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.

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

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.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source: whrc.org

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source: whrc.org

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source: whrc.org

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

Your genetics influence how resilient you are to the cold

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KIRILL KUDRYAVTSEV/AFP via Getty Images
Surprising Science

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Credit: Pixabay
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