social media played in influencing the vote — mirroring the arguments in the United States that those who voted to Leave were, like Trump voters, unduly influenced by shady political actors, with little transparency behind political ads and social media tactics.

It’s a handy distraction from the root causes in the UK: widening inequality, but also an increasingly entrenched economic system that is geographically specific, meaning your place of birth and rearing has far more influence over how limited your life is than anything within your control: work, education and life choices.

Across Britain, territorial injustice is growing: for decades, London has boomed in comparison to the rest of the country, with more and more wealth being sucked towards the southeast and other regions being starved of resources, jobs and infrastructure as a result. A lack of secure and well-remunerated work doesn’t just determine whether you can get by each month without relying on social security to make ends meet, but also all aspects of your health, and the health of your children. A recent report by researchers at Cambridge University examined the disproportionate effect of central government cuts on local authorities and services: inner city areas with high rates of poverty, and former industrial areas were hardest hit. Mia Gray, one of the authors of the Cambridge report said: “Ever since vast sums of public money were used to bail out the banks a decade ago, the British people have been told that there is no other choice but austerity imposed at a fierce and relentless rate. We are now seeing austerity policies turn into a downward spiral of disinvestment in certain people and places. This could affect the life chances of entire generations born in the wrong part of the country.”

Life expectancy is perhaps the starkest example. In many other rich countries, life expectancy continues to grow. In the United Kingdom it is not only stalling, but in certain regions falling. The gap between the north and south of England reveals the starkest gap in deaths among young people: in 2015, 29.3 percent more 25-34-year-olds died in the north of England than the south. For those aged 35-44, the number of deaths in the north was 50 percent higher than the south.

In areas left behind economically, such as the ex-mining towns in the Welsh valleys, the post-industrial north of England, and former seaside holiday destinations that have been abandoned as people plump for cheap European breaks, doctors informally describe the myriad tangle of health, social and economic problems besieging people as “Shit Life Syndrome”. The term, brought to public attention by the Financial Times, sounds flippant, but it attempts to tease out the cumulative impact of strict and diminished life chances, poor health worsened by economic circumstances, and the effects of low paid work and unemployment on mental health, and lifestyle issues such as smoking, heavy drinking, and lack of exercise, factors worsened by a lack of agency in the lives of people in the most deprived areas. Similar to “deaths of despair” in the United States, Shit Life Syndrome leads to stark upticks in avoidable deaths due to suicide, accidents, and overdoses: several former classmates who remained in the depressed Welsh city I grew up in have taken their own lives, overdosed, or died as a result of accidents caused by alcohol or drugs. Their lives prior to death were predictably unhappy, but the opportunity to turn things around simply didn’t exist. To move away, you need money and therefore a job. The only vacancies that appear pay minimum wage, and usually you’re turned away without interview.

Simply put, it’s a waste of lives on an industrial scale, but few people notice or care. One of the effects of austerity is the death of public spaces people can gather without being forced to spend money. Youth clubs no longer exist, and public health officials blame their demise on the rise in teenagers becoming involved in gangs and drug dealing in inner cities. Libraries are closing at a rate of knots, despite the government requiring all benefits claims to be submitted via computers. More and more public spaces and playgrounds are being sold off to land-hungry developers, forcing more and more people to shoulder their misery alone, depriving them of spaces and opportunities to meet people and socialise. Shame is key in perpetuating the sense that poverty is deserved, but isolation and loneliness help exacerbate the self-hatred that stops you fighting back against your circumstances.

“Shit-Life Syndrome” (Oxycontin Blues)
by Curtis Price

In narrowing drug use to a legal or public health problem, as many genuinely concerned about the legal and social consequences of addiction will argue, I believe a larger politics and political critique gets lost (This myopia is not confined to drug issues. From what I’ve seen, much of the “social justice” perspective in the professional care industry is deeply conservative; what gets argued for amounts to little more than increased funding for their own services and endless expansion of non-profits). Drug use, broadly speaking, doesn’t take place in a vacuum. It is a thermometer for social misery and the more social misery, the greater the use. In other words, it’s not just a matter of the properties of the drug or the psychological states of the individual user, but also of the social context in which such actions play out.

If we accept this as a yardstick, then it’s no accident then that the loss of the 1984-1985 U.K. Miners’ Strike, with the follow-on closure of the pits and destruction of pit communities’ tight-knit ways of life, triggered widespread heroin use (2). What followed the defeat of the Miners’ Strike only telescoped into a few years the same social processes that in much of the U.S. were drawn out, more prolonged, insidious, and harder to detect. Until, that is, the mortality rates – that canary in the epidemiological coalmine -sharply rose to everyone’s shock.

US doctors have coined a phrase for the underlying condition of which drug use and alcoholism is just part: “shit-life syndrome.” As Will Hutton in the Guardian describes it,

“Poor working-age Americans of all races are locked in a cycle of poverty and neglect, amid wider affluence. They are ill educated and ill trained. The jobs available are drudge work paying the minimum wage, with minimal or no job security. They are trapped in poor neighborhoods where the prospect of owning a home is a distant dream. There is little social housing, scant income support and contingent access to healthcare. Finding meaning in life is close to impossible; the struggle to survive commands all intellectual and emotional resources. Yet turn on the TV or visit a middle-class shopping mall and a very different and unattainable world presents itself. Knowing that you are valueless, you resort to drugs, antidepressants and booze. You eat junk food and watch your ill-treated body balloon. It is not just poverty, but growing relative poverty in an era of rising inequality, with all its psychological side-effects, that is the killer”(3).

This accurately sums up “shit-life syndrome.” So, by all means, end locking up non-violent drug offenders and increase drug treatment options. But as worthwhile as these steps may be, they will do nothing to alter “shit-life syndrome.” “Shit-life syndrome” is just one more expression of the never-ending cruelty of capitalism, an underlying cruelty inherent in the way the system operates, that can’t be reformed out, and won’t disappear until new ways of living and social organization come into place.

The Human Kind, A Doctor’s Stories From The Heart Of Medicine
Peter Dorward
p. 155-157

It’s not like this for all kinds of illness, of course. Illness, by and large, is as solid and real as the chair I’m sitting on: and nothing I say or believe about it will change its nature. That’s what people mean when they describe an illness as ‘real’. You can see it and touch it, and if you can’t do that, then at least you can measure it. You can weigh a tumour; you can see on the screen the ragged outline of the plaque of atheroma in your coronary artery which is occluded and crushing the life out of you, and you would be mad to question the legitimacy of this condition that prompts the wiry cardiologist to feed the catheter down the long forks and bends of your clogged arterial tree in order to feed an expanding metal stent into the blocked artery and save you.

No one questions the reality and medical legitimacy of those things in the world that can be seen, felt, weighed, touched. That creates a deep bias in the patient; it creates a profound preference among us, the healers.

But a person is interactive . Minds can’t exist independently of other minds: that’s the nature of our kind. The names we have for things in the world and the way that we choose to talk about them affect how we experience them. Our minds are made of language, and grammar, intentions, emotions, perceptions and memory. We can only experience the world through the agency of our minds, and how our minds interact with others. Science is a great tool for talking about the external world: the world that is indifferent to what we think. Science doesn’t begin to touch the other, inner, social stuff. And that’s a challenge in medicine. You need other tools for that.

‘Shit-life syndrome,’ offers Becky, whose skin is so pale it looks translucent, who wears white blouses with little ruffs buttoned to the top and her blonde hair in plaits, whose voice is vicarage English and in whose mouth shit life sounds anomalous. Medicine can have this coarsening effect. ‘Shit-life syndrome provides the raw material. We doctors do all the rest.’

