Epidemiologists have now homed in on a series of factors that increase the risk of developing schizophrenia, including being migrant, being male, living in an urban environment, and being born poor. One of the more disconcerting findings is that if you have dark skin, your risk of falling victim to schizophrenia increases as your neighborhood whitens. Your level of risk also rises if you were beaten, taunted, bullied, sexually abused, or neglected when you were a child. In fact, how badly a child is treated may predict how severe the case of an adult person with schizophrenia becomes—and particularly, whether the adult hears harsh, hallucinatory voices that comment or command. The psychiatrist Jean-Paul Selten was the first to call this collection of risk factors an experience of “social defeat,” a term commonly used to describe the actual physical besting of one animal by another. Selten argued that the chronic sense of feeling beaten down by other people could activate someone’s underlying genetic vulnerability to schizophrenia.
The pushback is also a return to an older, wiser understanding of mind and body. In his Second Discourse (1754), Jean Jacques Rousseau describes human beings as made up out of each other through their interactions, their shared language, their intense responsiveness. “The social man, always outside of himself, knows only how to live in the opinions of others; and it is, so to speak, from their judgment alone that he draws the sentiment of his own existence.” We are deeply social creatures. Our bodies constrain us, but our social interactions make us who we are. The new more socially complex approach to human suffering simply takes that fact seriously again.
I wouldn’t go so far as Jean Jacques Rousseau in seeing our existence as being rooted in the social, but you get the point. My view is that we can exist quite easily apart from conventional social life — so long as society does not project qualities into us that it wishes to disown about itself.
I would add that the real burden of social engagement occurs when others project their shadow side into you — thus blacks in a white society bear the weight of the evaluation that they are animalistic, whereas women who go against patriarchal mores often have to tolerate the impact of those who continue with conventional views viewing them as ‘hysterical’.