On World Mental Health Day, Remember to Put the “Fun” Back in “Dysfunction”

October 10 is “World Mental Health Day.” It’s designed to raise awareness of mental health issues, which are still stigmatized and vastly under-treated in many countries.

Treatment and recognition of mental illness is an issue here as well. Pete Earley’s book, Crazy, chronicles his son’s struggle with mental illness, and how after the deinstitutionalization of the severely and chronically mentally ill, prisons and, secondarily, the ERs, have too often become the front lines for (inadequate) treatment.

Insurance companies often don’t cover the best treatment modalities, so that adds another layer of anguish for patients and their families.

People who have schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression and other mental illnesses continue to struggle for recognition and treatment.

At the same time, in colloquial usage, the scope of what constitutes “dysfunction” or family “craziness” gets wider, more culturally mainstream, and includes ever more life stories. It can seem like the only normal people are acquaintances, and others whom you don’t know well.

“Oh, my family was so dysfunctional,” you hear a lot these days.  

When you probe the comment, the dysfunctional family in question doesn’t sound all that bad, really. Often it sounds like a ragged, run of the mill American family that traveled the characteristically rocky, upwardly mobile path to acquire bourgeois virtues and lifestyles.

Sometimes people call a family dysfunctional if, say, it has an inter-generational legacy of alcoholism, although there is hardly a family in the U.S. that doesn’t have an alcoholic or two lurking about somewhere.

Or, the family’s dysfunctional if the parents were inadequately zealous about “paying attention” to the kids. Revisited and historically revised through the hyper-parenting standards of the 21st century, some adults end up feeling retrospectively neglected by their “self-absorbed” parents who had other lives and didn’t obsess over arts and crafts projects.

Still others pronounce as dysfunctional families where their parents had conflicts with relatives, or where family members, in the quest for mobility, shed their ties to others in the family. Seen in another light, this is often the social price of mobility in the U.S.

As a parent, this casual indictment and denunciation of families as dysfunctional scares the hell out of me.

The bar for what constitutes a functional family has gotten higher. If you like to read memoir—a genre that used to be reserved for men and women of historical significance and consequence, but is now written by younger people who have suffered, hurt, or done nominally peculiar things in life—you might wonder if there are any “functional” families left to be had. Those are unblemished households where no one has an addiction or a vice, or infidelity, or unsightly illness, and they never raise their voice in anger against their children, much less a hand, or have a Bad Parenting Moment that indelibly sears into dysfunction their young child’s soul, and they never park their child in front of a television with Cheet-os. They also have children who don’t have to suffer the indignity of attending their “safety school” for college.

This mainstreaming of dysfunction (even as other mental illnesses go under-treated) has troubling consequences.

I’m always amused as a parent by the almost awed view of childless friends toward what they perceive as the insuperable task of parenthood. “If I were a parent, I wouldn’t bother trying to do anything else,” one commented to me. “I don’t know how it’s possible to do anything and have a child,” another remarks.

Endearingly, these childfree friends stand in humble awe of the undertaking of giving birth, constituting a family, and bringing up baby that is pretty much the basic activity of the human race since its inception.

It begs the question: just how hard do we think it is (or do we make it), to raise children adequately enough to escape the Dysfunctional Family sentence?

In my parents’ generation, you were doing okay if you provided that social trinity of “food, clothing and shelter,” and didn’t beat on or otherwise abuse your kids. The “hierarchy of needs” didn’t include SAT Prep Courses. It didn’t extend to creating a torrent of learning moments, or an emotional vacuum within the home where no negative feelings or anger are revealed in front of the child.

We’ve made a fearful enterprise out of parenthood. The distorted view that, someday, if you’re anything but a cardboard cutout of a parent you’ll end up ominously depicted in a distressed memoir that the insufferable and nepotistic New York Times Book Review will call “fierce” or “piercing” or “fiercely haunting” might be a subtle cultural deterrent to procreation among those ambitious classes that aren’t inclined toward nonchalant attitudes about anything. Childfree couples are on the rise (the birthrate in the U.S. has also declined for four years in a row, owing presumably to the 2008 recession).

So on world mental health day, restore a little fun to your dysfunction.  Are things really that bad? For some, yes. For many, they’re not. It’s all in your head—that is, your perspective on things.

Cut that dysfunctional “family of origin” of yours a break. Look at it as well-intentioned but endearingly flawed; as eccentric, not neurotic; as human, not pathological.