‘Go on…’

‘That’s all I ever seem to see in GP. People whose lives are non-specifically crap. Women single parenting too many children, doing three jobs which they hate, with kids on Ritalin, heads wrecked by smartphone and tablet parenting. Women who hate their bodies and have a new diagnosis of diabetes because they’re too fat. No wonder they want a better diagnosis! What am I meant to do?’

I like to keep this tutorial upbeat. I don’t like it to become a moan-fest, which is pointless and damaging. Yet, I don’t want to censor.

‘… Sometimes I feel like a big stone, dropped into a river of pain. I create a few eddies around me, the odd wave or ripple, but the torrent just goes on…’

‘… I see it different. It’s worse! I think half the time we actually cause the problems. Or at least we create our own little side channels in the torrent. Build dams. Deep pools of misery of our own creation!’

That’s Nadja. She’s my trainee. And I recognise something familiar in what she is saying – the echo of something that I have said to her. It’s flattering, and depressing.

‘For example, take the issuing of sick notes. They’re the worst. We have all of these people who say they’re depressed, or addicted, or stressed, who stay awake all night because they can’t sleep for worry, and sleep all day so they can’t work, and they say they’re depressed or anxious, or have backache or work-related stress, and we drug them up and sign them off, but what they’re really suffering from are the symptoms of chronic unemployment and the misery of poverty, which are the worst illnesses that there are! And every time I sign one of these sick notes, I feel another little flake chipped off my integrity. You’re asking about vectors for social illness? Sick notes! It’s like we’re … shitting in the river, and worrying about the cholera!’

Strong words. I need to speak to Nadja about her intemperate opinions…

‘At least, that’s what he keeps saying,’ says Nadja, nodding at me.

Nadja’s father was a Croatian doctor, who fled the war there. Brought up as she was, at her father’s knee, on his stories of war and torture, of driving his motorbike between Kiseljac and Sarajevo and all the villages in between with his medical bag perched on the back to do his house calls, she can never quite believe the sorts of things that pass for ‘suffering’ here. It doesn’t make Nadja a more compassionate doctor. She sips her coffee, with a smile.

Aly, the one training to be an anaesthetist-traumatologist, says, ‘We shouldn’t do it. Simple as that. It’s just not medicine. We should confine ourselves to the physical, and send the rest to a social worker, or a counsellor or a priest. No more sick notes, no more doing the dirty work of governments. If society has a problem with unemployment, that’s society’s problem, not mine. No more convincing people that they’re sick. No more prescriptions for crap drugs that don’t work. If you can’t see it or measure it, it isn’t real. We’re encouraging all this pseudo-­illness with our sick notes and our crap drugs. What’s our first duty? Do no harm! End of.’

She’ll be a great trauma doctor, no doubt about it.

* * *

From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations
Rate And Duration of Despair
Trauma, Embodied and Extended
Facing Shared Trauma and Seeking Hope
Society: Precarious or Persistent?
Union Membership, Free Labor, and the Legacy of Slavery
The Desperate Acting Desperately
Social Disorder, Mental Disorder
Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition
Society and Dysfunction
It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!
To Grow Up Fast
Individualism and Isolation
To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park
Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park
The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness
Stress Is Real, As Are The Symptoms
On Conflict and Stupidity
Connecting the Dots of Violence
Inequality in the Anthropocene
Morality-Punishment Link

Social Disorder, Mental Disorder

“It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”
~ Jiddu Krishnamurti

“The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”
~ Johann Harri

On Staying Sane in a Suicidal Culture
by Dahr Jamail

Our situation so often feels hopeless. So much has spun out of control, and pathology surrounds us. At least one in five Americans are taking psychiatric medications, and the number of children taking adult psychiatric drugs is soaring.

From the perspective of Macy’s teachings, it seems hard to argue that this isn’t, at least in part, active denial of what is happening to the world and how challenging it is for both adults and children to deal with it emotionally, spiritually and psychologically.

These disturbing trends, which are increasing, are something she is very mindful of. As she wrote in World as Lover, World as Self, “The loss of certainty that there will be a future is, I believe, the pivotal psychological reality of our time.”

What does depression feel like? Trust me – you really don’t want to know
by Tim Lott

Admittedly, severely depressed people can connect only tenuously with reality, but repeated studies have shown that mild to moderate depressives have a more realistic take on life than most “normal” people, a phenomenon known as “depressive realism”. As Neel Burton, author of The Meaning of Madness, put it, this is “the healthy suspicion that modern life has no meaning and that modern society is absurd and alienating”. In a goal-driven, work-oriented culture, this is deeply threatening.

This viewpoint can have a paralysing grip on depressives, sometimes to a psychotic extent – but perhaps it haunts everyone. And therefore the bulk of the unafflicted population may never really understand depression. Not only because they (understandably) lack the imagination, and (unforgivably) fail to trust in the experience of the sufferer – but because, when push comes to shove, they don’t want to understand. It’s just too … well, depressing.

The Mental Disease of Late-Stage Capitalism
by Joe Brewer

A great irony of this deeply corrupt system of wealth hoarding is that the “weapon of choice” is how we feel about ourselves as we interact with our friends. The elites don’t have to silence us. We do that ourselves by refusing to talk about what is happening to us. Fake it until you make it. That’s the advice we are given by the already successful who have pigeon-holed themselves into the tiny number of real opportunities society had to offer. Hold yourself accountable for the crushing political system that was designed to divide us against ourselves.

This great lie that we whisper to ourselves is how they control us. Our fear that other impoverished people (which is most of us now) will look down on us for being impoverished too. This is how we give them the power to keep humiliating us.

I say no more of this emotional racket. If I am going to be responsible for my fate in life, let it be because I chose to stand up and fight — that I helped dismantle the global architecture of wealth extraction that created this systemic corruption of our economic and political systems.

Now more than ever, we need spiritual healing. As this capitalist system destroys itself, we can step aside and find healing by living honestly and without fear. They don’t get to tell us how to live. We can share our pain with family and friends. We can post it on social media. Shout it from the rooftops if we feel like it. The pain we feel is capitalism dying. It hurts us because we are still in it.

Neoliberalism – the ideology at the root of all our problems
by George Monbiot

So pervasive has neoliberalism become that we seldom even recognise it as an ideology. We appear to accept the proposition that this utopian, millenarian faith describes a neutral force; a kind of biological law, like Darwin’s theory of evolution. But the philosophy arose as a conscious attempt to reshape human life and shift the locus of power.

Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that “the market” delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.

Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive. The market ensures that everyone gets what they deserve.

We internalise and reproduce its creeds. The rich persuade themselves that they acquired their wealth through merit, ignoring the advantages – such as education, inheritance and class – that may have helped to secure it. The poor begin to blame themselves for their failures, even when they can do little to change their circumstances.

Never mind structural unemployment: if you don’t have a job it’s because you are unenterprising. Never mind the impossible costs of housing: if your credit card is maxed out, you’re feckless and improvident. Never mind that your children no longer have a school playing field: if they get fat, it’s your fault. In a world governed by competition, those who fall behind become defined and self-defined as losers.

Among the results, as Paul Verhaeghe documents in his book What About Me? are epidemics of self-harm, eating disorders, depression, loneliness, performance anxiety and social phobia. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Britain, in which neoliberal ideology has been most rigorously applied, is the loneliness capital of Europe. We are all neoliberals now.

Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us
by Paul Verhaeghe

We tend to perceive our identities as stable and largely separate from outside forces. But over decades of research and therapeutic practice, I have become convinced that economic change is having a profound effect not only on our values but also on our personalities. Thirty years of neoliberalism, free-market forces and privatisation have taken their toll, as relentless pressure to achieve has become normative. If you’re reading this sceptically, I put this simple statement to you: meritocratic neoliberalism favours certain personality traits and penalises others.

