Monday, September 29, 2008

Eco-Anxiety: The Good, the Bad and the Strange

Recent news report featured three mental-health-related developments of note to those of us working with eco-anxiety.

First, an article in the Los Angeles Times claims that a troubled economy can be good for our health. Sounds pretty strange, right? Well, it's a classic case of good news/bad news.

The article is based on the correlation between health trends and economic conditions in 27 countries. The good news in this article is that the general "population's physical well-being improves as just about every measure of economic health dips." The statistics show that as economies worsen, the incidence of traffic accidents, industrial accidents, obesity, alcohol consumption, smoking and even deaths from heart disease, which they correlate to lower pollution levels, all go down.

In other words, due primarily to job loss and inflation, the report explains, people are "smoking, drinking and driving less, reducing their risks of heart disease, liver disease and car crashes."

Is this really good news, or is there more to this picture? You have to wonder if this isn't in indication of how disconnected our society has become when we are in many ways healthier in bad economic times. And perhaps it validates the claims of those who firmly believe that once we get through the difficult transition from an unsustainable way of life we will indeed be better off.

But There's One Notable Exception and Some Doubt

Mental health. Stress goes up and mental health declines in bad economic times. That's bad news. Given the mind/body connection, I have to question the blanket conclusion of this article, which does include reference to the doubts of other researchers such as Ralph Catalano, economist at the School of Public Health of the University of California at Berkeley. He says, "I think the evidence is that the net effect of a bad economy is that health gets worse."

Days later another article in the LA Times would bolster Catalano's assessment. It claims today's anxiety over job security amid the current economic woes have employees wrought with fear, stress, and discomfort which is showing up as more disruptive angry outbursts, frequent absences, financial and personal problems, depression, difficulties at home, and alcoholism and drug abuse. Anxiety over rising gas prices are also cited in particular.

So can we be healthier while griped with fear and stress? A pretty strange conclusion. Certainly both articles suggest that a lot of people will be needing mental health counseling. And on that front this is additional good news.

The U.S. House of Representatives has passed a Mental Health Parity bill requiring health-insurance providers nationwide to cover mental-health treatment on an equal basis with medical care. The Senate also passed similar legislation in a the tax relief bill.

This should be good news, but then some claim this requirement will result in fewer employers providing health coverage, or increasing the portion of insurance paid for by the employee, causing fewer people to be able to afford health coverage. That would be bad news.

It's all pretty strange, but then, Richard Heinberg, author of Peak Everything predict we'll be seeing a lot of "crazy" things as an unsustainable fossil fuel-based economy is forced to powerdown.

(c)Sarah Anne Edwards, 2008
(Distribution for informational purposes only is encouraged.)


  1. Sarah, it also strikes me as strange to think that the illnesses and problems mentioned will show any significant decrease. Many of these are stress-related and seem likely to increase as economic and social troubles are more in everyone's face and individuals look for comfort and some way to feel better.

    Perhaps it will be clearer than it is now to many that the anxiety, depression, etc. that folks suffer are connected with the failing of our life-support systems... in a backhanded way, it maybe a constructive development if people are no longer encouraged to think of these appropriate emotional responses as pathological or personal "weakness." I hope the difference might clear the way for people to focus on the real problems at hand.

  2. I agree, Sally. I think it will become clearer if eco-nomic stressors continue to intensify as predicted. 30 million people died during the collapse of the Soviet Union, many from suicide and alcoholism. I don't believe this wasn't greatly publicized, but from what I've read of it in Orlov's book Reinventing Collapse, it sure doesn't sound that the general population of Russia was healthier as conditions worsened.

    And they had several key circumstances there that actually reduced the kind of stress many could experience here, such as living mostly in public housing so few lost their homes; homes being heated by neighborhood boilers, so few worried about freezing; and their extensive mass transit system continuing to run so getting from place to place was not the concern it would be here.

    The article on the stress people are experiencing in the workplace right now would suggest it's already being recognized to some degree that eco-nomic pressures like job loss and fuel prices are eroding public well-being and that some people are turning to unhealthy behavior as a result.

    So, as society we better not assume health will somehow automatically be getting better as people confront the changes we undergoing. If we do, we can't possibly be prepared to respond appropriately to what very well lies ahead.

    What a positive shift it will be though if we as a society and as friends, family and mental health professionals can begin to focus on the social, economic and ecological causes of stress and illness instead of seeing it as a weakness or flaw in individuals who are suffering from them.
    Thank you for your comments.

  3. This is a nice article. The ongoing economic crisis has caused many difficulties to the people. If the government won't provide solutions, then many are going to suffer. People who are jobless would probably lessen their vices. But if they do have a job, then there is a chance for them to engage in drug or alcohol addiction. The bottom line is that it is still up to the person on how to discipline himself.