New Year's Day and my last On the Couch column - the new improved magazine will take a different form from next week and with some sadness, I bid you adieu.
During two of the three years in which I have been doing this column, I have been writing a book about global Affluenza and the social vaccines that can prevent it, to be published in September.
The Affluenza virus is a set of values which increase our vulnerability to psychological distress: placing a high value on acquiring money and possessions, looking good in the eyes of others and wanting to be famous. Many studies have shown that infection with the virus increases your susceptibility to the commonest mental illnesses: depression, anxiety, substance abuse and personality disorder.
The virus values prevent you from fulfilling fundamental human needs which seem to exist in every society. Whereas you want a better car or greater intelligence or bigger house, you can survive without them; the same is not true of Needs.
The precise content and labelling of such needs is debatable, but four are very commonly identified: security (emotional and material), connectedness to others, authenticity and autonomy, and feeling competent.
Travelling to seven countries around the globe, my main conclusion was that the Americanised, Anglo-Saxon model is peculiarly ill-suited to meeting these needs, because it promotes the virus. Rates of mental illness among Americans are the highest (over one quarter have been ill in the past 12 months, half will do so in their lifetime) but only just higher than in Britain, Australia and Canada.
By contrast, on average, mainland European countries have three times less illness. Within developed nations, there is a clear correlation between high mental-illness rates and high disparities in income distribution - characteristic of Americanised societies. Younger generations are more afflicted than older ones, the young being especially influenced by America's, Affluenza-promoting cultural imperialism.
Around the world, rural communities are less prone to illness than urban ones, nonindustrialised communities less so than industrialised ones.
My explanation (pace Erich Fromm) is that the virus promotes Having over Being and the confusion (through advertising) of wants with needs. Only through getting us to want more and to be someone else can economic growth and the profits of a tiny elite be continuous.
The ecological case against this status quo is well known. My main goal here has been to make the psychological one against it. From the hundreds of emails you sent me, I am glad to know that I am not alone in my views and that, despite living in a crazy society, so many of you are still managing to get on with seeking out what really matters: playful, not partly, living; and being the organ grinder rather than the monkey of your experience.
The mental block
A review (Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry) of the progress of molecular genetics in seeking genes for mental illness by Robert Plomin, the most important single authority, finds very little. While a single gene has been identified as causing 15 per cent of all cases of Alzheimer's, this is the only illness for which a single gene has been identified - there is no fully replicated evidence that schizophrenics, neurotics or depressives have different genes from people without these illnesses, for example.
Plomin declares that it is now widely agreed that single genes, on their own, are unlikely to account for hardly any. Rather, in so far as genes are at all involved, it will be complex clusters of several or many different ones that are entailed. In explaining the longterm goals of all this effort, Plomin offers up the dream of being able to analyse everyone's genes and alter pathological ones. There is also the potential for a drug company's wet dream, in which very specific pills could be given to people with very specific gene combinations.
Implication: the most important contribution of gene research may be to prove conclusively that they play little role in causing the vast majority of mental illness. Studies of changes in rates over time, or between nations, suggest that social processes, especially patterns of childcare, economic models and values, are far more significant.