There are certain ideal characteristics needed to make a career today. The first is articulateness, the aim being to win over as many people as possible. Contact can be superficial, but since this applies to most human interaction nowadays, this won’t really be noticed.

It’s important to be able to talk up your own capacities as much as you can – you know a lot of people, you’ve got plenty of experience under your belt and you recently completed a major project. Later, people will find out that this was mostly hot air, but the fact that they were initially fooled is down to another personality trait: you can lie convincingly and feel little guilt. That’s why you never take responsibility for your own behaviour.

On top of all this, you are flexible and impulsive, always on the lookout for new stimuli and challenges. In practice, this leads to risky behaviour, but never mind, it won’t be you who has to pick up the pieces. The source of inspiration for this list? The psychopathy checklist by Robert Hare, the best-known specialist on psychopathy today.

What About Me?: The Struggle for Identity in a Market-Based Society
by Paul Verhaeghe
Kindle Locations 2357-2428

Hypotheses such as these, however plausible, are not scientific. If we want to demonstrate the link between a neo-liberal society and, say, mental disorders, we need two things. First, we need a yardstick that indicates the extent to which a society is neo-liberal. Second, we need to develop criteria to measure the increase or decrease of psychosocial wellbeing in society. Combine these two, and you would indeed be able to see whether such a connection existed. And by that I don’t mean a causal connection, but a striking pattern; a rise in one being reflected in the other, or vice versa.

This was exactly the approach used by Richard Wilkinson, a British social epidemiologist, in two pioneering studies (the second carried out with Kate Pickett). The gauge they used was eminently quantifiable: the extent of income inequality within individual countries. This is indeed a good yardstick, as neo-liberal policy is known to cause a spectacular rise in such inequality. Their findings were unequivocal: an increase of this kind has far-reaching consequences for nearly all health criteria. Its impact on mental health (and consequently also mental disorders) is by no means an isolated phenomenon. This finding is just as significant as the discovery that mental disorders are increasing.

As social epidemiologists, Wilkinson and Pickett studied the connection between society and health in the broad sense of the word. Stress proves to be a key factor here. Research has revealed its impact, both on our immune systems and our cardiovascular systems. Tracing the causes of stress is difficult, though, especially given that we live in the prosperous and peaceful West. If we take a somewhat broader view, most academics agree on the five factors that determine our health: early childhood; the fears and cares we experience; the quality of our social relationships; the extent to which we have control over our lives; and, finally, our social status. The worse you score in these areas, the worse your health and the shorter your life expectancy are likely to be.

In his first book, The Impact of Inequality: how to make sick societies healthier, Wilkinson scrutinises the various factors involved, rapidly coming to what would be the central theme of his second book — that is, income inequality. A very striking conclusion is that in a country, or even a city, with high income inequality, the quality of social relationships is noticeably diminished: there is more aggression, less trust, more fear, and less participation in the life of the community. As a psychoanalyst, I was particularly interested in his quest for the factors that play a role at individual level. Low social status proves to have a determining effect on health. Lack of control over one’s work is a prominent stress factor. A low sense of control is associated with poor relationships with colleagues and greater anger and hostility — a phenomenon that Richard Sennett had already described (the infantilisation of adult workers). Wilkinson discovered that this all has a clear impact on health, and even on life expectancy. Which in turn ties in with a classic finding of clinical psychology: powerlessness and helplessness are among the most toxic emotions.

Too much inequality is bad for your health

A number of conclusions are forced upon us. In a prosperous part of the world like Western Europe, it isn’t the quality of health care (the number of doctors and hospitals) that determines the health of the population, but the nature of social and economic life. The better social relationships are, the better the level of health. Excessive inequality is more injurious to health than any other factor, though this is not simply a question of differences between social classes. If anything, it seems to be more of a problem within groups that are presumed to be equal (for example, civil servants and academics). This finding conflicts with the general assumption that income inequality only hurts the underclass — the losers — while those higher up the social ladder invariably benefit. That’s not the case: its negative effects are statistically visible in all sectors of the population, hence the subtitle of Wilkinson’s second work: why more equal societies almost always do better.

In that book, Wilkinson and Pickett adopt a fairly simple approach. Using official statistics, they analyse the connection between income inequality and a host of other criteria. The conclusions are astounding, almost leaping off the page in table after table: the greater the level of inequality in a country or even region, the more mental disorders, teenage pregnancies, child mortality, domestic and street violence, crime, drug abuse, and medication. And the greater the inequality is, the worse physical health and educational performance are, the more social mobility declines, along with feelings of security, and the unhappier people are.

Both books, especially the latter, provoked quite a response in the Anglo-Saxon world. Many saw in them proof of what they already suspected. Many others were more negative, questioning everything from the collation of data to the statistical methods used to reach conclusions. Both authors refuted the bulk of the criticism — which, given the quality of their work, was not a very difficult task. Much of it targeted what was not in the books: the authors were not urging a return to some kind of ‘all animals are equal’ Eastern-bloc state. What critics tended to forget was that their analysis was of relative differences in income, with negative effects becoming most manifest in the case of extreme inequality. Moreover, it is not income inequality itself that produces these effects, but the stress factors associated with it.

Roughly the same inferences can be drawn from Sennett’s study, though it is more theoretical and less underpinned with figures. His conclusion is fairly simple, and can be summed up in the title of what I regard as his best book: Respect in a World of Inequality. Too much inequality leads to a loss of respect, including self-respect — and, in psychosocial terms, this is about the worst thing that can happen to anyone.

This emerges very powerfully from a single study of the social determinants of health, which is still in progress. Nineteen eighty-six saw the start of the second ‘Whitehall Study’ that systematically monitored over 10,000 British civil servants, to establish whether there was a link between their health and their work situations. At first sight, this would seem to be a relatively homogenous group, and one that definitely did not fall in the lowest social class. The study’s most striking finding is that the lower the rank and status of someone within that group, the lower their life expectancy, even when taking account of such factors as smoking, diet, and physical exercise. The most obvious explanation is that the lowest-ranked people experienced the most stress. Medical studies confirm this: individuals in this category have higher cortisol levels (increased stress) and more coagulation-factor deficiencies (and thus are at greater risk of heart attacks).

My initial question was, ‘Is there a demonstrable connection between today’s society and the huge rise in mental disorders?’ As all these studies show, the answer is yes. Even more important is the finding that this link goes beyond mental health. The same studies show highly negative effects on other health parameters. As so often is the case, a parallel can be found in fiction — in this instance, in Alan Lightman’s novel The Diagnosis. During an interview, the author posed the following rhetorical question: ‘Who, experiencing for years the daily toll of intense corporate pressure, could truly escape severe anxiety?’* (I think it may justifiably be called rhetorical, when you think how many have had to find out its answer for themselves.)

A study by a research group at Heidelberg University very recently came to similar conclusions, finding that people’s brains respond differently to stress according to whether they have had an urban or rural upbringing. 3 What’s more, people in the former category prove more susceptible to phobias and even schizophrenia. So our brains are differently shaped by the environment in which we grow up, making us potentially more susceptible to mental disorders. Another interesting finding emerged from the way the researchers elicited stress. While the subjects of the experiment were wrestling with the complex calculations they had been asked to solve, some of them were told (falsely) that their scores were lagging behind those of the others, and asked to hurry up because the experiments were expensive. All the neo-liberal factors were in place: emphasis on productivity, evaluation, competition, and cost reduction.

