Life, 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'.
Julian Bond 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 effect?
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 societies.

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 them up.

Printer friendly page