Is Loss of Community the #1 Cause of Depression? Sebastian Junger on PTSD

Sebastian Junger takes a big-picture look at depression, PTSD, and the importance of the tribe in his new book.

Sebastian Junger made his journalistic mark infiltrating areas others fear to go. He borrowed the harrowing details of a perfect storm for a creative nonfiction work in 1997. Then his yearlong visit to the Korangal Valley resulted in two documentaries, including the breathtaking Restrepo. Both offer civilians microscopic looks into the confusion and companionship of wartime.


Companionship is the foundation of his new book, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. Junger’s essay-length text originated with a Vanity Fair assignment in which he investigated increasing rates of PTSD in veterans. Given that only 10 percent of American soldiers are involved in actual combat, why are instances of PTSD so much higher? If most vets were not in actual danger but are still suffering, something larger must be at play.

Junger steps back to ask why American society facilitates high rates of suicide, depression, and PTSD, even though this is a country of affluence and wellbeing. What he finds afflicts everyone, veteran or not.

A person living in a modern city or a suburb can, for the first time in history, go through an entire day—or an entire life—mostly encountering complete strangers. They can be surrounded by others and yet feel deeply, dangerously alone.

As his book’s title suggests, lack of tribal identity in an isolating and individualistic culture spurs loneliness and depression. The annual $4 billion compensation disability program for vets almost pales in comparison to the total impact on citizens. Quantifying emotional and mental disorders puts the issue into perspective. In many ways, economics helps to explain the bigger problem.

As Junger writes, skyrocketing income disparity fosters clinical depression. The American divide between rich and poor is an aberration to human societies, a social mismatch disease. Despite advances in medicine, technology, and science, we’re experiencing the highest rates of anxiety, poor health, depression, schizophrenia, and chronic loneliness in history. While poverty might be stressful, Junger writes, it is “much closer to our evolutionary heritage than affluence.”

Yet our relationship to this disparity is also skewed by an emotional, reactive lizard brain network. For example, Junger cites the case of Bowe Bergdahl, a US solider that deserted his post in Afghanistan and was held prisoner by the Taliban for nearly five years. The military and cultural response was seething: how could a man betray fellow soldiers and his country like that? Yet, Junger continues, as quick as we were to judge Bergdahl, our response to banking leaders, which orchestrated much greater social and economic harm, has not nearly been as severe.

The fact that a group of people can cost American society several trillion dollars in losses—roughly one-quarter of that year’s gross domestic product—and not be tried for high crimes shows how completely de-tribalized the country has become.

Junger’s three pillars of self-determination—autonomy, competence, and community—are not supported in a nation that has lost tribalism. Junger recently expanded upon this problem in an exclusive interview with Big Think, conducted at our New York City offices on June 28. In combat, he says,

There are literally no distinctions of race or politics or religion or anything. People in a platoon in combat are valued for how they act, not for their race, their beliefs, whatever it may be. It’s a weird egalitarian utopia in that sense. And they come back to a country which is really at war with itself. I imagine—I’m not a vet so I don’t know firsthand—but I imagine that is incredibly demoralizing.

Given how removed from battle everyday Americans are, concurrently arrogant with uninformed opinions on subjects like war, a toxic buildup of resentment and fear has fomented. Security oddly breeds consternation. Fear and anger are useful tools at the right times, Junger writes. But our dangers are largely imagined, and so, he continues during the interview,

You have political parties, political leaders who are literally accusing each other of being an enemy of the state, of actively trying to harm this country. You have people mocking their own president. You have political leaders who are actually suggesting that certain segments of the American population of U.S. citizens aren’t as legitimate and deserving as other segments. Whatever your political beliefs surely that is an insult to our shared idea of democracy and equality. 

And an insult to the tribe. Historically tribes consisted of between forty to fifty people and up to one hundred and fifty. War might not be an ideal solution for the quest of tribalism, yet it is one that has bonded men and women for eons; returning soldiers miss the fraternity of shared purpose. Junger writes that war also “inspires ancient human virtues of courage, loyalty, and selflessness.”

Fellow war correspondent Chris Hedges notices a similar bonding when he writes, “Tragically war is sometimes the most powerful way in human society to achieve meaning.” The late psychologist James Hillman believed that war “belongs to our souls as an archetypal truth of the cosmos,” that it’s “constancy throughout history and its ubiquity over the globe” hints at our deep need for connection to both nature and others.

All of these authors have differing takes on whether or not war is moral and for what ends it is justified. But they also agree that tribal relationships fostered by platoons add a necessary ingredient to human existence. There’s little coincidence that national rates of depression and suicide drop during wartime, and that the farther away from battle a society is, the more quickly those rates increase.

Humans are social creatures. Anthropological evidence points to working together as the catalyst for our planetary dominance as a species. Void of shared responsibility and direction the startling uptick in depression, anxiety, and violence is given new perspective. The more we’re disconnected from others, the more we lose control of our own faculties. The distance between our ravenous lizard brain and the rational prefrontal cortex grows. A negative feedback loop of individual to culture emerges. We all suffer as a result.

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Image: David Gonzalez / Getty Images

Derek Beres is working on his new book, Whole Motion: Training Your Brain and Body For Optimal Health. He is based in Los Angeles. Stay in touch @derekberes.