Capitalist Realism: Is there no alternative?
by Mark Fisher
pp. 19-22

Mental health, in fact, is a paradigm case of how capitalist realism operates. Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect). In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS. In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James’s claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high. […]

By contrast with their forebears in the 1960s and 1970s, British students today appear to be politically disengaged. While French students can still be found on the streets protesting against neoliberalism, British students, whose situation is incomparably worse, seem resigned to their fate. But this, I want to argue, is a matter not of apathy, nor of cynicism, but of reflexive impotence. They know things are bad, but more than that, they know they can’t do anything about it. But that ‘knowledge’, that reflexivity, is not a passive observation of an already existing state of affairs. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Reflexive impotence amounts to an unstated worldview amongst the British young, and it has its correlate in widespread pathologies. Many of the teenagers I worked with had mental health problems or learning difficulties. Depression is endemic. It is the condition most dealt with by the National Health Service, and is afflicting people at increasingly younger ages. The number of students who have some variant of dyslexia is astonishing. It is not an exaggeration to say that being a teenager in late capitalist Britain is now close to being reclassified as a sickness. This pathologization already forecloses any possibility of politicization. By privatizing these problems – treating them as if they were caused only by chemical imbalances in the individual’s neurology and/ or by their family background – any question of social systemic causation is ruled out.

Many of the teenage students I encountered seemed to be in a state of what I would call depressive hedonia. Depression is usually characterized as a state of anhedonia, but the condition I’m referring to is constituted not by an inability to get pleasure so much as it by an inability to do anything else except pursue pleasure. There is a sense that ‘something is missing’ – but no appreciation that this mysterious, missing enjoyment can only be accessed beyond the pleasure principle. In large part this is a consequence of students’ ambiguous structural position, stranded between their old role as subjects of disciplinary institutions and their new status as consumers of services. In his crucial essay ‘Postscript on Societies of Control’, Deleuze distinguishes between the disciplinary societies described by Foucault, which were organized around the enclosed spaces of the factory, the school and the prison, and the new control societies, in which all institutions are embedded in a dispersed corporation.

pp. 32-38

The ethos espoused by McCauley is the one which Richard Sennett examines in The Corrosion of Character: The Personal Consequences of Work in the New Capitalism, a landmark study of the affective changes that the post-Fordist reorganization of work has brought about. The slogan which sums up the new conditions is ‘no long term’. Where formerly workers could acquire a single set of skills and expect to progress upwards through a rigid organizational hierarchy, now they are required to periodically re-skill as they move from institution to institution, from role to role. As the organization of work is decentralized, with lateral networks replacing pyramidal hierarchies, a premium is put on ‘flexibility’. Echoing McCauley’s mockery of Hanna in Heat (‘ How do you expect to keep a marriage?’), Sennett emphasizes the intolerable stresses that these conditions of permanent instability put on family life. The values that family life depends upon – obligation, trustworthiness, commitment – are precisely those which are held to be obsolete in the new capitalism. Yet, with the public sphere under attack and the safety nets that a ‘Nanny State’ used to provide being dismantled, the family becomes an increasingly important place of respite from the pressures of a world in which instability is a constant. The situation of the family in post-Fordist capitalism is contradictory, in precisely the way that traditional Marxism expected: capitalism requires the family (as an essential means of reproducing and caring for labor power; as a salve for the psychic wounds inflicted by anarchic social-economic conditions), even as it undermines it (denying parents time with children, putting intolerable stress on couples as they become the exclusive source of affective consolation for each other). […]

The psychological conflict raging within individuals cannot but have casualties. Marazzi is researching the link between the increase in bi-polar disorder and post-Fordism and, if, as Deleuze and Guattari argue, schizophrenia is the condition that marks the outer edges of capitalism, then bi-polar disorder is the mental illness proper to the ‘interior’ of capitalism. With its ceaseless boom and bust cycles, capitalism is itself fundamentally and irreducibly bi-polar, periodically lurching between hyped-up mania (the irrational exuberance of ‘bubble thinking’) and depressive come-down. (The term ‘economic depression’ is no accident, of course). To a degree unprecedented in any other social system, capitalism both feeds on and reproduces the moods of populations. Without delirium and confidence, capital could not function.

It seems that with post-Fordism, the ‘invisible plague’ of psychiatric and affective disorders that has spread, silently and stealthily, since around 1750 (i.e. the very onset of industrial capitalism) has reached a new level of acuteness. Here, Oliver James’s work is important. In The Selfish Capitalist, James points to significant rises in the rates of ‘mental distress’ over the last 25 years. ‘By most criteria’, James reports,

rates of distress almost doubled between people born in 1946 (aged thirty-six in 1982) and 1970 (aged thirty in 2000). For example, 16 per cent of thirty-six-year-old women in 1982 reported having ‘trouble with nerves, feeling low, depressed or sad’, whereas 29 per cent of thirty year-olds reported this in 2000 (for men it was 8 per cent in 1982, 13 per cent in 2000).

Another British study James cites compared levels of psychiatric morbidity (which includes neurotic symptoms, phobias and depression) in samples of people in 1977 and 1985. ‘Whereas 22 per cent of the 1977 sample reported psychiatric morbidity, this had risen to almost a third of the population (31 per cent) by 1986’. Since these rates are much higher in countries that have implemented what James calls ‘selfish’ capitalism than in other capitalist nations, James hypothesizes that it is selfish (i.e. neoliberalized) capitalist policies and culture that are to blame. […]

James’s conjectures about aspirations, expectations and fantasy fit with my own observations of what I have called ‘hedonic depression’ in British youth.

It is telling, in this context of rising rates of mental illness, that New Labour committed itself, early in its third term in government, to removing people from Incapacity Benefit, implying that many, if not most, claimants are malingerers. In contrast with this assumption, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to infer that most of the people claiming Incapacity Benefit – and there are well in excess of two million of them – are casualties of Capital. A significant proportion of claimants, for instance, are people psychologically damaged as a consequence of the capitalist realist insistence that industries such as mining are no longer economically viable. (Even considered in brute economic terms, though, the arguments about ‘viability’ seem rather less than convincing, especially once you factor in the cost to taxpayers of incapacity and other benefits.) Many have simply buckled under the terrifyingly unstable conditions of post-Fordism.

The current ruling ontology denies any possibility of a social causation of mental illness. The chemico-biologization of mental illness is of course strictly commensurate with its de-politicization. Considering mental illness an individual chemico-biological problem has enormous benefits for capitalism. First, it reinforces Capital’s drive towards atomistic individualization (you are sick because of your brain chemistry). Second, it provides an enormously lucrative market in which multinational pharmaceutical companies can peddle their pharmaceuticals (we can cure you with our SSRIs). It goes without saying that all mental illnesses are neurologically instantiated, but this says nothing about their causation. If it is true, for instance, that depression is constituted by low serotonin levels, what still needs to be explained is why particular individuals have low levels of serotonin. This requires a social and political explanation; and the task of repoliticizing mental illness is an urgent one if the left wants to challenge capitalist realism.

It does not seem fanciful to see parallels between the rising incidence of mental distress and new patterns of assessing workers’ performance. We will now take a closer look at this ‘new bureaucracy’.

The Opposite of Addiction is Connection
by Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S

Not for Alexander. He was bothered by the fact that the cages in which the rats were isolated were small, with no potential for stimulation beyond the heroin. Alexander thought: Of course they all got high. What else were they supposed to do? In response to this perceived shortcoming, Alexander created what we now call “the rat park,” a cage approximately 200 times larger than the typical isolation cage, with Hamster wheels and multi-colored balls to play with, plenty of tasty food to eat, and spaces for mating and raising litters.[ii] And he put not one rat, but 20 rats (of both genders) into the cage. Then, and only then, did he mirror the old experiments, offering one bottle of pure water and one bottle of heroin water. And guess what? The rats ignored the heroin. They were much more interested in typical communal rat activities such as playing, fighting, eating, and mating. Essentially, with a little bit of social stimulation and connection, addiction disappeared. Heck, even rats who’d previously been isolated and sucking on the heroin water left it alone once they were introduced to the rat park.

