Liberty and the 'Low Serotonin Society'
Oliver James is a psychologist, writer and television documentary producer,
a regular commentator in the media and writer of a health column for The
Observer. His books include: 'They F*** You Up: How to Survive Family
Life', and 'Britain on the Couch: Why We're Unhappier Compared with 1950,
Despite Being Richer - A Treatment for the Low Serotonin Society'.
spoke to him about
the current state of British mental health.
For the layperson, how would you begin by
defining the attributes of mental health?
Unfortunately the interesting thing about mental health is that it's hardly
been studied at all and it's largely defined as the absence of mental
illness. However, we could use what Freud said was to be 'not unhappy'
and to be satisfied in love and work. More complex would be the notion
of intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivation - so people who decide where
to live, their friends, what job they do tend to be happier than people
pursuing power, status and wealth. People also tend to be happier who
are involved in their communities…but I'd rather talk about emotional
maturity, which you can have at any age - two aspects from that would
be 'playfulness' or vitality, and secondly 'volition'.
Is there a link between a person's well being
and the society around them?
The World Health Organisation study of fourteen different nations' health
said that Americans were six times more likely to have a mental illness
than people in Shanghai or Nigeria, and Europeans were three times less
likely than Americans to suffer. We fall under the Anglo Saxon model -
proof that the American capitalist system is bad for your health, down
to and including schizophrenia. If you become schizophrenic in a little
village - a pre-industrial village in Nepal - you will recover much quicker
than if you become schizophrenic say on the Wirral. Socio-economics also
affect people's well being; a study of eighteen thousand civil servants
showed that the higher up in the civil service you were the less stress
you had, due to having more autonomy.
What reasons might you give for some of the
widespread social breakdown witnessed in British cities such as Liverpool?
I think that violence comes largely from being young, male, and from a
low income family. The fundamental problem is definitely the social equity,
a collapse of authority, and much as I hate Mrs Thatcher, I think you
have to accept that some degree of governmental authority has to be established.
That said you have to be careful as Liverpool has a very particular culture.
Like Scotland and Newcastle, Liverpool has been largely untouched by what
Thatcher was advocating and is disgusted by Blair and Thatcher before
him, it's…different…if you go to…let's say Swindon,
where people are dancing to a different tune.
In a working class city such as Liverpool,
an elder generation may hark back to a golden age when one could leave
one's door open, and the proverbial 'bowl of sugar' was on offer. If this
is a valid collective memory, how has this been lost?
I think it is valid and all around the world you hear the same stories.
The way it's been lost is the awful effect of technology being used for
profit - for a small capitalist elite - rather than for people's well
being. At its simplest, people have had their expectations greatly increased…to
feel good through consumption. People have come to believe that if you
could be as rich as Steven Gerrard you will be happy - but of course you
won't. Since the 1950s we've been told we can achieve anything we want
even if we are poor, so poor people become more likely to steal.
We live in an increasingly regulated society,
could you make a connection between this 'over-regulation' of human beings
and a lack of personal well being?
Yes this is a good point, most people in the Anglo Saxon world are extrinsic,
that is to say they have an externally regulated way of being. First at
school, then at work which leads to all kinds of problems - as opposed
to what I've called an intrinsic, self-regulated way of being, of 'seeing
how it goes' - a childlike way rather than a 'childish' way, which is
selfish. Deprived people very easily become extrinsic for power status
and wealth - fucking over other people because you've been fucked up yourself.
But look at a child who's been reasonably brought up and you will see
the beauty of what a human being is before the education system gets its
hands on them - where they are taught to judge themselves in relation
to others. Prior to that they think they are good at what they are doing,
which is essentially 'playing'.
What does one do to prevent this schooling
The fundamental point of the education system is to make good little consumers
and good little producers. The key thing is to keep them as far away from
schools for as long as possible, teach them to read and write at home,
which they'll do anyway if you've got a good relationship and okay from
then onwards they've got to learn some level of cooperation to get on,
which all social systems require.
How do people's physical and mental conditions
correlate? I'm thinking of obesity for example.
More people are fussed now about their appearance, with women made to
feel shit about how attractive they are by seeing beautiful models everywhere.
Obesity is just one aspect to a wider malaise of an extrinsic society,
with all kinds of compulsiveness - drugs, alcohol, work - all classic
means by which people deal with depression which is understandable. There's
no actual difference between legal and illegal behaviour - if you get
addicted to heroin it is bad but if you are like Tony Blair and you are
addicted to work that's okay then. But it's all the same thing. I think
the compulsiveness is above all to do with the consumer society.
To turn to what is probably to most people
the most sickening behaviour on display in society - that of sexual abuse
- whether of children or in rape cases to name but two. Is this the product
of a sick uncaring society itself, or can society say 'it's the individual
who is sick, society's fine'?
Mrs Thatcher said the criminal and only the criminal is responsible for
his crime - a study of the prison population…found that three quarters
of that population had two or more personality disorders, which proves
beyond a shadow of a doubt that people who commit crimes need help. Whether
sexual abuse rates have gone up I don't know but it's a hell of a lot
easier to, say, rape a woman than it was in 1950. We live in a much more
atomised society now. As for child sex abuse - it's the last taboo - which
has been going on for time immemorial. The fact is that children have
sexuality and men find nubile women very attractive. Which is why you
have a twenty year old on the pages of The Sun and if she was closer to
fifteen that would sell more papers. 'The history of childhood is a nightmare
from which we are only just emerging' to quote just one book on the subject.
It may not have been the case in the hunter-gatherer pre-Neolithic tribes
but ever since settled agriculture in 10,000 BC you have pretty nasty
behaviour towards children.
So what about individual responsibility?
I've interviewed quite a few paedophiles and what one finds without exception
is that they have been abused themselves and one needs to differentiate
between the 'fixated paedophile' who will go through three hundred to
four hundred victims, from the paedophile who might no longer get sex
from his wife and turns to his children. But either way they've been abused
- it would be less likely to happen though if we lived in more communal
Finally is it worth asking for your views
on a 'utopian' vision of our collective mental health well being?
Yes I think it's worth asking! Although I'm not a social administrator,
I would say create a society that is truly egalitarian in terms of income
distribution - that in itself is important - but then use the money the
state accrues for parents to properly look after their children and bring