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Why Epicurean ideas suit the challenges of modern secular life

Sure, Epicureans focused on seeking pleasure – but they also did so much more.

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Culture & Religion

'The pursuit of Happiness' is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epicurean. He probably found the phrase in John Locke, who, like Thomas Hobbes, David Hume and Adam Smith, had also been influenced by Epicurus.

Nowadays, educated English-speaking urbanites might call you an epicure if you complain to a waiter about over-salted soup, and stoical if you don't. In the popular mind, an epicure fine-tunes pleasure, consuming beautifully, while a stoic lives a life of virtue, pleasure sublimated for good. But this doesn't do justice to Epicurus, who came closest of all the ancient philosophers to understanding the challenges of modern secular life.

Epicureanism competed with Stoicism to dominate Greek and Roman culture. Born in 341 BCE, only six years after Plato's death, Epicurus came of age at a good time to achieve influence. He was 18 when Alexander the Great died at the tail end of classical Greece – identified through its collection of independent city-states – and the emergence of the dynastic rule that spread across the Persian Empire. Zeno, who founded Stoicism in Cyprus and later taught it in Athens, lived during the same period. Later, the Roman Stoic Seneca both critiqued Epicurus and quoted him favourably.

Today, these two great contesting philosophies of ancient times have been reduced to attitudes about comfort and pleasure – will you send back the soup or not? That very misunderstanding tells me that Epicurean ideas won, hands down, though bowdlerised, without the full logic of the philosophy. Epicureans were concerned with how people felt. The Stoics focused on a hierarchy of value. If the Stoics had won, stoical would now mean noble and an epicure would be trivial.

Epicureans did focus on seeking pleasure – but they did so much more. They talked as much about reducing pain – and even more about being rational. They were interested in intelligent living, an idea that has evolved in our day to mean knowledgeable consumption. But equating knowing what will make you happiest with knowing the best wine means Epicurus is misunderstood.

The rationality he wedded to democracy relied on science. We now know Epicurus mainly through a poem, De rerum natura, or 'On the Nature of Things', a 7,400 line exposition by the Roman philosopher Lucretius, who lived c250 years after Epicurus. The poem was circulated only among a small number of people of letters until it was said to be rediscovered in the 15th century, when it radically challenged Christianity.

Its principles read as astonishingly modern, down to the physics. In six books, Lucretius states that everything is made of invisible particles, space and time are infinite, nature is an endless experiment, human society began as a battle to survive, there is no afterlife, religions are cruel delusions, and the universe has no clear purpose. The world is material – with a smidgen of free will. How should we live? Rationally, by dropping illusion. False ideas largely make us unhappy. If we minimise the pain they cause, we maximise our pleasure.

Secular moderns are so Epicurean that we might not hear this thunderclap. He didn't stress perfectionism or fine discriminations in pleasure – sending back the soup. He understood what the Buddhists call samsara, the suffering of endless craving. Pleasures are poisoned when we require that they do not end. So, for example, it is natural to enjoy sex, but sex will make you unhappy if you hope to possess your lover for all time.

Epicurus also seems uncannily modern in his attitude to parenting. Children are likely to bring at least as much pain as pleasure, he noted, so you might want to skip it. Modern couples who choose to be 'child-free' fit within the largely Epicurean culture we have today. Does it make sense to tell people to pursue their happiness and then expect them to take on decades of responsibility for other humans? Well, maybe, if you seek meaning. Our idea of meaning is something like the virtue embraced by the Stoics, who claimed it would bring you happiness.

Both the Stoics and the Epicureans understood that some good things are better than others. Thus you necessarily run into choices, and the need to forgo one good to protect or gain another. When you make those choices wisely, you'll be happier. But the Stoics think you'll be acting in line with a grand plan by a just grand designer, and the Epicureans don't.

As secular moderns, we pursue short-term happiness and achieve deeper pleasure in work well done. We seek the esteem of peers. It all makes sense in the light of science, which has documented that happiness for most of us arises from social ties – not the perfect rose garden or a closet of haute couture. Epicurus would not only appreciate the science, but was a big fan of friendship.

The Stoics and Epicureans diverge when it comes to politics. Epicurus thought politics brought only frustration. The Stoics believed that you should engage in politics as virtuously as you can. Here in the US where I live, half the country refrains from voting in non-presidential years, which seems Epicurean at heart.

Yet Epicurus was a democrat. In a garden on the outskirts of Athens, he set up a school scandalously open to women and slaves – a practice that his contemporaries saw as proof of his depravity. When Jefferson advocated education for American slaves, he might have had Epicurus in mind.

I imagine Epicurus would see far more consumption than necessary in my own American life and too little self-discipline. Above all, he wanted us to take responsibility for our choices. Here he is in his Letter to Menoeceus:

For it is not drinking bouts and continuous partying and enjoying boys and women, or consuming fish and the other dainties of an extravagant table, which produce the pleasant life, but sober calculation which searches out the reasons for every choice and avoidance and drives out the opinions which are the source of the greatest turmoil for men's souls.

Do you see the 'pursuit of happiness' as a tough research project and kick yourself when you're glum? You're Epicurean. We think of the Stoics as tougher, but they provided the comfort of faith. Accept your fate, they said. Epicurus said: It's a mess. Be smarter than the rest of them. How modern can you get?Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons. Read the original article.


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