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Here’s something you’ll seldom hear from mainstream media or government-funded organizations, but it’s a message Americans desperately need to hear: Modern society itself is deeply sick, and many if not most of the mental health problems plaguing America’s youth are a direct result of the unhealthy climate they inhabit.

Many of these factors are beyond your control. Others are not. This information will help you better understand the forces that are pulling the strings behind the scenes to create turmoil, discontent, and despair in your children.

Why So Many Americans Struggle With Mental Illness

Americans are accustomed to thinking of themselves as the undisputed kings of the world; the people who possess the ‘good life’ that everyone else should aspire to. The government works hard to cultivate this delusion. As a result, most Americans are under the mistaken assumption that society is set up to solve human problems and serve their interests. Nothing could be farther from the truth.

Most of the problems we are so familiar with here in America – violence, crime, mental illness, addiction, social strife, and so forth – are not a natural consequence of the human condition, as many people assume. They emerge from the societal demands and unnatural lifestyles we’re all forced to conform to. You can actually watch these problems emerge in real time whenever a culture transitions from more natural lifestyles to the demands required of modern capitalist societies.

When indigenous cultures transition to modern ways of living, “family life is disrupted, previous social controls are lost, and many indicators of social anomie, such as alcoholism, crime, delinquency, suicide, emotional disorder, and despair” increase dramatically, notes John Bodley (2015, p. 186). It’s a pattern that has been observed all throughout the world on every continent. ‘When New Guinea villagers move to cities,” writes Jared Diamond, “the frequent results are unhappy isolation, decline of social support, and proliferation of urban crime.” (Diamond, 2019)

As anthropologists Haviland, Prins, Walrath & McBride report, “One consequence of ‘development’ in the recently emerged states of Africa, Asia, and Central and South America is a rising incidence of mental disturbances among their people.” (Haviland et al., 2005, p. 419) The U.S. government’s own reports show that in Micronesia, the incidence of mental health disorders increased eightfold as the population progressed from natural lifestyles to modern ways of living engineered by the U.S. government. (USDS, 1959; 1973)

Mental illness is so rare among indigenous cultures that most don’t have words for things like depression. There are things that make them sad, to be sure, but social support and other protective factors prevent this from morphing into despair. (Schieffelin, 1985)

So what is it about modern society that’s so detrimental to human mental health? This is a big question, with an even bigger answer, but let’s start by exploring the structural problems inherent to modern society.

The structural problems driving up rates of mental illness

Capitalist societies revolve around one thing and one thing only: monetary greed. They are designed to maximize the accumulation and concentration of wealth and assets. Human interests are accommodated only to the extent they are necessary to serve these goals. Unfortunately for all of us common folk living in such societies, human happiness and contentment are actually antithetical to the goals of capitalism. Human contentment is to capitalism what antimatter is to matter, which is why Americans are experiencing “unprecedented psychological misery in a nation with unprecedented prosperity and material well-being.” (Seligman, 1993, pp. 63, 65)

One problem is that capitalist societies are designed to intentionally frustrate basic human needs. This system of endless production and consumption won’t work if people are allowed to be content as they are. Their natural yearnings must be frustrated, repressed, and redirected toward commercial aims. “Flourishing economies require that people continually procure and consume one another’s goods and services,” writes psychologist Daniel Gilbert. “If everyone were content” as they are, “then the economy would grind to a halt. …Economies thrive when individuals strive, but because individuals will only strive for their own happiness, it is essential that they mistakenly believe that producing and consuming are routes to personal well-being.” (Gilbert, 2006, pp. 219-220)

To accomplish this goal, capitalist governments place prohibitions on natural pleasures (touch, affection, sex and sensuality, etc.) while placing impediments in the way of self-sufficiency and autonomy (access to nature, the ability to provide for oneself, land ownership, housing, etc.). It’s a system designed to keep us on a perpetual treadmill, chasing after artificial pursuits. As psychologist Philip Slater remarks, “Our economy depends upon our willingness to turn to things rather than people for gratification – to symbols rather than our bodies. The Gross National Product will reach is highest point when a material object can be interpolated between every itch and its scratch.” (Slater, 1976, p. 88)

In place of breastfeeding parents buy formula. In place of nudity we have body shame, washing machines, and a trillion dollar fashion industry. In place of personal identity we have brand identity. In place of human interaction we’ve created cell phones and a multi-trillion dollar “cyberspace” to interact through screens. In place of natural pleasures we have an array of addictive commercial substitutes – from pornography to alcohol and drugs to gambling, amusement centers and shopping malls.

