Physical Health Is Mental Health

With all this knowledge and abundance, why are our problems getting worse?

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.” -Abraham Lincoln

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.” -Abraham Lincoln

We are all horrified by the most recent mass shooting, yet we perpetuate the same, habitual, failed response. Rather than honest dialogue, analysis, and synthesis of a clearer picture, all sides rush to protect their dogmas, while perfecting the spin they will use on their opposition’s more sensible notions. Logical argument and truth are victims of a headlong drive to confuse and spark outrage. Public discourse remains stranded on the superficial, without hope of approaching root causes, and thus without hope of effective solutions.

I am a Strength and Conditioning Coordinator who worked for years as a high school teacher. In those capacities, I’ve become a passionate student of developmental psychology, and I believe the trends we are seeing point to some very obvious causes that are not being addressed. It is our duty as educators to encourage an integrated approach to working with people that addresses their fundamental and varied needs.

There is no separating physical and mental health. The evidence for this is overwhelming and omnipresent to anyone paying attention. Why are we not listening and discussing what really matters here? Why do we allow ourselves to become encumbered with an argument about guns, while never asking ourselves “why is this happening more often?”

Shouldn’t We Be Getting Better?

What has changed to cause more gun violence over the past few decades, despite increasing regulation? There is something deeper going on here that requires honesty, analysis, and a willingness to question the status quo. What else is going on in parallel to this rise in mass shootings? Depression, anxiety, obesity, and suicide rates all are skyrocketing. Even scarier, the rate at which these negative trends proliferate has only increased exponentially since smart phone ownership eclipsed 50% in the United States.

With the entire body of human history to draw upon, shouldn’t we have better mental health than any time in history? Sure, mental healthcare in the US sucks, and that’s part of the issue. I’m not the first to offer that conclusion. However, let’s address the causes rather than the symptoms. Perhaps we should look at what is causing the increase in mental instability in the first place. We must be able to have a dialogue about the empirical causes of poor mental health.

What about our environment is creating such awful emotional intelligence, and what changes should we make? What are the human needs that our society must meet in order to promote more fulfilled, emotionally, mentally, and physically capable human beings? While these this list is not comprehensive, I believe we can narrow down a few prime causes. These should be the focus of national attention, as they are at the root of our growing emotional disturbance.

Poor Physical Health Destroys Mental Health

Perhaps no other factors are more important for mental health and wellbeing as exercise and good nutrition. I understand that many psychopaths are in seemingly fine shape, and I’m not suggesting that a dose of burpees is all they needed to turn the corner. However, our broad physical health concerns and the societal habits that cause them certainly contribute to a more mentally unhealthy population, ripe to create more deeply deranged killers.

People who exercise experience both acute mood improvement and long term reduction in the effects of poor mental health. It is well supported that active people tend to be less depressed than inactive people, and that people who were active and aren’t anymore are far more likely to be depressed than those who consistently exercise or have begun a regimen. Overwhelming evidence has also begun to mount that indicates the negative mental health effects of Western diets, as well as the the power of good nutrition to prevent and reduce mental illness.

Our society ignores the needs of the physical body for varied movement and nourishing foods, and in doing so, forsakes the mental benefits. Most people are never exposed to anything like adequate nutritional education. Technology has combined with classroom and workplace norms to promote constant sedentary behavior.

Youth today sit for 85% of their waking hours. The number of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders averaging less than seven hours of sleep per night has also increased starkly since the early 1990s, and even more so in the last five years. Screen time for kids ages 8-18 averaged seven hours per day in 2010, and has only gone up with the rise of smart phones.

All healthy animals play, but none so much as humans. In the tribal life that defined most of human history, children typically played together outdoors, free of adult guidance, nearly the entire day. According to play expert Dr. Peter Gray, free play teaches kids to “get along with others, solve problems, inhibit their impulses, and regulate their emotions.” Dr. Stuart Brown has looked at the upbringings of a long list of mass murderers and found a common link: they all grew up extremely deprived of “rough and tumble play.” Play indoctrinates a love of movement, emotional stability, cognitive ability, and strong social bonds.