One day, you’ll want your children to do the same for you (or else they might write a memoir on your…dysfunction).

Drill, Baby, Drill: What will we look for when we mine on Mars?

It's unlikely that there's anything on the planet that is worth the cost of shipping it back

Surprising Science
  • In the second season of National Geographic Channel's MARS (premiering tonight, 11/12/18,) privatized miners on the red planet clash with a colony of international scientists
  • Privatized mining on both Mars and the Moon is likely to occur in the next century
  • The cost of returning mined materials from Space to the Earth will probably be too high to create a self-sustaining industry, but the resources may have other uses at their origin points

Want to go to Mars? It will cost you. In 2016, SpaceX founder Elon Musk estimated that manned missions to the planet may cost approximately $10 billion per person. As with any expensive endeavor, it is inevitable that sufficient returns on investment will be needed in order to sustain human presence on Mars. So, what's underneath all that red dust?

Mining Technology reported in 2017 that "there are areas [on Mars], especially large igneous provinces, volcanoes and impact craters that hold significant potential for nickel, copper, iron, titanium, platinum group elements and more."

Were a SpaceX-like company to establish a commercial mining presence on the planet, digging up these materials will be sure to provoke a fraught debate over environmental preservation in space, Martian land rights, and the slew of microbial unknowns which Martian soil may bring.

In National Geographic Channel's genre-bending narrative-docuseries, MARS, (the second season premieres tonight, November 12th, 9 pm ET / 8 pm CT) this dynamic is explored as astronauts from an international scientific coalition go head-to-head with industrial miners looking to exploit the planet's resources.

Given the rate of consumption of minerals on Earth, there is plenty of reason to believe that there will be demand for such an operation.

"Almost all of the easily mined gold, silver, copper, tin, zinc, antimony, and phosphorus we can mine on Earth may be gone within one hundred years" writes Stephen Petranek, author of How We'll Live on Mars, which Nat Geo's MARS is based on. That grim scenario will require either a massive rethinking of how we consume metals on earth, or supplementation from another source.

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, told Petranek that it's unlikely that even if all of Earth's metals were exhausted, it is unlikely that Martian materials could become an economically feasible supplement due to the high cost of fuel required to return the materials to Earth. "Anything transported with atoms would have to be incredibly valuable on a weight basis."

Actually, we've already done some of this kind of resource extraction. During NASA's Apollo missions to the Moon, astronauts used simple steel tools to collect about 842 pounds of moon rocks over six missions. Due to the high cost of those missions, the Moon rocks are now highly valuable on Earth.

Moon rock on display at US Space and Rocket Center, Huntsville, AL (Big Think/Matt Carlstrom)

In 1973, NASA valuated moon rocks at $50,800 per gram –– or over $300,000 today when adjusted for inflation. That figure doesn't reflect the value of the natural resources within the rock, but rather the cost of their extraction.

Assuming that Martian mining would be done with the purpose of bringing materials back to Earth, the cost of any materials mined from Mars would need to include both the cost of the extraction and the value of the materials themselves. Factoring in the price of fuel and the difficulties of returning a Martian lander to Earth, this figure may be entirely cost prohibitive.

What seems more likely, says Musk, is for the Martian resources to stay on the Red Planet to be used for construction and manufacturing within manned colonies, or to be used to support further mining missions of the mineral-rich asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

At the very least, mining on Mars has already produced great entertainment value on Earth: tune into Season 2 of MARS on National Geographic Channel.

Harvard scientists suggest 'Oumuamua is an alien device

It's an asteroid, it's a comet, it's actually a spacecraft?

(ESO/M. Kornmesser)
Surprising Science
  • 'Oumuamua is an oddly shaped, puzzling celestial object because it doesn't act like anything naturally occurring.
  • The issue? The unexpected way it accelerated near the Sun. Is this our first sign of extraterrestrials?
  • It's pronounced: oh MOO-uh MOO-uh.
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Study: The effects of online trolling on authors, publications

A study started out trying to see the effect of sexist attacks on women authors, but it found something deeper.

Surprising Science
  • It's well known that abusive comments online happen to women more than men
  • Such comments caused a "significant effect for the abusive comment on author credibility and intention to seek news from the author and outlet in the future"
  • Some news organizations already heavily moderate or even ban comments entirely; this should underscore that effort
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