The pill isn't the solution. Social connection is

The importance of tribe

In the past we lived, breathed and operated in a tribe. And that was because we had to. The only way the human species were to survive was if we banded together. In fact, those who left the tribe were often distressed, and for good reason - they were alone, have little or no means of survival, open to predators and about to die soon. A well known proverb sums it well: “It is better for a man not be alone - if he falls, he has someone to lift him up.”

In a previous article I wrote about the rise in loneliness and depression, I discussed the phenomenon of young people moving away from their family or natural tribe to build new lives of their own. I sought for feedback and found a particular comment on the mention of “tribe” interesting. I’ll like to discuss it here. My friend argued against using the word “tribe” because the word suggests conformity which no others could break into. I’d like to suggest the value of a tribe, which I see as a “coming together in mutual support, provision and protection of each other”. What do I mean by this? When we operate in a tribe, we aren’t doing so to be cliquish. We do so for survival. Because no man is an island. No one survives by himself. We need one another in order to survive and thrive meaningfully. And it certainly isn’t cultish in which one member’s opinion is more highly regarded than another’s. A tribe is respectful of every single member and aims to promote the interest of each individual as well as the interest of the collective whole.  

The penguins are small mammals compared to their predators yet they survive as a species because they band together. I remember my visit to Phillip Island in Melbourne, Australia in the winter of 2007. Colonies of penguins were washed up and waddling onto shore and to their nests farther inland, that being the migratory season. There must have been thousands of them. The early birds banded together and come onto shore in large groups - they waddled confidently in the company of their fellow comrades. Later stragglers were more cautious - one or two of them would come onto shore, look around, and noticing that they were one or two, would retreat back into the water till more would surface, and together they emerge from out of the water in a group.

In the savannas of Africa, packs of deer and cattle would behave in like fashion - they move, feed, and migrate in groups, never alone. When a lion attacks and chases down the herd, the herd disperses and run off in different directions so the lion would be hard pressed to pounce onto an entire herd.


Loss of tribe leading to depression and addiction

It is commonly believed among the mental health circle that the 3 main causes of depression are biological, psychological, social. Doctors are typically quick to diagnose a person’s depression as biological and psychological. Now, it’s becoming apparent the culture and practices of present-day society is exacerbating depression.

For many years we shun drug addicts and think they have:

1) a genetic problem (oh, they’re born to parents with drug addiction and they carry genes which are prone to or addicted to drugs), or

2) a psychological problem (oh these people were exposed to drugs in their family from a young age and consequently, are predisposed to drugs themselves in adulthood, or they grew up poor and in squalid conditions where drug use was rampant).

While there are some truths to that, as studies have shown that depression is 40% likely to be caused by genes, it is to be noted that an even higher percentage, i.e. 60% of depression are socially or environmentally-caused. What this means is that people who weren’t born to drug-addicted families, or lived in drug-exposed environment are as likely to get addicted to drugs in the presence of environmental stressors. What are environmental stressors? They include loss of job, family member, love, unmet expectations in life, social isolation.

An interesting study in 1979 by Dr Bruce Alexander from the Simon Fraser University in Canada reveals a fascinating find - what we know about addiction all along is false. His finding suggests that the availability and ease of access to drugs is not a sure indicator of an addict.

Research in the rat park suggests that when presented with only one choice, i.e. drugged water, the rats turned to the drugged water. But when presented with a fantastic rat park which presented a healthy alternative for fun, entertainment, exercise and reproduction with other rats, the rats turned to the rat park and didn’t need or want drugged water.

This study strongly reveals that addiction is not a genetic cause. Addiction is an environmental cause.

Simply put, in the absence of purpose, people despair and turn to anything to numb the pain. In the presence of purpose, people gravitate to a meaningful and productive life over drugs and addiction.

In a recent podcast interview by ultra athlete and vegan wellness enthusiast Rich Roll, Swiss-British journalist and author Johann Hari shared deep insights into the environmental causes of depression permeating our society today.

Britain in the 18th century saw an exodus of people from rural farmlands to cities in the south and north of England for work in the factories. Once proud owners of lands harvesting crops for their families were forced by changes in the law to move in droves into the slums of London, Manchester and Newcastle, live in squalid and overcrowded environment, work long hours in intolerable conditions and earn meagre wages. What follows is a huge outbreak in alcoholism known as the “gin craze”.

Why were people drinking so much? They have lost everything in life that were meaningful to them; they were disoriented in a new place they don’t understand; and they had no control over their circumstances.

At that time, gin was condoned as an evil drug which caused social ills. Now fast forward three centuries later, anyone in Britain over the age of 18 could buy gin, but is there mass alcoholism as there was in the 18th century? Of course, people still consume alcohol now but there is no alcoholic epidemic.

What changed?

What changed is not the availability of the drug (gin, in this case); what changed is the amount of despair and pain in the society. If you want to understand why people are turning to painkillers in such enormous numbers, we have to understand why they are in such pain. We have to stop asking what's wrong with them, and time to start asking what happened to them.

