• Photograph by Briarpatch

Gabor Maté Part 1: How Capitalism Makes Us Sick

Recently, Upstream's founder Ryan Meili got the chance to sit down and interview Dr. Gabor Maté about his new writing project and the intersection between health & politics.

Dr. Gabor Maté is the award-winning author of the books When the Body Says NoHold On To Your Kids, and In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts

Can you tell me about your new project?

I’m intending to write a book tentatively called Toxic Culture: How Capitalism Makes us Sick. That’s the working title. My contention is that the very nature of the system in which people live their lives is a significant source of illness. Now there are obvious factors like environmental pollution, toxins, and then of course there are the social determinants of health that you write about in A Healthy Society the impact of poverty, the impact of inequality, the impact of history and continued racism. There’s an article in the Saskatoon Star Phoenix today about sentencing practices in the courts of Saskatchewan. People who are identified as Aboriginal are likely to get double the sentences of people who are not identified as Aboriginal. That’s going to have a health impact.

My contention is that the very nature of the system in which people live their lives is a significant source of illness. 

But I’m going to go beyond even that and say that even the people who are not on the wrong end of economic inequality or systemic racism are still made ill just by how we live our lives. The stress that we live under, the competition, the aggressiveness, the uncertainty, the loss of control that we experience in our lives. The gender inequalities, these are not just social phenomena, they have an actual impact on community health. The isolation people are experiencing.

When you think of the individuals who wind up with a double prison term, obviously that has a great impact on their own health. What’s the impact on their family’s health and the community around them?

Families are further deprived of contact and further broken. Children are further deprived of their parents. There’ve been studies in the U.S. on drug sentencing laws and what the impacts are on the children of the people who are jailed. And of course in the U.S., too, the people who are so called coloured or minority are more likely to be jailed for a longer time. There’s nothing equal about the criminal justice system that way, nor about the impact on families.

On the individual level, you can take monkeys and isolate them and then you measure their dopamine receptors and find they are reduced significantly. In other words there’s less receptor for the motivation and incentive chemicals in their brains. Then you put them back into society, those dopamine receptors can come back, unless they’re bullied and underlings in which case they don’t come back. So, the way we treat people has a physiological impact. When you stick them in jails when you treat them with isolation, when you ostracize them, you are hurting them. And furthermore, who is it that’s jailed? Dr. Bessel van der Kork, a trauma expert at Boston University, has said that 99 per cent of the people in the criminal justice system are traumatized children.

Read the rest of Part 1 in Briarpatch Magazine here.

Read Part 2 of the conversation in Briarpatch Magazine here.

Find out more about Dr. Mate and his work on his website here.

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