Back in 1989 we dubbed Adbusters "the journal of the mental environment," and ever since then we've explored this cerebral terrain and tried to give it the respectability and prominence it deserves. We've watched the "battle of the mind" intensify to the point where thousands of commercial messages are discharged into our brains every day. We’ve tracked the rise of addictions, anxieties and mood disorders as they have grown into what some public health officials now describe as an "epidemic" of despair. We've watched the media corporations merge, consolidate and vertically integrate until a handful of them now control roughly half of all the news and entertainment flows around the planet. Throughout this journey, we’ve marveled at human resiliency and wondered just how toxic our mental environment would have to become before some threshold of tolerance was exceeded and people got pissed off and started demanding a cleaner, less cluttered, more democratic mass media?
So far it hasn't happened. Nobody is throwing their TV set out of the window, in hopes it will land on Rupert Murdoch. No anti-trust actions are pending against Viacom, Time Warner or News Corporation. No media reform movement has gelled. The best we activists have been able to muster is a bunch of loose talk about MEDIA DEMOCRACY and the birth of A MENTAL ENVIRONMENTAL MOVEMENT.
But now a number of groundbreaking psychosocial studies are energizing us and giving our movement new urgency. These studies point to a growing toxicity in American culture. They suggest that CULTURAL TOXINS have now reached dangerously high levels, helping to explain the high school shootings, the skyrocketing use of psychoactive drugs, our growing problems with obesity and psychosomatic illness, rage in public places, and the general sense of cynicism and hopelessness that has become the prevailing ethos of our time.
In 1996, social epidemiologist Myrna Weissman at Columbia University, along with a long list of collaborators, reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association that more and more Americans are becoming depressed, they are becoming depressed at a younger age, and the severity and frequency of their depression is rising. People born after 1945 are ten times more likely to experience depression in their lives than people born before. Martin Seligman, University of Pennsylvania psychology professor and former President of the American Psychological Association believes that the United States is now in the throes of an "epidemic" of clinical depression.
Rutgers University public health researcher William Vega followed recent immigrants from Mexico as they tried to integrate into American society. When they first arrived in the US, they were much better adjusted than the Americans they settled among with half the incidence of psychological dysfunction. But as they Americanized, they got sicker and sicker. After 13 years Stateside, their rates of depression, anxiety and drug use had almost doubled (from 18 percent to 32 percent), to the point where they were now on par with the average American's. Mexican men born in the US were five times as likely as recent immigrants to experience a "major depressive episode." Drug misuse among Mexican women born in the US was seven times as high as that of recent immigrants. Other studies have both replicated William Vega's findings and extended them to other ethnic groups. The inevitable conclusion: American culture is highly toxic.
A recent World Health Organization study predicted that if mental dysfunction keeps rising at its current rate, then mental disease will be bigger than heart disease by the year 2020.
These findings are fascinating, alarming, revolutionary. They have the potential to politicize the mental environment the way Rachel Carson's Silent Spring politicized the physical environment 40 years ago. But, for the moment, because these studies point an accusing finger at American culture and suggest that the “American Dream” may be one of the root causes of our mental ill health, they remain on the margins - disputed, denied and ignored.