The faculty at Harvard has much easier access to opiate-based painkillers than people in West Virginia who disproportionately don’t have medical insurance and yet West Virginia has a drastically higher level of opiate addiction than the faculty at Harvard. What’s going on? It’s not access to the drug. It’s terrible, deep pain.

We’ve created a culture where, for many people, it’s not bearable to be present in. I’ve known friends and loved ones who turn to cigarettes, weed, and alcohol to numb their despair and sense of loneliness.

Every year we see an increase in depression among teenagers in America and around the world. If depression was something that happens in the brain, caused by chemicals including serotonin and a lack of dopamine, then why is it that higher doses of drugs could not alleviate the situation? Why are people increasingly depressed despite taking medication?

To echo the words of Henry David Thoreau, “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation”, it’s more true now than ever, people are more disconnected from their fellow men. The statistic goes that in the past if you asked people how many close friends you have that you could turn to in a crisis, they’d say five; for a lot of people now, the answer is none.

It’s ironic, given the access to the devices we carry in our pockets which provide us with an elusive and illusory perception of connectivity with another human being. Laid on top of this is a cultural priority that is driving us to distance ourselves further away from each other because the mandate is to succeed, to achieve, to accomplish.

In order to achieve success, we do so at the expense of the tribe. We disconnect ourselves so we could climb up the rungs and ranks. And when we get to the top, we realize there is no one there to share the fruits of our accomplishments with, and certainly no one who understood the pain and agony it took to get there. Because we did so all by ourselves. We have lost sight of what it is that truly makes us human, which is our relationship with each other, our families, our communities.


How can we connect mankind together again?

Johann Hari cited another case which exemplifies the importance of social connection.

In the 1990s, Dr Sam Everington worked in a clinic in a poor section of East London. One of his patients, Lisa Cunningham had been shut away in her home with severe depression and anxiety for seven years. Dr Everington told Lisa, don’t worry I would carry on giving you this antidepressant drug; I’m also gonna prescribe something else. There was an area behind the doctor’s office known as dog shed alley because of how grubby it was. The area was essentially a scrubland. Dr Everington said to Lisa, come and turn up a couple of times a week; I’m gonna come too because I’ve been quite anxious, and with a group of other anxious and depressed people, we’re gonna turn that dog shed alley into something nice. This group decided that they were gonna learn gardening. They started to get their fingers in the soil and learn the rhythm of the seasons. They started to form a tribe, care about each other, solve each other’s problems, notice if one of them didn’t show up and they’d go and check on them. As the garden began to bloom, members of the tribe began to bloom.

Photo by  Nathan Dumlao  on  Unsplash

I used to have a tightly-knit tribe in Singapore, and I miss that tribe. We met 2-3 times a week, ate together, played together, studied the Bible together, strategized events and plowed growth materials together. We spent many hours together weekly.

These days living in San Francisco, it isn’t so. You make new friends, you share the same sentiment that it’s hard to make deep, meaningful friendships in this city, you all agree to change the situation and to keep in touch and hang out. You go home, you send out a text message to grab coffee, lunch or dinner, and… no response. You try again. Silence. These new friends fall off the bandwagon even before it took off. This happens once, twice; more often than you’d like to count. You start to look inward and think, is it me? I’m the common denominator here - am I the reason why I can’t make new friends? What’s even more puzzling is that I’m an extrovert, people seem to enjoy my company when we hang out, and I make the first and subsequent effort to keep in touch. Yet my effort is met with silence. I’m not trying to pursue a relationship here - I’m merely trying to make a friend. What then, is the problem?

Forming a community takes intentional effort. The key word here is effort. People come and go. People engage and then fall of the bandwagon. The glue is consistency. When we create a safe environment where someone could always show up be it rain or shine, good or bad days, we’ve created a safe haven for people’s soul to be nourished and nurtured, to grow and to expand into fully-bloomed gardens.

Friendships, like any romantic relationship, takes work. It takes two to clap. There is a reach out and a reciprocity. One party reaches out, the other party reciprocates. It wouldn’t work with only one side of the equation fulfilled. If I reach out and my effort is not reciprocated, the friendship wouldn’t work; it wouldn’t be established and would soon fizzle off.

I realized I’m not a victim of my circumstances. If live in this city where forming meaningful friendships don’t come easy, I could either take the easy way out and move away, or I could choose the narrow path of digging my heels in and working harder.  

In the absence of immediate families comprising of spouses, partners and children, seek out and form communities whom you could engage with on a weekly basis and pursue similar interest-based activities. Here’s the work I’ve put in and the tribes I’ve build:

I sought out and show up five days a week at various writing groups in San Francisco and Oakland to spend several hours in the morning to write with;

I reach out and meet up with several friends for dinner each week; and

I sought out and meet up with different cycling buddies for bike rides every Saturday.


These meetups do not develop by chance. It takes a conscious and concerted effort to grow and nurture them. I’m aware though, these friends may not stick with me through the ages. As mentioned earlier, people come and go, people engage or they fall off the bandwagon. What matters is that I don’t stop building. Because the day I stop trying is the day I stop believing. And I never want to stop believing in the beauty of humanity and the power of connections.

Angeline TanComment