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Is consumer culture making us anxious and depressed?

Posted Dec 16 2009 9:29pm

According to one recent ABC News story, yes, it is:
Margit Burmeister, professor of psychiatry and human genetics at the University of Michigan, said it "makes very good sense with what we know of lifestyle changes in the past 50 years" that our consumer culture is affecting mental illness.

She added that "genetic vulnerability [to mental illness] is the other side of the coin that needs to be kept in mind" -- in other words, as our society piles more and more stress onto its citizens, those who are predisposed to crack under the pressure, will...

Dr. Bruce Rabin, medical director of the Health Lifestyle Program at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, said that beyond our society's focus on external goals, the stress level among parents in recent times has impacted the type of children we raise.

Children today "lack meaningful, healthy role models," Rabin said.

"They learn from those they love...if role models are short tempered [or] tell children to leave them alone because they are under a lot of stress...there will be an effect on the child's mental health development."

In this way, he said, children learn which aspects of life to make a priority. Relationships take a back seat, and work, success, material gains take precedence.

Lots of statistics speak to the validity of this opinion. There's no question that society is more atomized than it used to be -- that people are more geographically mobile, hold more jobs during their working years, work longer hours but are less likely to make enough money to be able afford to buy a house, and are less likely than they used to be to be part of a strong community. (See the book Bowling Alone for as many statistics along these lines as anyone will ever need.) Thanks to the growth of corporate America, there are more and more cookie-cutter office parks and shopping centers than ever, and fewer and fewer places that are culturally unique or untouched by commercialism. (Thank you, Starbucks.) Television, the internet, and the advertising and public relations industries saturate our lives with images of "the good life" while pushing on us an endless parade of products we don't really need. (Spend some time with the most recent SkyMall catalog if you don't know what I'm talking about.) A society that used to treasure privacy now produces more than a few citizens whose primary life goal is seemingly to land a spot on reality television. (E.g., the attention-whore couple who recently attended a White House function without an invitation.) It's no surprise that recent decades have brought alarming mental illness growth rates.

So what's to do? According to the article, "If increased materialism and decreased community are really to blame -- at least in part -- for this trend ... then interventions may have to be taken at the societal level."

In other words, we're screwed.

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