Aside from the fact that we’ve created an unsustainable economic system that is literally destroying the planet as we speak, just so we can substitute natural pleasures for artificial ones, these artificial replacements leave much to be desired. We’re kept on a perpetual treadmill, forced to devote time and energy to unnatural pursuits, while those things that truly matter for our wellbeing get squeezed further and further out of our lives. The end result is that in ways too numerous to mention here, human beings find themselves living an artificial existence, at odds with their true nature.

Whether wearing a loin cloth or a two-thousand-dollar suit and tie, human beings are, at their core, biological animals driven by natural instincts and desires. The more you frustrate these core yearnings, the more you alienate people from these innermost desires and natural lifestyles, the more you’re going to generate mental health problems and social disorder.

All the trappings we’re trained to value and pursue in the modern world are mere substitutes for these natural yearnings. Riches? Fame? A fancy car? A prestigious job? If you sit down for a moment and think about why these things are appealing, you’ll realize that they’re all merely proxies for more fundamental yearnings: love, admiration, human connection, respect, access to sexual partners or enjoyable experiences, and so forth. We’re told that ‘every kiss begins with Kay,” and that materialistic pursuits might bring us that which our heart truly desires. It seems that with each passing day we give up more and more of our humanity to artificial things, while our core yearnings are starved and exist in a state of perpetual anorexia. So it’s no accident that the richest nation on Earth, the one that pioneered this materialistic lifestyle, also leads the world in rates of mental illness.

By their very nature, capitalist societies foster competition, social comparisons, achievement-based accolades, and a ruthless, winner-takes-all mentality. They pit citizens against one another in a perpetual race to get ahead, creating widespread inequality and a system of haves and have-not’s. Envy, jealousy, and feelings of inferiority are widespread. Everyone is taught to “look out for themselves” so to speak, and to perceive the success of others as a threat. All of this represents a stark departure from the more cooperative, compassionate, human-needs-driven societies of old.

Another problem is that in the perverse world of capitalism, unhappiness, discontent, and social problems are profitable. Nobody makes any money if people are happy and content as they are. Which means the commercial interests governing our world have both a conscious and unconscious incentive to sow strife, conflict and discontent, keeping people in a perpetually dependent and unhappy state. You can see this pattern all around you if you really look: The psychological industry feeds us ideas about what’s proper or improper, what should offend or traumatize us, then profits handsomely when these scripts inevitably conflict with real life. The media industry thrives by serving up trauma porn and dramatized stories that either titillate, enrage us, or sow fear. Nobody gets good ratings by saying the sky isn’t falling, or by presenting a more calm, accurate and nuanced perspective. And in every industry from health care to consumer products and government services, the incentive is to create problems that require these services, not give any thought about solving them. Most people have no comprehension of just how much manpower is devoted toward the creation of problems (or the perception of a problem), because each new problem breathes life into an entirely new industry. What capitalist in their right mind would want fit, healthy people living active lives and eating natural foods when you can sell them the junk that makes them fat, then turn around and rake in trillions of dollars selling weight-loss gimmicks, while a third industry is born to rake in trillions treating the medical problem associated with obesity? This is the way capitalism works: steer people away from natural lifestyles, then rake in the dough on products and services designed to manage all the problems capitalist societies have created.

How society is making us mentally ill

As we’ve transitioned from natural to unnatural environments, and from small-scale societies to consumer-based capitalist societies, a number of unhealthy developments have taken place, among them:

