Commoning and Mental Health: The Way Forward

Commons Network researcher Taru is investigating the links between capitalism, mental illness and commoning as a possible remedy. On our blog, she regularly posts updates from her project to keep us in the loop. Today: does capitalism cause loneliness and is so: how do we regain meaningful connections?

Lately, I listened to the episode 8 of the podcast ‘Your Undivided Attention’, in which, Johann Hari introduces his innovative approach to addiction, depression and anxiety. Perhaps counter-intuitively for many of us, he links their occurrence to a lack of a vital human need – connection. In this blog I will unravel his argument but I also encourage you to listen to the original audio.

As Hari sees it (and the field of psychology agrees), all human beings share certain innate needs. Some are physical, such as the need for shelter and nutrition and some can be seen as ‘psychological oxygen’. However, our respective environments fulfil these needs to different degrees. Furthermore, Hari considers conditions such as addiction, depression and anxiety as symptoms of unmet vital needs – particularly the need for meaningful connection.

One of his main examples highlighting the central role of connection is the ‘ratpark’ experience. In this experiment there were two conditions: a) rats placed in a dull environment without the possibility for socializing and b) a group of rats who’s environment included possibilities for activity and socializing with other rats. In both conditions the rats were able to drink either water that contained heroine or regular water. The rats from condition A soon overdosed, whereas their counterparts in group B chose the drug-free water.

Another example is the real-life case of Portugal where the drug problem was rampant in the start of the century. Drug users were heavily punished and shamed until in 2001 the government decided to try a novel approach that decriminalized mild drugs and most importantly directed the savings from jail expenditure to residential rehabilitation and programmes of re-connection. These programmes included measures such as micro-loans to start a business and subsidizing the salary of ex-users to increase their employment situation. These measures have decreased the rate of overdosed related deaths to one of the lowest in Europe.

All these cases point to one conclusion: We need to re-consider whether we have built our private lives and society in such a way that it fosters connection. And here it is important to not take this as implying that a quantity increase in social interaction is the answer. This will not do because, as Hari mentions, it is the sharing of meaning with other people that matters.

An article written by George Monbiot (which you can also find in Commons Network’s new book Our Commons: Political Ideas for a New Europe), in which he discusses the transformation of one of the most deprived districts in London, mirrors the power of revived connection. The city of London gave the Participatory City Foundation a chance to set-up commons initiatives that bring people together over a shared activity. Importantly, the set-up of these initiatives is such that they can respond to the new ideas and wishes of their users. These initiatives, such as a ‘makers-space’, community gardens and a film studio have since livened up the neighbourhood, connected people in the borough and contributed to the build up of a network of shared reality and trust.

Another example picked from the podcast is ‘social prescription’. This is a new approach in mental health care, which literally refers to prescribing people to form a group. However, instead of a traditional group-therapy approach, the group is asked to start a common face-to-face project such as a community garden or a small coffee cart. The idea is to connect over an activity that eventually provides structure, social support and communal recognition to its participants.

I hope you enjoyed this food for thought and I wish to leave you with one more nugget from the podcast. John Cacioppo, a US psychologist, has identified connection as our evolutionary superpower. Our ability to effectively communicate and work together proved to be the factor that ensured our survival. Hence, we still possess this essentially human craving for connection – it is inscribed in our genes. Furthermore, our generation is among the first wave of people who have decided to ‘abandon our tribe’ and focus on individualism. We would do ourselves a favour by keeping a close eye on the consequences.