Thursday, February 11, 2010

Olympics & Psychiatry

The Olympic games cost billions of dollars to prepare for, and to host. Therefore, it has been a subject of controversy, particularly because so many people (both globally, and in the local communities near the Olympic sites) are suffering with homelessness, poverty, lack of opportunities for therapy, education, recreation, healthy community, etc. There is understandable criticism that those billions could have been better spent addressing these serious social problems directly.

A few things in particular bother me about the Olympics: one main corporate sponsor is a soft-drink company; another is a fast food company. These companies, in my opinion, contribute to the health problems of millions of people. It is like having cigarette companies as sponsors. The Olympic torch was preceded by a truck with neon lights and dancers boisterously advertising soft drinks...I think this was contrary to the spirit of the event--certainly in bad taste-- and I hope future Olympic organizers can be more health-conscious in considering whom to allow as corporate sponsors.

Overall, however, my opinion is that the Olympics are very healthy, for the following reasons:

1) In these games we have an opportunity for nations of the world to display a type of excellence, and to come together in serious, spirited, but friendly competition. It is a model of sublimating competitive conflict through sport or play, rather than through war. And it is an opportunity for multicultural celebration, in a setting which encourages sportsmanship, generosity, and hospitality.

2) The ethical problem of spending extravagantly while many do not have basic needs met is a very serious one. Here are a few ideas about this:
-Almost any activity could be considered extravagant spending (in terms of money, time, or attention) : much university education does not address the needs of impoverished, displaced, or other suffering individuals. Much in medicine (e.g. transplantation surgery) could be considered expensive extravagance, benefiting a small number of people while others have inadequate basic health care. A great deal of scientific exploration (e.g. the space program) is very expensive, yet doesn't help directly with poverty or world hunger. Investment of time, attention, or money in the arts (e.g. music, theatre, literature, visual arts) could be considered wasteful, since it does not directly help with poverty or homelessness. People could be directed to stop spending time reading novels, going to plays, going jogging, having pets, etc. because they should better be volunteering to assist with dire social problems.
-Regarding the above examples, I think most would agree that these "extravagant" aspects of human endeavour are is part of human nature to strive for excellence and for new frontiers (whether this be in space travel, advanced surgery, mathematics, theatre, or sports): it is part of healthy civilization that we allow our attention, time, and money to be invested in these activities. It would induce a type of global psychosocial impoverishment to suppress these activities. The development of a culture which is advanced in terms of arts, sciences, and sports, and which shares its advances with other cultures, is healthy. While these activities may not directly help with social problems, they are part of building a healthier society, which in turn can address its social problems with greater ease and morale.

This social issue has a metaphorical parallel, I think, in individual cases of depression, anxiety, or other psychological symptoms: in a depressed or anxious state, a much greater portion of energy may be invested to meet basic needs. Energy itself may be in short supply, and it may require most of this energy just to prepare food, or to make it through the day. It makes sense to budget energy in such a way that few "extravagances" are allowed. Yet, if this budgeting practice persists for years, it may lead to a perpetuation of a grey, depressed status quo. "Extravagance" may be a necessary part of energy budgeting in depressive states--this extravagance might take the form of energy expenditures which may not seem affordable (e.g. exercising, taking up a new activity, involving oneself in a new community, socializing, taking time away from a hard-to-maintain work schedule in order to volunteer, etc.)---and indeed, such extravagances may sometimes not work out (e.g. efforts to socialize may fizzle, the new activity doesn't work out due to depressive fatigue, etc.). But allowing for extravagances is a type of balanced risk that can permit growth from a depressive status quo.

Suppose a room-mate invites a whole bunch of people to your home, for a lavish celebration. Suppose you are very opposed to this event, perhaps in the context of your room-mate not having done his share of chores regularly for the past 4 years (etc.) ...But suppose also that the guests are themselves honorable, noble people who come from many lands, who are polite, respectful, talented, and interesting. Perhaps in this context it is healthier to set aside one's differences, and to welcome the guests with a spirit of hospitality and celebration.

I think it is great to have the Olympics in Vancouver: I wish all the athletes and spectators a happy, healthy, spirited few weeks of enjoying our community, of enjoying vigorous competition and good sportsmanship. Afterwards, I hope that all of us in the community may enjoy the resources constructed for the games, and that special effort may be made to include those in greatest need.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your balanced and thoughtful views.

Rach said...

Garth, have you seen this?

GK said...

Thanks Rach, I had not seen it. Surveys like this are good ways to gather ideas and political motivation, so that beneficial changes may happen in health care.

Anonymous said...

do you mind writing on sociological factors that have to do with mental health, like social class and poverty?

There are different political ideologies but they all seem far from ideal and subject to corruption and gross inequeality, and walking around in Vancouver and seeing all the poverty and drug abuse, specially in Surrey and East Hastings, it makes me wonder if there are things we can do that go beyond individual psychology.

There are people who can afford to spend $10,000 on Olympics events and hotels and others who can't afford the most basic necessities in life, here in Canada, and elsewhere.

It simply does not make sense to me how in Vancouver, where the welfare system provides a very basic financial support, there should be so many homeless and poor. Someobody told me some of these people used to be hospitalized in Riverview but with the budget cuts and all, were referred to community centres which are overwhelmed and malfunction.

I don't know what kind of sociopolitical system is best. All I know is that inequality breeds discontent. Even if the welfare system were to give brand new Kia cars to the poor and the majority drove around in German luxury cars, the inequality would be present and bothersome. In other words, it seems all relative.

And I know that I used to live in a small city, where I was better off than many, and content as a result, which changed significantly, and now I am in the poor class in a large city.

I wonder if a sociopolitical system based on psychological theories is practical. We all have different needs (except the most basic ones).

Even the rich could satisfy their needs for self-esteem, for instance, in a number of different ways. Could we all satisfy our needs in ways that create more equality?

Of course I am relying quite a bit on the authority of psychological view of life, and people have the right to disagree. Some people dislike "therapeutic culture." But I also dislike a system that makes people swallow pills and seek therapy. Why should so many of us need therapy? And I'm not seeing a positive effect as more and more people seem to need therapy and it never ends. Maybe the problem is not our individual psychology but in the sociopolitical and economic systems?

p.s. did not have time to spell check

GK said...

Thanks for the comment.
I think there are layers of health in a society, just as in different parts of an individual body: there could be "extremes" (positive and negative) in the health of different individuals in a society (just as in different organs of the body), but if there is not an overall health possible for all, then the entire society (or body) cannot ever become fully "healthy."

Welfare is necessary to improve basic health, and allow survival, for many. Highly enriched public resources, such as for education, etc., are a longer-term necessity. Yet society could become obtunded by the bureaucracies involved in public welfare. Communist systems in previous eras were highly successful in terms of overall health, in some ways, yet disasterously "depressing" in many others--I think most would agree that the depressive (and oppressive) effects exceeded the benefits.

I think "therapy" of any sort ought not to be the main form of solving any sort of health problem -- the most powerful medicine is always preventative. Therapies are important, but if we merely spend our attention and health expenditure on more therapists and drug research, we may not be attending to the vital political, social, educational, economic, and cultural factors which contribute to most mental health issues.

Coming back to the Olympics, I do believe that there is an understandable outrage at the money spent, etc.--yet I stand by the claim that celebrations of achievement are good for the world, and have a role in sound health policy.

I'd like to comment further on this issue, partly as part of a commentary on two books I've been reading--so I'll try to post something in the next few weeks.