The Human Rat Park

One of the reasons that rats are routinely used in psychological experiments is that they are social creatures in many of the same ways that humans are social creatures. They need stimulation, company, play, drama, sex, and interaction to stay happy. Humans, however, add an extra layer to this equation. We need to be able to trust and to emotionally attach.

This human need for trust and attachment was initially studied and developed as a psychological construct in the 1950s, when John Bowlby tracked the reactions of small children when they were separated from their parents.[iii] In a nutshell, he found that infants, toddlers, and young children have an extensive need for safe and reliable caregivers. If children have that, they tend to be happy in childhood and well-adjusted (emotionally healthy) later in life. If children don’t have that, it’s a very different story. In other words, it is clear from Bowlby’s work and the work of later researchers that the level and caliber of trust and connection experienced in early childhood carries forth into adulthood. Those who experience secure attachment as infants, toddlers, and small children nearly always carry that with them into adulthood, and they are naturally able to trust and connect in healthy ways. Meanwhile, those who don’t experience secure early-life attachment tend to struggle with trust and connection later in life. In other words, securely attached individuals tend to feel comfortable in and to enjoy the human rat park, while insecurely attached people typically struggle to fit in and connect.

The Opposite Of Addiction is Connection
By Jonathan Davis

If connection is the opposite of addiction, then an examination of the neuroscience of human connection is in order. Published in 2000, A General Theory Of Love is a collaboration between three professors of psychiatry at the University of California in San Francisco. A General Theory Of Love reveals that humans require social connection for optimal brain development, and that babies cared for in a loving environment are psychological and neurologically ‘immunised’ by love. When things get difficult in adult life, the neural wiring developed from a love-filled childhood leads to increased emotional resilience in adult life. Conversely, those who grow up in an environment where loving care is unstable or absent are less likely to be resilient in the face of emotional distress.

How does this relate to addiction? Gabor Maté observes an extremely high rate of childhood trauma in the addicts he works with and trauma is the extreme opposite of growing up in a consistently safe and loving environment. He asserts that it is extremely common for people with addictions to have a reduced capacity for dealing with emotional distress, hence an increased risk of drug-dependence.

How Our Ability To Connect Is Impaired By Trauma

Trauma is well-known to cause interruption to healthy neural wiring, in both the developing and mature brain. A deeper issue here is that people who have suffered trauma, particularly children, can be left with an underlying sense that the world is no longer safe, or that people can no longer be trusted. This erosion (or complete destruction) of a sense of trust, that our family, community and society will keep us safe, results in isolation – leading to the very lack of connection Johann Harri suggests is the opposite of addiction. People who use drugs compulsively do so to avoid the pain of past trauma and to replace the absence of connection in their life.

Social Solutions To Addiction

The solution to the problem of addiction on a societal level is both simple and fairly easy to implement. If a person is born into a life that is lacking in love and support on a family level, or if due to some other trauma they have become isolated and suffer from addiction, there must be a cultural response to make sure that person knows that they are valued by their society (even if they don’t feel valued by their family). Portugal has demonstrated this with a 50% drop in addiction thanks to programs that are specifically designed to re-create connection between the addict and their community.

The real cause of addiction has been discovered – and it’s not what you think
by Johann Hari

This has huge implications for the one hundred year old war on drugs. This massive war – which, as I saw, kills people from the malls of Mexico to the streets of Liverpool – is based on the claim that we need to physically eradicate a whole array of chemicals because they hijack people’s brains and cause addiction. But if drugs aren’t the driver of addiction – if, in fact, it is disconnection that drives addiction – then this makes no sense.

Ironically, the war on drugs actually increases all those larger drivers of addiction: for example, I went to a prison in Arizona – ‘Tent City’ – where inmates are detained in tiny stone isolation cages (“The Hole”) for weeks and weeks on end, to punish them for drug use. It is as close to a human recreation of the cages that guaranteed deadly addiction in rats as I can imagine. And when those prisoners get out, they will be unemployable because of their criminal record – guaranteeing they with be cut off ever more. I watched this playing out in the human stories I met across the world.

There is an alternative. You can build a system that is designed to help drug addicts to reconnect with the world – and so leave behind their addictions.

This isn’t theoretical. It is happening. I have seen it. Nearly fifteen years ago, Portugal had one of the worst drug problems in Europe, with 1 percent of the population addicted to heroin. They had tried a drug war, and the problem just kept getting worse. So they decided to do something radically different. They resolved to decriminalize all drugs, and transfer all the money they used to spend on arresting and jailing drug addicts, and spend it instead on reconnecting them – to their own feelings, and to the wider society. The most crucial step is to get them secure housing, and subsidized jobs – so they have a purpose in life, and something to get out of bed for. I watched as they are helped, in warm and welcoming clinics, to learn how to reconnect with their feelings, after years of trauma and stunning them into silence with drugs.

One example I learned about was a group of addicts who were given a loan to set up a removals firm. Suddenly, they were a group, all bonded to each other, and to the society, and responsible for each other’s care.

The results of all this are now in. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. I’ll repeat that: injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system. The main campaigner against the decriminalization back in 2000 was Joao Figueira – the country’s top drug cop. He offered all the dire warnings that we would expect from the Daily Mail or Fox News. But when we sat together in Lisbon, he told me that everything he predicted had not come to pass – and he now hopes the whole world will follow Portugal’s example.

This isn’t only relevant to addicts. It is relevant to all of us, because it forces us to think differently about ourselves. Human beings are bonding animals. We need to connect and love. The wisest sentence of the twentieth century was E.M. Forster’s: “only connect.” But we have created an environment and a culture that cut us off from connection, or offer only the parody of it offered by the Internet. The rise of addiction is a symptom of a deeper sickness in the way we live–constantly directing our gaze towards the next shiny object we should buy, rather than the human beings all around us.

The writer George Monbiot has called this “the age of loneliness.” We have created human societies where it is easier for people to become cut off from all human connections than ever before. Bruce Alexander, the creator of Rat Park, told me that for too long, we have talked exclusively about individual recovery from addiction. We need now to talk about social recovery—how we all recover, together, from the sickness of isolation that is sinking on us like a thick fog.

But this new evidence isn’t just a challenge to us politically. It doesn’t just force us to change our minds. It forces us to change our hearts.

* * *

Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

Society and Dysfunction

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Liberal-mindedness, Empathetic Imagination, and Capitalist Realism

Ideological Realism & Scarcity of Imagination

The Unimagined: Capitalism and Crappiness

To Put the Rat Back in the Rat Park

Rationalizing the Rat Race, Imagining the Rat Park

The Desperate Acting Desperately

To Grow Up Fast

Morality-Punishment Link

An Invisible Debt Made Visible

Trends in Depression and Suicide Rates

From Bad to Worse: Trends Across Generations

Republicans: Party of Despair

Rate And Duration of Despair

Social Conditions of an Individual’s Condition

A paradigm change has been happening. The shift began long ago, but it’s starting to gain traction in the mainstream. Here is one recent example, an article from Psychology Today—Anxiety and Depression Are Symptoms, Not Diseases by Gregg Henriques Ph.D.:

“Depression is a way the emotional system signals that things are not working and that one is not getting one’s relational needs met. If you are low on relational value in the key domains of family, friends, lovers, group and self, feeling depressed in this context is EXACTLY like feeling pain from a broken arm, feeling cold being outside in the cold, and feeling hungry after going 24 hours without food.

