Loneliness, depression is on the rise. What is the solution?
A baby lives in its mother’s womb for 9 months, feeding from its mother through a tube in the womb. After its birth, the baby continues to latch on, feed off and be cared for by its mother for the next 9-12 months, after which it starts to crawl, speak, walk, and progress to independence. Throughout its life, for at least a fourth of its lifetime from birth to approximately the age of 20 (assuming the average lifespan is 80 years), this human being needs nourishment, love, warmth and connection with its family.
And yet for the next 60 years of his life, he is expected by society to build his own life. Leave the family home, find a life partner, build his own home, career, success, raise children, retire, enjoy his sunset years. Imagine the disconnect, loss and isolation he feels. Yes, he would make new connections, form new beliefs and develop new lifestyles but how could he move far away from the early, impactful, foundational relationships that anchored him in his life?
In this new article I’m writing, I explore the critical issue of what it means to be human and our need for community. It is my belief that it is more important to stay in the tribe in which we grew up in, at the expense of independence, so as to develop a wholesome human being devoid of depression, bipolar and a host of mental illness which we see rising in our society among young people and adults today.
Is my belief accurate? Does lifelong connection to our tribe reduce or eliminate depression or does it not? How much does nature or nurture contribute to depression?
When we move away from our birth family and form our own, can we engage new tribes with shared values that we could proudly belong to and continue to thrive individually and collectively?
How did we move from familism to individualism?
In the past we lived in communities and raise families of our own in a huge and close knit community of support. We were healthy, weren’t we? We didn’t have social illnesses or depression, because we were constantly surrounded by family who noticed everything and made sure we never had to deal with anything unhappy alone. If we didn’t have food, they’d feed us. If we struggle to keep warm, they’d sew for us.
Yes, we might not have learned to be independent, but to what extent did we lack independence? And what good is independence in today’s modern society where American young adults are expected to move out of their parents home between the ages of 18 and 21, failing which they are deemed as freeloaders, I mean what good is independence if it breeds a rise in depression among young people today?
What I fail to understand is, why can’t we live together in the same village? Spouses, children, parents, best friends, friends. Why do we each need to build our own little nucleuses and expect to grow, multiply and thrive in isolation?
Isolation breeds confusion and lost identity. Constant connection with your tribe affirms your identity and that you are loved no matter what.
Andrew Solomon, a renowned author on the topic of depression as he speaks from his personal excruciating experience and a regular contributor to The New York Times, The New Yorker, struggled with self identity (gay) and acceptance from his mother concerning his sexual identity. He acknowledged his depression hit at a time when he least expected it to, just when his first book was published and he was scheduled for a fully packed book tour, and he had just recovered from a deeply committed but fractured relationship. Depression doesn’t hit when we have less on our plate. Andrew had a busy schedule but his inner feelings debilitated him from executing them. He also had a birthday party planned. He called his friends and father to cancel them. He cried and couldn’t wake up. He’d wake up and throw up. He called his father who invited him to come home so he could be looked after and nursed to health.
A friend of mine, I’ll address him as TT for the sake of anonymity, confessed he often feels depressed. It surprised me to hear that because I understand him to be close to both his dad and mom. Though they live in separate states, he speaks regularly with his parents, and is fully assured that anytime he needs advice and an encouraging word, they’d always be ready to lift his confidence. When pressed why he experiences depression despite being loved the way he is, he explained - when your expectation in life doesn’t align with your reality, you feel a sense of loss and despair.
To cope, he smokes and drinks - he admits that those avenues provide temporary relief from sinking deep into feelings of despair and inadequacy.
Is depression and mental illness nature or nurture?
Research from the National Institute of Mental Health affirms that mental illness isn’t a question of genes versus environment, but a question of how genes interact with present and existing environmental factors.
Studies have shown that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder aren’t caused by one specific gene, but rather, a combination of genes. It is also important to note that genes change after birth, meaning even if a person isn’t born with a particular gene variant, they might still have the genetic cause for a certain mental illness.
Perhaps the most compelling argument for a split between nature versus nurture is the fact that studies done on twins show that although they share the same genes, a diagnosis of a mental illness in one twin doesn’t necessarily mean a diagnosis for the other.
