This is the time of year for joy and giving. We wish for good news, and goodwill towards everyone. Bells are ringing, the scent of fresh evergreens tickles our senses, and beautiful bright lights abound. Unfortunately, over the past couple of weeks there has been a topic front and center in local and international news that is not what we want to hear during the jolly season. The reality is that for many people, holidays are often the hardest time of year.
Close to home, there have been some disconcerting mental health “incidents” at our local library. It is the lead headline on the front page of the small but colourful newspaper that services our utopian island community of about 10,000 permanent residents.
And recently our hospital foundation’s report shared information from a 2010 health review about the high incidence of depression amongst the population, stating “residents know that there are many people on Salt Spring Island who are coping with mental health issues. Because the island has a reputation as a peaceful, tolerant and supportive community, mentally ill people may come to Salt Spring looking for refuge, a slower pace of life, and a ‘healing’ atmosphere.”
This is a bastion of healthy living, peace, quiet, and beauty, where people have come to seek solace and a reprieve from a stressful lifestyle. They are looking for the connection to nature that is so healing, but unfortunately being such a small, low-key community, we do not have the infrastructure to provide enough of the necessary services to all of those in need. It is somewhat of a quandary. It seems as though the issues people arrive with have been fueled, at least in part, by life in big, crowded cities that run on the high-octane environment today’s society demands. It would be wonderful if they could be helped simply by proximity. Yet it is much more complex than a change of environment, as our microcosm illustrates rather well.
The numbers of those with mental health challenges are on the rise exponentially, especially amongst youth. Why?
Depression and anxiety are affecting more young people than ever before. According to a study published today by the Office for National Statistics, one in five 16- to 24-year-olds are suffering psychological problems, which is almost the rate at which these are seen in early middle age, the life-stage usually most associated with mental health issues.
Areas of concern for young people stretch from relationships with parents, friends, colleagues or fellow students, to worries about appearance and fitting in. Young women were more likely than young men to be showing signs of distress, with a report earlier this week claiming that one in five teenage girls are opting out of classroom discussions and even playing truant because they hate the way they look.
How could a lifestyle with horses possibly solve some of these problems? What kind of miracles could horses work where human intervention is often less than successful?
There might be some clues in the information that has been garnered from studies done on tribal communities where clinical depression is virtually unknown.
In a recent Ted Talk, “Depression is a Disease of Civilization.” professor Stephen Ilardi advances the thesis that depression is a disease of our modern lifestyle. As an example, Ilardi compares our modern culture to the Kaluli people — an indigenous tribe that lives in the highlands of New Guinea. When an anthropologist interviewed over 2,000 Kaluli, he found that only one person exhibited the symptoms of clinical depression, despite the fact the Kaluli are plagued by high rates of infant mortality, parasitic infection, and violent death. Yet, despite their harsh lives, the Kaluli do not experience depression as we know it.
Ilardi believes this is due to the fact that the human genome of the Kaluli (as well as all humans) is well adapted to the agrarian, hunter/ gatherer lifestyle which shaped 99% of people who came before us. Then two hundred years ago, we saw the advent of the modern western-industrialized culture, which created a “radical, environmental mutation” that has led a mismatch between our genes/brains/bodies and modern culture. As Ilardi concludes, “We were never designed for the sedentary, indoor, socially isolated, fast-food laden, sleep-deprived, frenzied pace of modern life.”
I look at the stories and videos of little girls and ponies recently posted online and wonder how many women are like myself, longing for those days of innocence when all that mattered was that we wanted a horse so badly we would have done anything to have one of our own. We read books, drew pictures, dragged our moms to the ponies in the park and could hardly believe it when the day finally came that we were a horse “owner.” To be dressed in riding clothes, covered in horsehair, hay and dirt, was a sure sign confirming our passion and connection to horses. We loved the smell, our own scruffy ponytails sticking out of a helmet and the sweet, milky “goober” that the wind caught from our salivating horses and sent flying as we cantered over our first jumps. We had no time to be absorbed in hating ourselves, or how we looked, because all of our time and attention went to the horses. Oh sure, boys eventually tried to capture our hearts, but they had to know that “horse time” was first and foremost.
We learned the ups and downs of life, the trials and tribulations of having animals that can suffer just as people do. They are born, they are happy, sad, hurt, and they die one day. Yes, we learned all about life, through our first horses. We were not sedentary, kept indoors, sitting all day long, eating fast food (well, quite a few quickly prepared peanut-butter sandwiches perhaps), or socially isolated. Usually by the end of a long day in the barn, we were ready for a good meal and definitely a great night’s sleep. In other words, all of the qualities that were found to prevent depression in the tribal peoples, we experienced with our horses.
Unfortunately, horse time these days is often mixed with texting, and too much social media interaction, which is one of the first suggestions to limit in regards to lessening the potential for anxiety and depression.
This is where those of us who can still remember “the good old days” of our glorious interactions with horses and horsey-friends could step in and mentor young ladies and men, helping them create a state of grace, compassion for themselves and others, and acknowledgement of their own capabilities for helping maintain good mental health.
As we celebrate and honor our traditions in the coming weeks, let us remember that for every young face that lights up at the sight of a new pony in the barn, there is someone facing the sadness of ill health, the passing of an old horse, a friend or family member, memories of tragedy and despair, and possibly dealing with mental health issues themselves. It would be wonderful if we could reconnect over-stressed, hyper-speed human beings with nature and the simplest, most organic lifestyle that we are designed for, and surround everyone with mercy, love and understanding. May we all find our compassionate natures and recognize the suffering of others. May we be of benefit to all other beings, and where we are able, help relieve their suffering.
And in the spirit of the season, it seems appropriate to repost this wonderful set of videos from our publisher’s blog that are sure to make you smile: