Mental Illness: Is society making us sick? Part One

The Multiple Causes of Mental Illness

We’re slowly trying to build a picture of the factors that contribute to mental illness. Not for the purposes of having something or someone to blame as this just keeps us stuck, but instead to increase our understanding and awareness so that we have a clearer idea of what we are dealing with when we are living with mental illness.

In previous posts we’ve looked at the impact of childhood experience and genetic predisposition on the development of mental illnesses generally and BPD in particular.

Yet there’s another important influence that can’t be ignored – the society or culture in which we live. For we are by nature social animals – we have needs that only others can help us to meet, and the way in which this exchange takes place is heavily influenced by the environment in which this happens

Hopefully the social exchanges within society will help each of us to get our basic needs met.

But what if that society or culture itself is sick? What if it thwarts our ability to get our basic needs met in a healthy way, or encourages us to focus on wants rather then needs, whether these wants are helpful to us or not?

An Insane World

It was the leading psychiatrist R D Laing who defined insanity as ‘a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world’.

In the next few posts we’re going to explore what I believe to be the insanity of the neo liberal culture that pervades some countries.

In this first post, I’ll argue that we in the UK, along with the US and Australia live in broken societies where a philosophy of free market economics has created a culture of hyper individualism which has left huge swathes of the population feeling disconnected and vulnerable.

Later we’ll look at how it came to be this way, and evidence how those who are already predisposed to mental illness can become unwell simply by virtue of living in a dysfunctional society.

Next we’ll look at how our increasingly individualistic culture has placed the whole emphasis for recovery on the individual by privatising the mental healthcare sector, moving care into the community, creating a multi billion pound self help industry, and by removing any responsibility for the causes of mental illness from those in positions of power and placing blame on the weak and vulnerable.

Then finally, I’ll show how the teachings of Jesus present us with a radical new model of how society could function, the role of the church in creating this new society, and the basis for hope this brings.

Exploring Individualism and Masculinity

So first, let’s look at our society.

Social scientists use a number of measures in an attempt to compare societies. Two of these are important for the purposes of exploring social integration – the Collectivism vs Individualism scale, which looks at the degree to which people in a society are interdependent, and the Masculine vs Feminine scale, which helps us to see whether the society is focussed on masculine traits like competition, aggression, and task completion, or feminine traits like compassion, nurturing and bonding.

Members of individualistic societies have loose ties that often only relate them to one or two members of their immediate family. An emphasis is placed on the ‘I’ above the ‘we’. By contrast those in collectivist societies tend to have tightly integrated relationships within extended families as well and encourage people to be active members of social groups and societies. They focus on the greater goal.

The chart above shows a number of countries on these two scales. If I believe in balance then I would probably theorise that the ideal place would be in the centre of this chart, but clearly there are many other social factors in play. But look where the US, the UK, and Australia appear on this chart – almost at the edge. This really is living in the extreme. At least in Australia you have good weather and a great cricket team to soften the blow!

Put another way, the UK, the US and Australia are as extreme in their individualism as Soviet Russia and Communist China were in their collectivism.

We have a term for extreme collectivism called totalitarianism. It conjures up images of Mussolini and Stalin, of gulags and food shortages, of Big Brother and 1984. This is sadly because collectivism was abused by those in power to control the population rather than working for the greater good. The idealistic theories of communism were thwarted by man’s lust for power and disregard for God.

Living in Hyper Individualism

What we find hard to accept is that on the same scale we are living in the polar opposite of totalitarianism, what is known as hyper individualism, with little awareness of this simply because it’s the norm.

I’ll argue later that we have fallen into the same trap with free market economics as we did with communism – that what idealist theorists hoped for, that an improvement in the wealth of a nation would benefit all in society has, in the absence of a reference to God, led to unfettered greed on the part of the most powerful in society.

You only have to look at the distribution of wealth in the world to see how resources have been capitalised by the few – can it be right that less than 1% of the world’s population now hold almost 50% of its wealth.

For the powerless masses, it appears heads you lose, tails you lose.

Yet it doesn’t seem to bother us. We don’t think of it as dystopian.

So what is this state of hyper individualism?

This is living in the extreme where my rights and happiness come first. where there are many single person households, broken families, groups and societies are on the decline, and where I have little social conscience.

The map above shows where this is happening. Red denotes high indidualism, blue high collectivism, green and yellow somewhere in the middle.

Whereas low level individualism prioritises the individuals’ rights and pursuits before the group, hyper individualism sets the individual against the group. Institutions like the church, charities, the government and the law are seen as obstacles to personal freedom. The next step on this ladder is anarchy as society implodes.

Sociologists have said that the symptoms of hyper individualism are religious disconnection and infidelity, smaller household sizes, failing education and healthcare systems, poor care for the elderly, deteriorating infrastructure, increased personal debt, high levels of separation and divorce, disinterest in clubs and societies, increased narcissism and high levels of inequality.

Sound familiar? It should do.

It really is a Darwinian, dog eat dog state of affairs – every man for himself, the survival of the fittest, which of course also means the oppression of the weak.

We really need to cry out to God.


  • The condition of society impacts on personal mental health
  • The UK, US and Australia have highly individual, masculine cultures
  • This culture can be described as hyper individualistic
  • We live in a fallen world. Man is by nature selfish. This selfishness leads to a Darwinian, dog eat dog society which is unjust and unsustainable
  • Without reference to God it is inevitable that any system of government, economics or ‘ism’ will fail. The fall of ancient societies because of this is well documented in the Bible.
  • Thankfully God cannot be manipulated by ideologies and vested interest.
  • The government of mankind really is upon Jesus Christ.

The Bible

Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world, but let God transform you into a new person by changing the way you think. Then you will learn to know God’s will for you, which is good and pleasing and perfect.

Romans 12:2

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing.

Matthew 23:37

(To the religious leaders of the day……) Hypocrites! You know how to interpret the appearance of the earth and the sky. How is it that you don’t know how to interpret this present time?

Luke 12:56


Pour out your wrath upon the nations

    that acknowledge you not,

upon the kingdoms that call not upon your name.

Why should the nations say, 

     “Where is their God?” 

Let it be known among the nations in our sight 

    that you avenge the shedding of your servants’ blood. 

And repay our neighbors sevenfold into their bosoms 

    the disgrace they have inflicted on you, O Lord.

(Psalm 79:6,10,12)

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