By CAPS Board Member Karen Shragg
Serenity is what we seek and what we crave in a world that seems to move at the speed of light on a merry-go-round of noise and distraction. Our ubiquitous media amplifies the tension we absorb in our bones. Our brains are cluttered with loud pundits, reality shows and the constant reporting of violence which always takes a front row seat during our 24/7 news cycle, as they say, “If it bleeds, it leads.” One must now travel great distances to find places where unplugging from the modern world is even possible.
I have noticed that music soundscape channels and nature videos always chose accompanying visuals of pastoral scenes free of crowds and modern life. In fact, their scenes of mountains, waterfalls and streams are characteristically people free. There is a reason you don’t see heavy traffic and tall buildings in videos where serenity is the intention. Being overcrowded produces tension and creates irritability. Being in nature with few people and lovely breezes with plenty of trees gives us that ‘peaceful easy feeling’ as described by the 70’s band, The Eagles.
More and more psychologists warn us that we need to find a way to cut out the noise of modern-day life. Being in an environment with honking cars, sirens and the general malaise generated by the hustle and bustle of city life is an unhealthy way to live. We need to put ourselves into peaceful landscapes and absorb their quiet energy.
Meanwhile we are doing everything we can to make sure that serenity is inaccessible to most people, by allowing our open spaces, where quiet resides, to be trampled with too many feet.
We promote a not-so-slow creep into these spaces with a more and more rapid pace fueled by growth and its relentless noise. In doing so we drown out the possibility of much needed quiet spaces.
The irony is that if we valued serenity and the wildlife that can more readily live there, we could do something about it. We have a real opportunity to preserve its value and its role in our mental well-being by tackling incessant growth. I used to joke that if everyone had access to a hot tub and a weekly massage that we would have less road rage and conflicts that end with a 911 phone call. But that is not so far from the truth.
Gregory Bratman, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, and colleagues shared evidence that contact with nature is associated with increases in happiness, subjective well-being, positive affect, positive social interactions and a sense of meaning and purpose in life, as well as decreases in mental distress (Science Advances, Vol. 5, No. 7, 2019).
During the height of the Covid pandemic many experts told us to get out into nature and calm our anxiety. I witnessed how neighborhood nature centers became overcrowded with increased demand during that intense time. Serenity is dismantled when too many people are in a space that needs to be appreciated in sparse numbers.
The US Census Bureau recently revealed that 80% of U.S. population growth between 2021 and 2022 was due to net international migration. The Wall Street Journal also reported that this growth from international migration is up about 40% from a decade ago.
The natural world is sacrificed when we think we must accommodate all of the demand to be in our country. Because of our character, and due to those who benefit from the exploitation of newcomers, we can’t seem to find the courage to hang out a no-vacancy sign. This must not be [out of hatred but out of the way we must protect our country’s viability. We hurt the things we value by encouraging more and more people to come here. Ironically the reasons people want to come here are diminished with higher populations. Open space, access to nature, safe uncrowded cities with low homeless populations are all threatened with increased demand.
I have written about the way growth in an already overpopulated U.S. hurts wildlife, but our mental health is also being threatened. By throwing up our hands when the flow of migrants stream across our southern border, we shoehorn more and more of us into a country already too noisy, too crowded and too mentally distraught, making matters so much worse. Mental Health America reports that in 2019-2020, 20.78% of adults were experiencing a mental illness. That is equivalent to over 50 million Americans. Of those millions of Americans, many are not able to afford to seek treatment. According to NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness), there are shortages of mental health professionals in general, and particularly in certain parts of the country. This means that out of network professionals must be utilized which is expensive. In addition, many mental health and substance use providers do not accept insurance because they do not get paid enough by insurance companies for their services.
The National Alliance on Mental Health, a different organization, estimates that untreated mental illness costs the country up to $300 billion every year due to losses in productivity. As many as 90 percent of cases of suicide are attributed to mental illness.
We are making our country sicker not only by underfunding mental illness treatments but by not grasping the concept that growth exacerbates the conditions under which mental illness thrives.
BY refusing to turn off the faucet of growth We set up the conditions under which it is more and more difficult to find inner peace. We must open our eyes to the costs of avoiding the difficult but necessary task of restricting our borders which will result in the much needed limiting of our population growth as fairly as we can.
If we are truly concerned about being fair and moral, we need to consider the conditions that growth is setting up for a continued downward spiral of our country’s mental health. Because when serenity becomes as rare as the animals on the endangered species list, we will not be far behind.