Unity in Diversity: Rethinking Mental Health and Our Connection to Nature

We are not only in the midst of a climate crisis, but also a “mental health” crisis… though I use this problematic phrase with hesitation. Unsurprisingly, this is not a pure coincidence. On the contrary, I believe that our widespread disconnection from “nature” as a globalised society lies at the root of these interrelated issues.

At some point, a line was drawn between “humanity” and the rest of the natural world. Many would say this began with the Scientific Revolution, while others would trace it back to medieval Christendom, and its distinction between the Heavens and the Earth, or even further, to the earliest human civilisations in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and the Indus Valley—with the introduction of agriculture, which forever changed the way we live, work, and communicate.

Whatever the case may be, this sharp divide is reflected in the language we use in everyday conversation, often implicitly. As I wrote in a previous article, the words “natural” and “artificial” are often treated as if they are antonyms—for example, when we say that we are going for a hike “in nature” to escape the depressing artifice of the city. Surely, if humans are the product of evolution by natural selection—as Darwin told us over a century and a half ago in The Origin of Species—and so we are continuous with the rest of life on Earth, then even our cities are part of nature.

Actually, nature is everywhere—it is inescapable, as long as we are alive—so how come we forget this fact so easily? And how is this historical detour relevant to the state of modern psychiatry? Or to the so-called “psychedelic renaissance” that is challenging conventional healthcare practices?

Copernicus and Galileo may have overthrown the geocentric view that the Earth lies at the centre of the solar system, placing the Sun at the centre instead (that is, adopting a heliocentric model). However, when it comes to the living world, many of us still think of humans as standing atop the animal kingdom, and at the centre of the universe—ranking ourselves as the most intelligent, the most creative, and the most empathetic species, despite overwhelming historical evidence that we can also be the most stupid, destructive, and self-centred of all.

One of my favourite quotes from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy captures the irony perfectly, in characteristically absurd humour:

“On the planet Earth, man had always assumed he was more intelligent than dolphins because he had achieved so much—the wheel, New York, wars and so on—whilst all the dolphins had ever done was muck about in the water having a good time. But conversely, the dolphins had always believed that they were far more intelligent than man—for precisely the same reasons.”

Despite frequent warnings from ecologists and environmentalists that all organisms—animals, plants, fungi, and bacteria alike—are interdependent and symbiotic, many of us cling to an anthropocentric view of the cosmos. That is, we automatically put human needs and values first, treating “nature” as a resource to be utilised for material gain—often to the detriment of the biosphere at large.

By holding to Newton’s materialist worldview and treating the world as a mechanical system—a clockwork universe, governed by invariant laws, with little room for free will—traditional science threatened to dislodge humans from our privileged position as beings divinely endowed with souls. Society responded by veering to the opposite extreme of humanism, defending the belief that there is something unique about humans—be that our capacity for language, imagination, self-consciousness, “rational” thinking, or something else.

This tension between materialism and humanism, and between the physical and mental (which many consider to be separate realms of existence, mysteriously connected, following in the dualist tradition of Descartes), has created a schism in our lives. Nowhere is this more evident than within the psychiatric sphere.

Bodily illness is easy enough to define—diseases like cancer or COVID can be detected and treated with the right medical instruments—but the concept of “mental illness” is notoriously elusive. We cannot directly point at depression or anxiety, in the same way that we can point at a virus or bacterial infection. After all, what does it mean to be mentally healthy? We need some fixed reference point for comparison—an accepted standard of “normal” mental functioning, or “neurotypicality.” The problem is that there is no such thing. What is normal?

Neuroscientists certainly don’t have the answer. Brains are just as varied in structure as bodies—even if we could find the average patterns of neural firing for one person during one activity, they would contrast significantly from the next person on the street, not to mention between cultures with different norms. Even for one individual, brain activity looks completely different across moods, and in different phases of the sleep-wake cycle.

Every person has a unique history of past experiences, which have shaped all the little habits out of which our identities are constructed. We have all learned different ways of reacting to similar and novel situations. Of course, we are constantly being influenced by the people around us—but how can one standard of “mental health” fit all?

This creates a challenge when it comes to defining “mental illness”—or “neurodivergence” to use a more inclusive and non-pathologising, but similarly problematic, phrase. In the same way that there is no such thing as a “typical” organism—only biodiversity—there is equally no “typical” human brain or mind. We will always find tremendous variation, or neurodiversity (note the difference here from “neurodivergence,” which implies a reference point of “neurotypicality” for comparison). We are all weird, deep down—try as we might to hide this fact.

Ever since the Industrial Revolution and the standardisation of production processes, the same approach has been applied to human workers. In a capitalist society, we have to learn to advertise our skills to employers in job applications and interviews—creating a “marketable self” with selling points, as if we too are products on the factory line. But there are always those who do not fit the mould. People who dare not to conform, refusing to change themselves to fit into these universalised standards—and those labelled with “mental health problems,” who have no choice but to be marginalised from society. Across the globe, there is a growing population of so-called “NEETs” (standing for people “not in education, employment, or training”), incapable of getting their feet on the job ladder. Many of these people fall through the cracks, choosing to isolate themselves, rather than participate in a society they consider broken. They may feel they can never match social expectations, so decide instead to drop out of the system altogether.

A large part of the problem, as it so often does, comes down to language, and in particular, the labels we choose. Psychiatry has been built on the “mental illness” model, tending to pathologise issues wherever possible, labelling people with terms like “major depressive disorder” (MDD), “generalised anxiety disorder” (GAD), “social anxiety disorder” (SAD), “attention deficit hyperactivity disorder” (ADHD) or “autism spectrum disorder” (ASD), not to mention all the vague “personality disorders.”