Substance abuse, childhood trauma, losing a child or parent, sexual or physical abuse, living in a dysfunctional home, or living with extreme stress - these are environmental factors that could exacerbate mental illness that may have already been present, or they could mask the illness, making it hard for accurate diagnosis.
There is no clear cut answer to all the maladies we face in this life. Depression isn’t always a genetic problem, neither is it a circumstantial problem. It is neither a choice nor a factor of environment. All of life is made up of little contributing factors; there is no one sole answer.
Over a decade ago, my best friend Grace and I would fantasize of the day when we would live in the same apartment building and right next door to each other; we’d each have our own family and children, we’d cook and share our meals between our families - some days I’ll cook and invite her family over, some days she’d cook and invite my family over, and our children would play together.
However, while this sounds good in theory, in reality, it is much harder to fulfill because our jobs dictate where we live, our preferences dictate the type of neighborhood and home, and most of the time, these factors do not match those of our close friends.
Thus over time, when we morph into adulthood, got married and bore children, we didn’t live out our fantasy of living next door to each other with our respective families and forming our own tribe.
She continues to live in Singapore with her family while my husband and I moved to San Francisco.
Choosing to live close with your selected tribe could be as difficult as choosing to continue to live with your birth family. Differences in views, styles of doing things, and our need to be seen as capable, independent individuals.
If adults are expected to live apart from their birth families, and yet the innate human need for social connection and support persist so strongly throughout our lives, then perhaps this warrants a new form of family, a self-selected family?
Or what if you grew up in a dysfunctional home filled with violence, abuse and trauma and can’t wait to get out of the toxic environment? That being the case you would be anxious to look outside and yonder for a new community of people who could provide us with the safe haven we yearn for and need.
Introducing a new form of family
According to a BBC report, Britain has been dubbed the loneliest country in Europe after research found 83% of 18 to 34-year-olds admit to feeling lonely. Despite being surrounded by people, city dwellers are the least likely to have strong friendships or know their neighbors.
Community living, or co-living presents a solution to a problem I’ve noticed since I was 17 - I couldn’t understand why people would eat by themselves in restaurants - my thought then was, if every single person would start talking and eating with the other single person, then no one would be alone; it would be a large community formed serendipitously.
An article by Gillian Morris, a freelance writer who helped set up a commune in New York City in 2015, have stayed in three others in San Francisco and would like to live in a commune for the rest of her life, seconds and enhances my thought when she wrote,
“I’ve met friends, lovers, and business partners through the commune network, and feel like my life is immeasurably richer for having shared it with a larger community. By pooling resources and sharing chores, I save thousands of hours and dollars a year. In a world where we’re going to continue to have more people and finite resources, we could all afford to get better at sharing.”
What is co-living? Think of it as renting a room in a hostel-like arrangement - for the rent you pay, you get a private room (for sure) and a bathroom (sometimes, sometimes not, depending on the rent you pay), and the rest of the amenities including the kitchen, laundry room, lounge or playroom, fitness centre and swimming pool are shared among the residents. Various events, talks and workshops are organized every other day of the week with speakers and presenters from among the residents or invited guests, and ad-hoc groups are organized by fellow residents which centre around games, personal development and other shared interests.
The rooms are usually small, and for good reason - you are meant to only sleep in your room and spend more time in the common areas - this encourages and fosters social interaction among residents.
Co-living is not for everyone, but it is one solution to the loneliness crisis and rising cost of living, especially for young adults starting out in their career, or people undergoing dramatic changes in their lives - from divorces to moving country - co-living could be a perfect springboard for a complete change of lifestyle.
There are always two sides to a coin. While co-living provide some form of community, not everyone wants to interact - some prefer to keep to themselves. A major downside to co-living is space - the tightness of space takes its toll on some residents after a period of time. On average, people live in communes for about a year before moving out. From this we could say it’s a short term solution to a long term problem of continued isolation and loneliness.
I believe that fundamentally, humans have two needs - a sense of belonging and a space for belonging.
Now, this brings to rise another question: If you have a thriving life centered around work, family and friends, would you need a co-living space to make you feel connected to a community?