The present times are symptomatic of new — or at least updated — diseases associated with the modern way of life. Anthropologists search in the genesis and development of cultures for specific causes for some pathologies to prosper, their cultural epidemiology, so to speak, because the biological alone cannot have continued success in the human ecosystem.
Lifestyles, imposed fashions, more or less stereotyped and homogenized behaviour, end up defining, in the end, the success or failure of a disease, especially those related to the brain.
Mental illnesses are indeed on the rise, as we can see from the statistics: between 2–3 % of the total population, even more, have a psychological-psychiatric disorder. It is clear that the various containment plans are failing and that the problem, far from being solved, is getting worse.
The consumption of anxiolytics, hypnotics and other medications has grown exponentially in recent years.
With regard to psychiatric diagnoses, and only as a note, I will say that 1 in 4 citizens has been diagnosed with a mental illness, or will be in the near future, especially among those between 26 and 45 years of age.
Many other people will never be aware that they are ill and will therefore not have any kind of treatment, except in the advanced stages of the illness, when the cognitive deterioration is irreversible.
These are the facts and figures that put on the table of the medical specialist and, above all, of the health politician, a social problem of overwhelming complexity. I remember that in rural Spain until a few years ago the figure — sometimes pathetic — of the village madman was almost institutionalised.
Every village used to have its madman, just as it had its mayor, its priest or its teacher. It was this, the madman, a man generally from a poor family and, therefore, without economic resources to remove him from public life, that was not always the case, of course, but many obeyed this sociological trait.
In some way, mental illness — always present in human communities — was projected exclusively on one figure, one person, as a permanent catalyst, or perhaps as a collective archetype where the madness of the entire people was diluted in the official madness of the madman of the moment.
Many of these patients — when the illness advanced and the deterioration could endanger the safety of themselves or others — were hospitalised, interned or confined in the so-called asylums, which were highly questioned by psychiatrists such as González Duro and others, who, as early as 1972, questioned the effectiveness of these health establishments.
In 1986, the General Health Law was developed with numerous proposals for primary care for the mentally ill, the suppression of asylums, the creation of social support services, etc.
Again, most seriously mentally ill people return home to be cared for by their families under the outpatient supervision of the relevant health areas. This poses disadvantages for the relatives — especially in cities — but advantages for the patients.
From then until today, the social perception of mental illness has definitely changed, although there are still profound differences on issues such as the integration of the mentally handicapped into the workplace. To such an extent has this perception changed, that we have moved to the opposite extreme, that is, to what I would call the sublimation of madness.
This extreme, formerly the heritage of artists and creators (there is no need to recall the eccentric behaviour of certain artists, writers, etc.), has become alarmingly widespread.
It is fashionable to be crazy, or to appear crazy, which is not the same thing, but it spreads certain risky or eccentric behaviours, for example consuming psychoactive substances without a doctor’s prescription in combination with alcohol, etc, provoking rejection attitudes, almost criminal, excessive use of verbal violence…
Many media encourage the imitation of specific social models and behaviours, such as those shown in professional sports: it is no longer a question of doing sport for the pleasure of doing it or to maintain a healthier physique, but to do it with the aim of emulating the sportsman or woman of the moment and to buy his or her brand of shoes or T-shirt, imitating his or her manners, which are, on the other hand, almost always rude and ill-mannered.
The spiritual is also in fashion, the access to the human interiority without knowing very well what it is about, an incessant search now marketed by the New Age-type currents and by the gurus of ephemeral religious syncretism.
It is fashionable to buy compulsively, at low prices if possible, bad quality, use and throw away, again and again.
It is fashionable to take tranquilizers, hypnotics, amphetamines, and any other drug that enhances, stimulates, nullifies, relaxes or eliminates whatever.
It is fashionable to have a culture, but not one that is built on solid mythological foundations, but one that is bottomless, shapeless, permissive, thoughtless, hedonistic. In that field anything is valid and everyone is cultured.
Healthy diets are in fashion, especially if the consumer buys from shops that like very expensive complementary and substitute products for traditional foods.
Vacations and bucolic weekends are in fashion in a corner of our varied rural geography, but quickly, without valuing the ancestral and historical-ecological wealth of the enclave being visited. Everything must be seen without giving time for the landscape to penetrate one’s own heart.
In total, there are magnificently designed brochures that explain everything to us and, ultimately, are searched for on the Internet. It is fashionable to gain time and tell others how many things we are capable of doing, and then show off time to do yoga or tai chi, or social volunteering: the perfect life.
But statistics tell us that these fashions, these lifestyles, involve breaking the natural balance of our organism, including our mind. It is not the forms that are criticized, but the substance, the basis of what we as women and men can do, regardless of cultural pressures and stereotypes.
Culture, which is capable of raising the human soul to unimaginable levels of knowledge, is also capable, misunderstood or misused, of generating distortion, problems of coexistence, discomfort and, finally, illness.
In this commentary we have not wanted to go into the detail of specific illnesses, but rather to describe a general situation, from a -not exclusive- anthropological perspective.
We are sure that if we are able to limit the power of the dominant culture (for example, the fascination that television or video games exert on us), especially on the younger population, mental illness will have a more difficult time spreading.
In short, it is a question of developing a whole new culture of what is healthy, which does not only involve good advice or educational programmes in schools (which are always ineffective in the face of media propaganda), but a global learning process about the new image of man that we want to achieve, his culture, his possibilities and his limitations.