The most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, DSM-5, contains descriptions for over 150 “mental health disorders.” Maybe this is overkill… Don’t we all have our tics and quirks? Don’t we all have depressive moods and anxiety-triggers? How do we draw the line for what is “disordered” when we are yet to define “ordered” mental activity?

We need to recognise that conditions like anxiety, depression, autism, and schizophrenia are ultimately sociocultural issues, emerging from our political, economic, and social structures. They cannot be reduced to brain dysfunction within any individual—the story is far more complicated than that. It may well be impossible to give up on using labels entirely—we need some conceptual boxes to identify issues which are causing suffering to individuals, but perhaps these boxes could be broadened to be more inclusive and less constraining, if we change the way we collectively think about “mental health” and “mental illness.”

Anyone can read the DSM and match themselves to the criteria for some disorder or another. Probably several. Labelling our issues is meant to help us to receive the proper therapeutic support or psychopharmacological treatment, to alleviate suffering—but in many cases, it can have the opposite, detrimental effect on our wellbeing. By consistently believing there is something objectively “wrong” with us—that we are mentally damaged in some way—this can worsen the issue at hand, creating self-sustaining feedback loops of negative emotions and moods, which can be hard to escape. We may feel unable to heal ourselves.

So how can we break the loop? How can we let go of unhealthy patterns and habits that are holding us back? There is a growing body of research on the use of psychedelic substances for the treatment of conditions like depression and PTSD as an alternative to traditional pharmaceutical treatments like antidepressants. A number of studies have suggested that these mind-altering chemicals, which bind to serotonin receptors in the brain, can modify neural firing patterns such that global connectivity is increased, according to the entropic brain hypothesis. New connections may be formed between distant regions of the brain, sparking creative thoughts and ideas, and offering us new perspectives on ourselves, our relationships in life, and our relationship to nature as a whole. Meanwhile, well-trodden local pathways tend to become less active during a psychedelic experience—in particular, the “default mode network,” associated with mind-wandering, self-reflection, and ruminative thoughts, is dialled down. In contrast, this network is highly active in depression and anxiety.

That said, it is dangerous to think of these chemicals as some kind of “miracle cure” to our problems as individuals and as a society. After all, utopia, literally meaning “no place,” is by definition unattainable—we can only come asymptotically closer, but never quite reach this state, except in our imagination. In order to tackle the ecological and psychological crises facing our civilisation, not only do we need to make high-level changes to our social, political, and educational systems, but also smaller changes to the little habits that make up our identities—since every choice we make has ripple effects on our environment and those around us.

Psychedelic experiences can help us to notice some of the unhelpful patterns in our thinking, and our interactions with the world, but it is crucial that we then make concerted efforts to integrate these insights into our everyday lives and routines—or it is all too easy to slip back into our old ways.

Moreover, when it comes to the field of psychedelic research, we need to acknowledge the biases of the scientists designing and carrying out these studies, which are mostly funded by pharmaceutical companies with vested interests in the legalisation of psychedelics. Science and politics are always intertwined, and researchers are never entirely objective—they are only human, not robots. If we design a study with our preconceived ideas and conclusions already in mind, we will be inclined to find the kind of results we are looking for, to support those foregone conclusions. In doing so, we may ignore significant limitations of our methodology and findings.

In this case, researchers have paid little attention to the potential risks and side-effects of psychedelic usage, which have not yet been fully explored. For example, there have been widespread reports of “HPPD” (hallucinogen persisting perception disorder). This is a little-known condition characterised by long-term changes to our sensory experience, including effects like “visual snow,” which may interfere with our daily activities, causing distress.

As useful and transformative as psychedelic substances may be as catalysts for healing, personal development, and societal change, as well as entheogenic tools for spiritual, artistic, and philosophical exploration, their effects can be unpredictable, varying drastically from one individual to the next—they are certainly not for everyone, and on the contrary, may pose a considerable risk to some, especially those predisposed to conditions like schizophrenia. However, there are other methods to break rigid habits that keep us trapped in anxious and depressive thought-loops, which may be more effective in the long-run.

For example, by engaging in any activities in which we are fully immersed in our body and the present moment—including meditation exercises, mindful walks in “nature,” or any kind of artistic and musical activities. During these activities, we can forget or lose ourselves in the flow of sensation, movement, and creativity—with practice, becoming increasingly attuned with our environment in these specific contexts, as they become familiar and comfortable. We can learn to ground ourselves in the flux of experience, to avoid getting caught up in anxious or depressive thoughts, and dragged into cycles of unhelpful rumination.

All these activities have something in common—they have the power to dissolve the boundaries between us. They can help us to reconnect with each other and our shared world, and to realise the underlying unity beneath the apparent diversity of life. Think about a concert, where the entire crowd is moving and singing in perfect synchrony—in these beautiful moments of shared experience, our vastly different life journeys, cultural backgrounds, and states of mind and health are all forgotten. It doesn’t matter if at other times, we consider ourselves to be depressed, anxious, autistic, or anything else—for that brief time, we are all simply human beings, bound together by invisible threads of rhythm and emotion. As we are drawn deeper into the moment, the sense of separation between our bodies and identities breaks down, offering a glimpse of something greater—a bigger picture, beyond our everyday thoughts and worries.

Such experiences are revealing of the divisions we have created, between “humanity” and “nature,” and between the “normal” and “abnormal.” If we could be just as inclusive and accepting of differences, across all the other dimensions of our lives, then maybe the challenges our society is facing would not seem so insurmountable. If we can work together and embrace the diversity of human skillsets, rather than pushing towards uniformity—and by sharing a sense of responsibility towards each other, our environment, and life as a whole—perhaps we could tackle both crises, ecological and psychological, at once.

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Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.

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