“It is worth noting that, given the current structure of society, depression often serves not to help reboot the system and enlist social support, but instead contributes to the further isolation of the individual, which creates a nasty, vicious spiral of shutting down, doing less, feeling more isolated, turning against the self, and thus getting even more depressed. As such, depressive symptoms often do contribute to the problem, and folks do suffer from Negative Affect Syndromes, where extreme negative moods are definitely part of the problem.

“BUT, everyone should be clear, first and foremost, that anxiety and depression are symptoms of psychosocial needs and threats. They should NOT be, first and foremost, considered alien feelings that need to be eliminated or fixed, any more than we would treat pain from a broken arm, coldness and hunger primarily with pills that takes away the feelings, as opposed to fixing the arm, getting warmer or feeding the hungry individual.”

It’s a pretty good article. The focus on symptoms seems like the right way to frame it. This touch upon larger issues. I’d widen the scope even further. Once we consider the symptoms, it opens up a whole slew of possibilities.

There is the book Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari. The author discusses the rat park research, showing that addiction isn’t an individual disease but a social problem. Change the conditions and the results change. Basically, people are healthier, happier, and more well-adjusted in environments that are conducive to satisfying basic needs.

Then there is James Gilligan’s Why Some Politicians Are More Dangerous Than Others, an even more hard-hitting book. It shows (among other things) suicide rates go up when Republicans are elected. As I recall, other data shows that suicide rates go up in other societies as well, when conservatives are elected.

There are other factors that are directly correlated to depression rates and other mental health issues.

Some are purely physical. Toxoplasmosis is an example of that, and its related parasitic load that stunts brain development. Many examples could be added, from malnutrition to lack of healthcare.

Plus, there are problems that involve both the physical environment and social environment. Lead toxicity causes mental health problems, including depression. The rates of lead toxicity depend on how strong and effective are regulations, which in turn depends on the type of government and who is in power.

A wide variety of research and data is pointing to a basic conclusion. Environmental conditions (physical, social, political, and economic) are of penultimate importance. So, why do we treat as sick individuals those who suffer the consequences of the externalized costs of society?

Here is the sticking point. Systemic and collective problems in some ways are the easiest to deal with. The problems, once understood, are essentially simple and their solutions tend to be straightforward. Even so, the very largeness of these problems make them hard for us to confront. We want someone to blame. But who do we blame when the entire society is dysfunctional?

If we recognize the problems as symptoms, we are forced to acknowledge our collective agency and shared fate. For those who understand this, they are up against countervailing forces that maintain the status quo. Even if a psychiatrist realizes that their patient is experiencing the symptoms of larger social issues, how is that psychiatrist supposed to help the patient? Who is going to diagnose the entire society and demand it seek rehabilitation?

It’s All Your Fault, You Fat Loser!

Capitalist Realism is one of the drains around which my mind slowly revolves. My mind revolves around it for that stinky dark hole is the center of our society. I poke and pick at the detritus clogging up the works until whatever lay hidden oozes out.

You get the picture. It’s a fun game I like to play. Join me, if you will.

Let me begin with obesity. We Americans are fat and lazy. I almost feel stupid to state such an obvious fact. Everyone knows this simple truth. It’s no big secret, pardon my pun. 

It’s a good thing we have a morally superior elite to tell us what to do (and to sell us the products to help us cover up our failures and lessen our inadequacies). And we know they are morally superior because they aren’t fat like all us poor schmucks. The elite may consume more than everyone else, but they go to the gym regularly to work it all off. The poor could work it all off too, if they weren’t lazy and morally inferior.

To continue with the obvious, we Americans are a hungry people ready to devour all of the world at the first chance we get. Our military and our consumerism is an endless gaping maw, ever hungry and waiting to be fed. We are the Borg… blah, blah, blah… assimilate… blah. It’s eat or be eaten. It’s the natural order for the lean and mean to prey upon the fat losers.

To put it in more prosaic terms, here is a sampling of an article that lists all the excuses for being obese (i.e., ugly, disgusting and generally worthless):

The obesity era
As the American people got fatter, so did marmosets, vervet monkeys and mice. The problem may be bigger than any of us
By David Berreby
Aeon Magazine

And so the authorities tell us, ever more loudly, that we are fat — disgustingly, world-threateningly fat. We must take ourselves in hand and address our weakness. After all, it’s obvious who is to blame for this frightening global blanket of lipids: it’s us, choosing over and over again, billions of times a day, to eat too much and exercise too little. What else could it be? If you’re overweight, it must be because you are not saying no to sweets and fast food and fried potatoes. It’s because you take elevators and cars and golf carts where your forebears nobly strained their thighs and calves. How could you do this to yourself, and to society?

Moral panic about the depravity of the heavy has seeped into many aspects of life, confusing even the erudite. Earlier this month, for example, the American evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller expressed the zeitgeist in this tweet: ‘Dear obese PhD applicants: if you don’t have the willpower to stop eating carbs, you won’t have the willpower to do a dissertation. #truth.’ Businesses are moving to profit on the supposed weaknesses of their customers. Meanwhile, governments no longer presume that their citizens know what they are doing when they take up a menu or a shopping cart. Yesterday’s fringe notions are becoming today’s rules for living — such as New York City’s recent attempt to ban large-size cups for sugary soft drinks, or Denmark’s short-lived tax surcharge on foods that contain more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat, or Samoa Air’s 2013 ticket policy, in which a passenger’s fare is based on his weight because: ‘You are the master of your air ‘fair’, you decide how much (or how little) your ticket will cost.’

Several governments now sponsor jauntily named pro-exercise programmes such as Let’s Move! (US), Change4Life (UK) and actionsanté (Switzerland). Less chummy approaches are spreading, too. Since 2008, Japanese law requires companies to measure and report the waist circumference of all employees between the ages of 40 and 74 so that, among other things, anyone over the recommended girth can receive an email of admonition and advice.

Hand-in-glove with the authorities that promote self-scrutiny are the businesses that sell it, in the form of weight-loss foods, medicines, services, surgeries and new technologies. A Hong Kong company named Hapilabs offers an electronic fork that tracks how many bites you take per minute in order to prevent hasty eating: shovel food in too fast and it vibrates to alert you. A report by the consulting firm McKinsey & Co predicted in May 2012 that ‘health and wellness’ would soon become a trillion-dollar global industry. ‘Obesity is expensive in terms of health-care costs,’ it said before adding, with a consultantly chuckle, ‘dealing with it is also a big, fat market.’

[ . . . ]

The trap is deeper than that, however. The ‘unifying logic of capitalism’, Wells continues, requires that food companies seek immediate profit and long-term success, and their optimal strategy for that involves encouraging people to choose foods that are most profitable to produce and sell — ‘both at the behavioural level, through advertising, price manipulations and restriction of choice, and at the physiological level through the enhancement of addictive properties of foods’ (by which he means those sugars and fats that make ‘metabolic disturber’ foods so habit-forming). In short, Wells told me via email, ‘We need to understand that we have not yet grasped how to address this situation, but we are increasingly understanding that attributing obesity to personal responsibility is very simplistic.’ Rather than harping on personal responsibility so much, Wells believes, we should be looking at the global economic system, seeking to reform it so that it promotes access to nutritious food for everyone. That is, admittedly, a tall order. But the argument is worth considering, if only as a bracing critique of our individual-responsibility ideology of fatness.

To put it in proper context, next up is a passage from the book where I first learned of Capitalist Realism. Reading this book has misled me from the true path of profit. I think I may have been brainwashed into socialism. Read the following at your peril!