  • We’re living and raising our children in an unnatural environment, where the majority of our waking energy is devoted to artificial things, performing artificial tasks, with artificial goals in mind.
  • Capitalist societies have installed legal and social codes that place constraints on natural pleasures, starving us of the rewards our brains are wired to respond to.
  • This has resulted in sexual repression and a significant degree of sexual shame that accompanies it.
  • Along with widespread touch starvation and a lack of human contact.
  • We eat a diet consisting largely of unnatural foods and get very little exercise, both of which can have a negative impact on mental health.
  • We’ve seen a wholesale shrinking of community and social support. Family units have shrunken and are now a virtual island unto themselves, usually separated from any extended family. Many pillars of social support in the broader community have dissolved, and rates of loneliness have skyrocketed.
  • We’ve been chained to a treadmill that prompts us to adopt a rushed, frenetic pace in our lives, leading to anxiety, sleep deprivation, and weakened bonds between family.
  • All of this is accompanied by skyrocketing rates of stress. Modern day Americans live in a perpetual state of chronic stress that is quite unnatural, while those things that normally temper stress (touch, affection, nature, relaxation, etc.) have been largely stripped from our lives.
  • People, and kids in particular, are placed under far more pressure to perform: to get good grades, to excel at sports, to beat out their peers in the race to get into a good college.
  • Free time and play have been largely removed from children’s lives, replaced by structured activities and screens.
  • Young an old alike feel as though they have very little power or control over their life, accompanied by a lack of dignity and respect. All these things are strongly associated with mental health disorders.
  • We do very little in the way of productive activities for ourselves anymore (building, creating things, gardening, foraging, etc.), and spend most of our time on pursuits for others that don’t interest us (history tests, working as a cashier, or sitting in a cubicle in a corporate office), where we tend not to see any tangible gain for all this effort, which drains a sense of satisfaction from our lives.
  • We’ve all but demolished the normal phases of child development. We create stark separations between childhood and adulthood that create a whiplash version of human development. We shame and suppress sexual development early on, forcing youth to completely rework their identity once puberty strikes to incorporate this reservoir of shame into a healthy self-identity during adolescence. We stunt kids’ development and try to keep them in a dependent, immature and incompetent state, foiling their attempts at autonomy, which not only frustrates their natural yearnings for independence, but creates problems on the other end when these stunted individuals enter adulthood (or fail to achieve the milestones of adulthood).
  • Which is why American adolescence is riddled with problems, even as more than 100 other cultures in other parts of the world manage to avoid the type of teenage angst we’re so familiar with here in the U.S. (Epstein, 2007)
  • In case you haven’t noticed, our world is seriously messed up. The same systems that have robbed us of our natural humanity are also destroying the planet, creating widespread inequality, producing social unrest, contributing to an epidemic of gun violence and mass shootings, and have us all living under the constant threat of nuclear annihilation. Children are privy to these problems too, especially as they get older, and it can be distressing and depressing to think about.
  • An often invisible yet quite powerful driver of mental illness is the modern media climate we’re all exposed to: A 24/7 dribble of content feeding us messages that sow conflict, discord, insecurity, fear and rage, while promoting a sense of alienation and condemnation that permeates throughout the population.
  • Despite what we’ve been told about living in the ‘land of the free,’ modern day humans live under more legal and social constraints than people did in the past, hindering the ability for people to be themselves and contributing to mental health problems.
  • Shame, anger, and vitriol have exploded in recent years. We inhabit a culture of condemnation, one that does not tolerate differences of opinion, differing interests, or variant behavior. Any mistakes or deviations from the acceptable script are met with harsh punishment and condemnation.
  • The ubiquity of camera smartphones and the existence of the all-seeing eye of the internet have created a situation where everyone is constantly under surveillance, their every move scrutinized by others. Every mistake, every humiliation, each youthful indiscretion – all of it can be memorialized online, and the internet never forgets. This adds yet another layer of pressure and anxiety to children’s lives.

Put all these things together and you get what amounts to an all-out assault against what children (or humans in general) normally need to thrive. It’s not all that surprising to see America’s youth struggling with mental health problems. The more astonishing thing is that anyone manages to keep their sanity in such a hazardous climate.

A deeper look at how society is creating mental health problems in children

The following pages will explore some of these concepts in greater detail:

See also…


* Diamond, J. (2012) The World Until Yesterday. New York: Penguin
* Epstein, R. (2007) “The myth of the teen brain,” Scientific American Mind, April/May
* Gilbert, D. (2006) Stumbling Upon Happiness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf
* Lynn, R. (1968) ‘Anxiety and economic growth,” Nature, Vol. 219, pp. 765-66
* Schieffelin, E. (1985) “The cultural analysis of depressive affect: an example from New Guinea.” In A. * * Kleinman & R. Good (Eds.) Culture & Depression. University of California Press
* Seligman, M.E.P. (1993) What You Can Change…and What You Can’t. New York: Fawcett Columbine
* Slater, P. (1976) The Pursuit of Loneliness-Revised edition. Beacon Press
* U.S. Department of State (1959) Eleventh Annual Report to the United Nations on the Administration of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (July 1, 1957 to June 30, 1958). Washington, DC: Dept. of State
* U.S. Department of State (1973) Twenty-Fifth Annual Report to the United Nations on the Administration of the Trust Territory of the Pacific Islands (July 1, 1971 to June 30, 1972). Washington, D.C: Dept. of State, statistical tables

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