13462791_s“1 in 10 will suffer from mental illness”

The above was the headline of the November 19, 2011 edition of The Straits Times (Singapore). The article, written by Chang Ai-Lien, senior correspondent, went on to say:

More than one in 10 people in Singapore will be stricken by mental illness in their life time, according to a large, new study here.

Many are likely to face depression, the commonest mental illness here. It is projected to affect 170, 000 adults, with more women affected than men.

Others may be affected by alcohol abuse or obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and anxiety affliction characterised by obsessions, compulsive rituals, as well as intrusive thoughts and impulses.

Not surprisingly, the article went on to talk about plans for treatment.

The information from the study, including treatment gaps, will go towards developing new mental health services and policies, and refining current ones . . . (Professor Chong Siow Ann, quoted in the same article.)

When I read the article, my mind immediately went to a book I often quote in my lectures on friendship. And here is the passage I usually quote.

In 1985, when researchers asked a cross-section of the American people, “How many confidants do you have?” the most common answer was three. In 2004, when researchers asked again, the most common response — made by twenty-five percent of the respondents — was none. One-quarter of these twenty-first century Americans said they had no one at all with whom to talk openly and intimately.

Also published in 2004, a joint study by the World Health Organization and researchers from Harvard University found that almost ten percent of Americans suffer from depression or bipolar disorder. They also found that binge eating and drinking are up, and that our children are medicated for  depression and attention deficit disorder to an alarming degree. (John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick, Loneliness, New York, NY:W.W Norton & Company,2008, 247.)

It would appear that a key contributing factor to mental illness is loneliness. Therefore, while we need to look at better strategies and methods for treating and managing folks with mental illnesses, we should also be looking at ways to prevent or minimise mental illness. A key way to do this is to ensure that people are properly connected socially, which is a cold and technical way of saying that we all need good friends to be healthy. Prevention is better than cure but often more difficult. Financial survival/advancement is the driving ethos in Singaporean society. Friendships are a luxury. Whenever I teach about the importance of friendship, the usual response I get is, “yes we agree, friendships are important but we don’t have the time.” Which means that we will have to make time to deal with mental illness.

The link between social connectedness and mental health is recognised. In his book, The Blue Zones, a book on aging healthily, Dan Buettner quotes Robert Kane, director of the Center on Aging and the Minnesota Geriatric Education Center at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis:

There are some things I’d certainly recommend for what people would call successful aging. One of them is, in fact, to have a sense of social connectedness. Most people enjoy the company of other people, particularly other people who they feel care about them. That seems to give you a sense of well being, whether that raises your endorphin level or lowers your cortisol level. We don’t know why. People have looked for biological markers, and they haven’t been successful at finding them. But something happens that makes life more worthwhile. The days take on more meaning. (Dan Buettner, The Blue Zones, Washington, D.C.: National Geographic, 2008,17)

Sheldon Cohen, quoted by Daniel Goleman, believes that there is scientific evidence for the importance of social connectedness. Cohen maintains that “Roughly eighteen studies show a strong connection between social connectivity and mortality.” (Daniel Goleman, Social Intelligence, New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2006, 247.) All things being equal, you live longer and recover faster from illness, if you are part of a strong social network.

Followers of Jesus Christ should not be surprised to know that we need to be in community to be healthy. God had said clearly that it is not good for us to be alone (Genesis 2:18). And the writer of Ecclesiastes reminds us that two are better than one (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12). I am sure that given enough time we will find conclusive “biological markers” that link wholeness to community. But there is already overwhelming evidence for this linkage in addition to the teachings of Scripture.

Christian communities are therefore well placed to teach and model for society at large, the importance of relationships. The irony is that many churches in Singapore are driven by an activism that leaves little time for relationships. One can only speculate as to how many Christians will also suffer from mental illness. We take nothing away from God’s power to heal but Christian and non-Christian alike will suffer the effects of not living the way God intended. We are long overdue for a major relook at how we do church. The life you save may be your own.