Capitalist Realism:
Is there no alternative?
By Mark Fisher
pp. 18-20

At this point, it is perhaps worth introducing an elementary theoretical distinction from Lacanian psychoanalysis which Žižek has done so much to give contemporary currency: the difference between the Real and reality. As Alenka Zupancic explains, psychoanalysis’s positing of a reality principle invites us to be suspicious of any reality that presents itself as natural. ‘The reality principle’, Zupancic writes,

is not some kind of natural way associated with how things are … The reality principle itself is ideologically mediated; one could even claim that it constitutes the highest form of ideology, the ideology that presents itself as empirical fact (or biological, economic…) necessity (and that we tend to perceive as non-ideological). It is precisely here that we should be most alert to the functioning of ideology.

For Lacan, the Real is what any ‘reality’ must suppress; indeed, reality constitutes itself through just this repression. The Real is an unrepresentable X, a traumatic void that can only be glimpsed in the fractures and inconsistencies in the field of apparent reality. So one strategy against capitalist realism could involve invoking the Real( s) underlying the reality that capitalism presents to us.

Environmental catastrophe is one such Real. At one level, to be sure, it might look as if Green issues are very far from being ‘unrepresentable voids’ for capitalist culture. Climate change and the threat of resource-depletion are not being repressed so much as incorporated into advertising and marketing. What this treatment of environmental catastrophe illustrates is the fantasy structure on which capitalist realism depends: a presupposition that resources are infinite, that the earth itself is merely a husk which capital can at a certain point slough off like a used skin, and that any problem can be solved by the market (In the end, Wall-E presents a version of this fantasy – the idea that the infinite expansion of capital is possible, that capital can proliferate without labor – on the off world ship, Axiom, all labor is performed by robots; that the burning up of Earth’s resources is only a temporary glitch, and that, after a suitable period of recovery, capital can terraform the planet and recolonize it). Yet environmental catastrophe features in late capitalist culture only as a kind of simulacra, its real implications for capitalism too traumatic to be assimilated into the system. The significance of Green critiques is that they suggest that, far from being the only viable political-economic system, capitalism is in fact primed to destroy the entire human environment. The relationship between capitalism and eco-disaster is neither coincidental nor accidental: capital’s ‘need of a constantly expanding market’, its ‘growth fetish’, mean that capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability.

But Green issues are already a contested zone, already a site where politicization is being fought for. In what follows, I want to stress two other aporias in capitalist realism, which are not yet politicized to anything like the same degree. The first is mental health. Mental health, in fact, is a paradigm case of how capitalist realism operates. Capitalist realism insists on treating mental health as if it were a natural fact, like weather (but, then again, weather is no longer a natural fact so much as a political-economic effect). In the 1960s and 1970s, radical theory and politics (Laing, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, etc.) coalesced around extreme mental conditions such as schizophrenia, arguing, for instance, that madness was not a natural, but a political, category. But what is needed now is a politicization of much more common disorders. Indeed, it is their very commonness which is the issue: in Britain, depression is now the condition that is most treated by the NHS . In his book The Selfish Capitalist, Oliver James has convincingly posited a correlation between rising rates of mental distress and the neoliberal mode of capitalism practiced in countries like Britain, the USA and Australia. In line with James’s claims, I want to argue that it is necessary to reframe the growing problem of stress (and distress) in capitalist societies. Instead of treating it as incumbent on individuals to resolve their own psychological distress, instead, that is, of accepting the vast privatization of stress that has taken place over the last thirty years, we need to ask: how has it become acceptable that so many people, and especially so many young people, are ill? The ‘mental health plague’ in capitalist societies would suggest that, instead of being the only social system that works, capitalism is inherently dysfunctional, and that the cost of it appearing to work is very high.

There is always an individual to blame. It sucks to be an individual these days, I tell ya. I should know because I’m one of those faulty miserable individuals. I’ve been one my whole life. If it weren’t for all of us pathetic and depraved individuals, capitalism would be utopia. I beat myself up all the time for failing the great dream of capitalism. Maybe I need to buy more stuff.

The other phenomenon I want to highlight is bureaucracy. In making their case against socialism, neoliberal ideologues often excoriated the top-down bureaucracy which supposedly led to institutional sclerosis and inefficiency in command economies. With the triumph of neoliberalism, bureaucracy was supposed to have been made obsolete; a relic of an unlamented Stalinist past. Yet this is at odds with the experiences of most people working and living in late capitalism, for whom bureaucracy remains very much a part of everyday life. Instead of disappearing, bureaucracy has changed its form; and this new, decentralized, form has allowed it to proliferate. The persistence of bureaucracy in late capitalism does not in itself indicate that capitalism does not work – rather, what it suggests is that the way in which capitalism does actually work is very different from the picture presented by capitalist realism.

In part, I have chosen to focus on mental health problems and bureaucracy because they both feature heavily in an area of culture which has becoming increasingly dominated by the imperatives of capitalist realism: education.

Ah, education. I was just discussing that earlier today. In that post, I labeled it as a Dangerous Pragmatism.

Everything must be measured by profit and transformed into capital. To blame the individual, society must create the individual. Education in capitalism, first and foremost, is about manufacturing this product of individuality. In Capitalist Realism, individualism is defined by freedom, both the freedom to accept the system and the freedoms denied by the system. We are free when, where and how we are told to be free. You are completely free within the reality tunnel, just as long as you play within the boundaries and draw within the lines.

A bit further on in the book (pp. 73-74):

There’s no doubt that late capitalism certainly articulates many of its injunctions via an appeal to (a certain version of) health. The banning of smoking in public places, the relentless monstering of working class diet on programs like You Are What You Eat, do appear to indicate that we are already in the presence of a paternalism without the Father. It is not that smoking is ‘wrong’, it is that it will lead to our failing to lead long and enjoyable lives . But there are limits to this emphasis on good health: mental health and intellectual development barely feature at all, for instance. What we see instead is a reductive, hedonic model of health which is all about ‘feeling and looking good’. To tell people how to lose weight, or how to decorate their house, is acceptable; but to call for any kind of cultural improvement is to be oppressive and elitist. The alleged elitism and oppression cannot consist in the notion that a third party might know someone’s interest better than they know it themselves, since, presumably smokers are deemed either to be unaware of their interests or incapable of acting in accordance with them. No: the problem is that only certain types of interest are deemed relevant, since they reflect values that are held to be consensual. Losing weight, decorating your house and improving your appearance belong to the ‘consentimental’ regime.

Freedom to seek pleasure. It is in our Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed…”

We have the unalienable right to pursue happiness, endlessly pursue it. Some might say it is our civic duty to never stop pursuing happiness, like the man lost in the desert following a mirage in the distance. But sometimes it isn’t even about the happiness or even the pretense of seeking it. As Dubya famously said, 

“Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don’t conduct business, where people don’t shop.”

Happiness is just the selling point. The real purpose, though, is what is being sold. It’s not just a product being sold. The entire system of capitalism must be sold to the American people… hook, line and sinker. We the People must buy into Capitalist Realism or the American Dream will die and the Terrorists or Commies will win.

When you buy, you are bought. You buy to consume and you buy to solve all the problems of consumerism. The only thing that can’t be bought is your humanity, but it can be sold very cheaply.

To learn more of my deep insight and profound analysis, explore the wonders of my previous blogging about Capitalist Realism:

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/19/the-unimagined-capitalism-and-crappiness/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/10/pkd-vs-the-american-mythos/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2012/11/21/liberal-mindedness-empathetic-imagination-and-capitalist-realism/

https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2013/03/24/symbolic-conflation-empathic-imagination/

Re: Time to turn against cannabis!

Keith E Rice’s blog post titled Time to turn against cannabis!

My comments:

I hadn’t heard of this research. I love research because it can disprove commonly accepted ‘facts’, but I’m always suspicious of how research gets interpreted. The obvious question that arises in my mind is whether people with certain personlity and/or genetic predispositions are more likely to smoke marijuana. Maybe people who have a predisposition to schizophrenia also have a predisposition to experimenting with drugs and so the correlation may or may not be causation.

