Desperately Seeking Intervention

How do you know if the community you live in is healthy? What are the symptoms of societal sickness?

Is civil strife a good indicator?

What about wide-scale despair or a prevalent lack of hope for the future?

In 2003, I spent some time in Cambodia. I crossed the border at Poi Pet and traveled up the main, red dirt highway to Siem Reap to visit Angkor Wat. It was one of the most uncomfortable journeys of my life.

I sat in the back seat of a cramped sedan and stared out the side windows. Every few hundred meters or so, on either side of the car, I saw warning signs indicating land mines. The hazard was communicated by a skull and crossbones symbol, and we passed hundreds if not thousands.

Cambodia is still dotted with six million land mines, remnants of the Vietnam War and the perilous reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. The red dirt highway was relatively safe, and the communities that lie along it could be navigated by established paths, cleared by trial and error. But if you left the established paths, you took your life (and limbs) in your own hands. One in every 200 Cambodians is an amputee.

The ratio is staggering. And when you roam through local markets or bazaars, it is not uncommon to see begging double and triple amputees, dragging themselves along by their remaining limbs on the grimy pavement between market stalls.

Cambodia is a tragic, unsettling place. And the misfortune there is compounded by abject poverty, desperation and exploitation. It is not a healthy place to live; but neither is my country, though for far different reasons.

According to a recent report published by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, one out of every 300 U.S. adults attempted suicide in the past year. That’s 2700 a day, 100 per hour and almost two per minute. There were almost as many attempted suicides as abortions last year.

The two biggest reasons people attempt suicide are depression and psychosis. There are, of course, folks who harbor a sober, philosophical desire to die, whether to control their own destiny or alleviate suffering, but most are simply depressed or psychotic.

There’s obviously plenty to be depressed or sick about in this country. We’re not healthy. We’re knowingly and willfully self-destructive in terms of our diets, our sedimentary lifestyles and our environment. We’re obsessively fixated on youthfulness and resort to injections and implants and try crèmes and pills to stay looking young—anything to avoid the appearance of wisdom.

We toil away at non-vital vocations that turn us into listless automatons. We’re surrounded by technologies that allow us to communicate with everyone, but we rarely have anything reasonable or meaningful to say. Our nation and our species are going down the proverbial tubes and we have very little idea of what can be done about it.

We’re obviously depressed. But when one in every 300 members of a nation’s citizenry tries to kill themselves in a given year, it’s time to consider whether individual depression isn’t simply a symptom of collective psychosis.

One of the chief symptoms of psychosis is delusion. Victims harbor false beliefs that are persistent and organized and resistant to correction or logic.

Doesn’t that describe us perfectly?

We believe what we want to believe regardless of the facts. We deny evolutionary theory even though our understanding of our own biology is based on it. We deny climate change even though its effects are already changing our existence. We believe that America is a good place to live even though success in our society is based more on ruthlessness than responsibility, and real honesty, in general, is considered naïve. And we insist the United States is still a great nation even though it hasn’t been a positive force in the world for years.

Something is wrong with us.

We are depressed as a nation and psychotic as a people.

As the middle class—the chief bastion of normalcy and, arguably, decency, in our society—is slowly being amputated, our thought processes are confused. As our national glory fades, we talk now, mostly to ourselves. Our behavior is becoming strange and possibly dangerous, but we only absorb and process information that confirms our psychosis.

There needs to be intervention, but we protect our delusions with patriotic fervor. And we guard our dementia as if it were religion.

E.R. Bills of Fort Worth is the author of The 1910 Slocum Massacre: An Act of Genocide in East Texas and Letters from Texas, 2021-2023. Read other articles by E.R..