Community, Authenticity, and Challenge Are Going Extinct

Play is not only for kids. It is an essential human need that most everyone is failing to satisfy.

In the absence of healthy play and an increased dependency on screens for entertainment and distraction, we’ve grown more isolated than ever. The ubiquity of smart phones has greatly decreased the depth of human bonds and likelihood of authentic connections.

Use of these socially alienating devices tends to have a direct correlation with depression. Psychologist and author of the book iGen, Jean Twenge, points to strong evidence that “smartphone use and depression increase in tandem,” and that “teens who spent five or more hours a day online were 71% more likely than those who spent less than an hour a day to have at least one suicide risk factor.”

Lonely humans are far more likely to be suicidal. Humans need connection, and true connection is only built through physical presence and interaction. It is built through common values and common experiences. Humans evolved in tightknit communities, where their social group relied on them to be mentally and physically capable, contributing members of society. Each person was necessary to the survival of the group, and each had a strong sense of purpose.

Today’s culture is far less worried about community than individual promotion. Youth today are much more narcissistic than those who grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. This comes on the heels of the failed self-esteem movement that convinced generations of kids they were the center of the universe. Twenge’s other book, The Narcissism Epidemic, explores the effects of this era. She contends that narcissism is not necessary for success, and that rather than self-esteem, we should seek to create the self-efficacy that comes from real challenges, consequences, and experiences.

Another uncomfortable realization we must be able to discuss is who these homicidal maniacs tend to be. The overwhelming majority of mass murderers are male. Girls outperform boys at every level of school, where boys are 30% more likely to flunk out, and 71% more likely to be suspended. The specific needs of young men are not being addressed. Instead, their thirst for adventure, challenge, and a sense of strength is more often mocked than developed. Youth today, especially boys, would benefit from values-driven rites of passage that address these human needs.

The Altar of Retail

From the perspective of convenience, comfort, luxury, and security, life has reached a point of magical opulence. Yet, history and psychological studies would indicate these creature comforts and pleasures have very little to do with emotional stability and fulfillment. Kings a couple centuries ago could not imagine the luxury and convenience of modern life, but we are still more depressed than ever. Americans consume at an almost inconceivable pace, only to lead the world with 45% of global pharmaceutical drug consumption.

Our expectations have caused us to consider only how little we have relative to people around us. We chase increasing pleasures, but this only seems to indoctrinate greater isolation and mental angst. Consumption never keeps up with our wants. Brilliant marketers train us to be tired of the Galaxy S8, just in time for the S9 to come out. We regret the Apple watch that was brand new three months ago, because there is now a newer version. All our rituals center around increased consumption. We have more, but have not become more, causing life to feel bland and hollow.

The engine behind consumerism is just as unfulfilling. Colleges offer passionless courses of rote memorization and regurgitation. Careers are characterized by cubicles and spreadsheets. There is almost zero connection between a person and the product they produce, no concept of being part of a team, or creating for the good of others—only working for a paycheck.

In 1776, Adam Smith warned in The Wealth of Nations that the specialization of the industrialized economy would create mental mutilation, if left unchecked by strong public education. Here we are.

When Nature Is Ignored, It Rebels

We have created a world custom-built to destroy mental health. Our artificial environment is increasingly hostile to natural human experiences, and thus, the needs of humans. Our children are seemingly deprived of nothing, yet upon closer inspection, they are play-deprived, nature-deprived, consequence-deprived, and growth-deprived.

When we do not act in accordance with our nature; when we do not meet our human needs and do not honor the environment our biology expects and thrives in, we suffer immensely. As a society, we are not meeting our needs for community connection, contribution, purpose, exercise, and time in nature. Culture must be reimagined and redeveloped in our schools with an emphasis on creating healthy, fulfilled, and capable citizens.