For example, Ernest Hartmann has written about the relationship between dreams and schizophrenia in terms of thin boundary types. One trait that thin boundary types have is an openness to experience and so they’re more likely to experiment in general.

The question is how many people who become schizophrenic after cannabis use would’ve become schizophrenic whether or not they’d used cannabis? Does the cannabis cause or contribute to schizophrenia? That question still hasn’t been answered. More careful research is required.

 – – –

I must admit that I don’t have that strong opinion about marijuana per se.  I just have a negative reaction to the lies and propaganda I was spoon-fed growing up.  It’s hard to know what is true when you were never given the truth.  For example, this meta-analysis had an obvious bias.  The data was being interpeted to a specific ideological conclusion.  I say just give me the data and don’t tell me what it means.  I’m fine with presenting me with the various ways of interpreting it.  I do think there is a decent chance that it might contribute to schizophrenia and so the authorities should say that in an honest way.  It’s possible to simplify information so as to effectively communicate without turning it into lies and propaganda.

Yeah, marijuana has risks but so do lots of legal substances which have dangerous side effects when misused or not supervised carefully by a doctor.  Marijuana also has medical benefits.  That is why you legalize it so that people using it for medical purposes get medical supervision. Sure, people will still use it incorrectly, but that is true for every other legal medication.  Every substance that is prescribed by a doctor can also be bought on the street.  In fact, some legally prescribed drugs are very popular in college and highschool.  Kids illegally sell their legal prescriptions all of the time.  You can’t stop illegal distribution of drugs (whether or not the drugs are legal), but you can decrease the dangers by not lying to people.  Making generalizations that are simplified truths are fine.  Lying is never acceptable.

I don’t think everyone can handle everything.  For one, that is why you legalize it in order to put it in the realm of public knowledge and accountability.  Many people do listen to their doctors and other authority figures, but people lose trust in authorities when they’re lied to.  Drugs bought on the street are even more dangerous because you don’t necessarily know what you’re buying.  As far as I know, there is no evidence that legalizing marijuana increases its use.  You simply decrease the number of people being in prison.  Prohibition proved the truth of this.

I understand your general argument, but it’s a slippery slope.  Why stop with cannabis?  People do all kinds of things that are immensely unhealthy (physically and mentally).  The most unhealthy addictive drug man has ever invented is refined sugar which kills massive numbers of people and leads even more to miserable lives of a wide variety of diseases and disabilities.  Fast food is probably a bigger killer than smoking and alcohol combined.  People make bad decisions all of the time that quickly or slowly destory their lives.  I’d be fine with illegalizing all unhealthy and dangerous activities if it actually stopped those activities, but it doesn’t.  Marijuana is illegal and yet people keep using it.

By the time of college, around half of people report having tried marijuana and about half of those report being current users.  However, I don’t know if this takes into account the massive under-reporting.  According to under-reporting estimates, 41 million Americans use marijuana annually.  The drug war has failed.  Lies and propaganda have failed.  Why not try a different approach?

So, I say prove to me that illegalization and scare tactics work because all evidence seems to be to the contrary.  The government has already tried for several decades of “lurid front page headlines about the dangers of using cannabis” and they failed.  Cannabis use increased during that time of endless propaganda.  I saw that kind of propaganda growing up.  It didn’t stop me and it didn’t stop most of my peers.  I’m for whatever works, whatever helps people.  I’m just against ideology.  It’s similar to people who promote abstinence programs even though they increase the number of pregnancies and STDs.  Personally, I believe results are more important than ideology.  Show me the results.  It’s not about what people can handle.  It’s about what works.

There actually is an argument for propaganda.  It does work when all avenues of information are controlled.  For example, China has been very successful with propaganda because it tightly controls all media.  The problem is such control isn’t possible in a democracy.  Propaganda also works during times of extreme fear such as war, but it’s almost impossible to uphold a constant state of fear and probably isn’t desirable.  The thing is that kids these days are media saavy.  They don’t just accept what they’re told.  If you tell them one thing, they’ll search for opposing viewpoints and they’ll ask their friends.  If they learn they’ve been lied to or been told partial truths, then the propaganda will have an opposite effect than was intended.  Propaganda is a hard thing to do well.

Why do you think marijuana use increased during the largest anti-drug propaganda program the US government has ever implemented?  It wasn’t for a lack of trying nor was it for a lack of good intentions.

 – – –

You said something that caught my attention.

“So simplifications/generalisations/lies-based-on-truth can work. I think there will be whole load of factors which give us the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times.”

Attitudes can be changed, but I’m not sure exactly what changes them.

Why has the attitude about cigarettes changed so quickly?  It’s really hard to explain.  How does something switch from being socially acceptable to being socially unacceptable in such a short period of time?  Second-hand smoke is bad, but so are many things such as second-hand car exhaust… the latter being far worse for one’s health.  Why do cities build large parking ramps in the middle of town to encourage the concentration of car exhaust in the very concentration of the human population.  Why don’t they instead build parking ramps far away from populated areas and encourage public transporation?  I don’t own a car and so aren’t my rights being infringed in the way a non-smokers rights are being infringed sitting next to a smoker?

There are all kinds of things that are far worse than second-hand smoke.  Maybe the lies-founded-on-truth of the anti-tobacco lobbies worked because of effective campaigning that had nothing directly to do with facts.  They touched upon people’s emotions and other psychological motivations which are largely unconscious.  They made it uncool, but the facts were secondary.  If you know what you’re doing, people can be easy to manipulate sometimes (there is a lot of research studying this).  That is what advertising is about.  If companies couldn’t influence people to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do, then there’d be no advertising.  Campaigning, like advertising, actually works best when you bypass people’s rational response.  If you present facts, they’re only a facade to hide the true mechanisms of manipulation.  However, if the campaign lies about the facts and gets caught, then the manipulation will backfire.

Sadly, humans aren’t primarily rational and the change in public opinion isn’t rational either.  As I metioned, I think fastfood and junkfood are the biggest killer of any substances in the world.  If we were worried about public health, it would be illegal to buy fastfood and junkfood for kids.  But peole cherish their freedoms (and their habits and addictions) and will fight if you try to take them away.  The worst health hazards never get changed because they involve too many people.  If you can get the majority of people addicted to your substance such as sugar or if you can get the majority to use it on a regular basis such as alcohol, then you can ensure it will never be made illegal or that it won’t remain illegal for long because of public demand.

“As regards, alcohol, while it is still the most popular drug of all, certainly amongst the late teens/early twenties I meet either through family or school networks are very strongly anti-drink driving and they almost unanimously assure me their friends and acquaintances are of a similar mind. Drink-driving just isn’t cool! And now I see it starting to spread quite strongly amongst my own age group (45-50), often considered in the UK previously the most hard-to-shift group.”

This might be where it’s important to consider how generational cohorts play a part in change in attitudes.  But it’s important to keep in mind that generational shifts in attitude don’t always last beyond a specific generation.  There has been a campaign against drunk driving and it’s been effective.  The reason it’s worked is probably because it didn’t use lies and misinformation like was done with the anti-drug campaign.  It also touched upon the power of peer pressure.  Nobody wants to be uncool or to be judged.  This is particularly true for kids of the Millenial Generation which seem to put greater emphasis on peer influence than some previous generations.

I should add that I work in a parking ramp near bars where college kids congregate.  It may be true that drunk driving is less cool than it used to be, but trust me there are still a lot of drunk drivers.  It’s surprising that I see so many drunk drivers on a regular basis considering the legal ramifications of getting caught.  I’d be curious about the statistics about how much drunk driving has actually decreased.