Less of this, more face-to-face contact, nourishes mental health.
Nam Y. Huh / AP
The following is offered in response to recent articles in the Citizen on suicide;I am a psychiatrist at CHEO, and am feeling overwhelmed by an epidemic of children, youth and families struggling with mental health needs.For mental wellness, humans require that their basic needs (food, shelter, medical care etc.) be met, as well as being connected to that which brings a sense of belonging (such as secure attachments to family), meaning, purpose and hope (as per the First Nations Mental Wellness Continuum Framework). It is connection to people that provides your brain with serotonin.The problem with modern society is that it tends to disconnect us from what we need. People struggle to find enough face-to-face time with each other; struggle to feel accepted no matter what; struggle to get enough time in nature; to get sleep and physical activity. Our brains are wired to seek out dopamine and adrenaline. For our young in particular, screens provide a free burst of dopamine – without any effort. Which explains why the average North American teen spends more than seven hours a day in front of a screen, most of this for recreational use such as watching videos, video games and social media. Adults are not immune either: the average North American adult spends more than five hours a day watching TV.People struggle to find enough face-to-face time with each other; struggle to feel accepted no matter what; struggle to get enough time in nature; to get sleep and physical activity.The saddest thing is that those individuals who develop “mental illness” are often simply the “canaries in the mineshaft.” They are the orchids, the sensitive flowers who would thrive if they were only living in a more compassionate and connected society, rather than the disconnected, technology society that we live in now. If I grew up in this day and age, surrounded by zombies glued to their mobile devices, incapable of human interaction, I’d be depressed too.We need government policies, and a grassroots societal movement to restore what nourishes mental health. Parents can try to limit addictive recreational screen time such as video games, but it is hard to send your kids outside to play on an empty street when everyone else’s kids are inside glued to their screens. We need far fewer screens distracting us; we need to get more sleep; we need to put away our devices and spend face-to-face time with the important people in our lives; and we need a compassionate society, so that our children/youth can feel accepted for who they are, with all their faults, because we are all imperfect.We are not alone; technological societies worldwide struggle with this issue. The other week, Prince Harry mentioned that in the same way we have limits on addictive substances such as nicotine and alcohol, we should consider limits on addictive video games. He proposed banning addictive video games.On one hand, this would mean much less business for me. But then, I guess, I’d have more free time not only to catch up on paperwork, but to spend time with my own kids.Ottawa Psychiatrist Michael Cheng works at the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario (CHEO). He is co-founder of www.ementalhealth.ca.