Combating a Toxic Culture in Edmonton: Some Thoughts on Dr. Gabor Mate’s Wisdom

This past Saturday, I had the opportunity to introduce Dr. Gabor Maté. Dr. Maté was in Edmonton to speak as part of the Edmonton Public Library’s Forward Thinking Speaker Series. As I had mentioned in my opening speech, I was a little star struck. In my world, Dr. Maté is a bit of a rockstar and it was a little surreal to be able to meet and introduce his talk.

Dr. Maté’s rockstar appeal is no joke. He speaks on topics of addiction and mental health with a fierce passion and has fans across the world. There was so much demand to see Dr. Maté that EPL had to create a second session. Both of his talks revolved around “growing Edmonton with compassion and social inclusion”. EPL was bang on with bringing him to Edmonton to speak on that topic, as I believe it is currently quite relevant to what our City is working towards. It is no surprise that EPL chose to bring him, seeing as how they are a significant forward -thinking social institution in our city. We are very fortunate to have them.

Dr. Maté is gifted in being able to communicate and articulately explain complex topics of brain development, addiction and social policy in ways that are accessible by all who listen. His approach is informative and inspiring. I left his talks energized and excited about how to apply his wisdom to the city-building currently happening in Edmonton.

I can’t do Dr. Maté’s talk justice, but will try to distill some of the key points I took away.

Dr. Maté began his talk with an astute observation: The fact that we need to discuss social inclusion as a construct is a direct indication that we are lacking something that should come naturally to us as humans. I’ll get into this more later on in the post…

Dr. Maté is currently writing a book on the topic of “toxic culture’. His premise is that our society is one that is currently functioning in a way that is toxic to our well-being and health (both physically and psychologically). Our increasing emphasis on capitalism and individualism is taking us away from our inherent need to be social creatures. The construct of money and the impact it has on the stress we experience has proved to be detrimental to our mental health. He believes that issues of mental health and addictions we currently struggle with can be directly tied to early childhood experiences – trauma during early childhood can significantly impact the way the brain develops. Early childhood trauma can lead to emotional pain, which often can be temporarily soothed by engaging in addictive behaviours. Dr. Maté defined an addiction as a behaviour that provides temporary relief or feelings of wellness which we choose to do despite potential harmful consequences.  Dr. Maté did not make the distinction between illegal and legal substances (i.e alcohol vs heroine) or moral or immoral behaviours (i.e “sex addictions” vs “a shopping addiction).  His intention with this approach was to elucidate that we are all not that different – some of us are just more fortunate than others in our society, which is reflected in how we cope. This approach creates space for compassion. Instead of damning those who engage in “socially unacceptable” behaviours, perhaps we could empathize with them from a place of understanding.

Dr. Maté spoke of the sad history of residential schools in Canada. He discussed intergenerational trauma and how the horrible things that happened in previous generations have trickled down and directly affect today’s generation. Acknowledging the impact of trauma on brain development, mental health and addictions, we can begin to understand the significant impact the residential school fiasco has had on generations of Aboriginal people. The issue is not as black and white as many people believe it to be – systemic oppression at the hands of our own Government has led to the complex issues faced by Aboriginals in our country. This cannot and should not be under-emphasized.

If we know what type of child-rearing environments can lead to poor brain development, what environments are supportive? Dr. Maté stated that the ideal environment was that of the “hunter-gatherer” or “tribal” environments.  These tribal conditions provided numerous attachment figures for the child’s developing brain to grow healthily. Contrast that to today, where more often than not, women are over-burdened and expected to raise children on their own – often times in stressful environments where basic needs aren’t met. How are we to expect future generations to be psychologically healthy given what we know about early brain development? Dr. Maté made the salient point that the way Aboriginals in Canada lived prior to colonization was the ideal child-rearing environment. The Western world has done its best to eradicate that lifestyle. Despite this, we have strong and proud Aboriginals who are doing their best to preserve their culture. I witnessed this earlier this year when I attended the Truth and Reconcilation Comission. Perhaps in our process of reconciliation, We can be open to learning from First Nations as well. Their wisdom will be very important not only in the necessary process of reconciliation, but also in our attempt to reconstruct our society to be one that is inclusive and compassionate.

For some time, I have felt that topics of neuroscience and mental health can be applied to city building and so I was compelled to ask Dr. Maté what he thought about the impact of built space and city planning on issues of mental health and healing. I told him about Edmonton’s current growth and the emphasis being put on city planning. Dr. Maté encouraged the building of more common spaces. Creating schools where children, parents and teachers socialized together outside of school time. In his talk, Dr. Maté lamented at the impact that a Wal-Mart had on a community. The associating parking lot took people off the streets (where they would typically have a chance to connect with others). Local businesses, which can also function as community gathering places, are forced to close down. The interior of a Wal-Mart itself isn’t conducive to connection. It is a chaotic environment where people barely engage with each other, let alone treat each other with respect. Just look to the sad state of the Black Friday riots where people have often been trampled in pursuit of a discounted x-box.

How can we apply Dr. Maté’s wisdom to Edmonton? For starters, I would like to acknowledge some of the things we are doing well:

  • Farmer’s Markets. I’ve had the chance to attend many of our fantastic markets and find that they are an amazing space to interact with other members of our community.
  • Increased support of local businesses. We are slowly moving away from our reliance on box stores or chain restaurants. The success of shops like Earth’s General Store or restaurants like Tres Carnales indicate where we want to spend our money.
  • Not to draw on an old slogan, but we do festivals well in Edmonton. Festivals are yet another chance to connect with fellow citizens.
  • The Mayor’s Task Force on Poverty Elimination. Mayor Iveson has made it his priority to address poverty and homelessness. His inspiring introductory remarks at Saturday night’s talk confirmed that he is passionate about addressing these issues.
  • Thinking behind developments like the Blatchford development. It is apparent in the plans we’ve seen so far, that community spaces, store-front shops and sustainable transportation are all prioritized.

Dr.  Maté’s suggestions revolved around the idea that we need more points of connection with others. Opportunities for human connection not only helps support the healthy development of young brains –  it has been well documented that connecting with others releases feel-good neurochemicals and impacts the reward circuitry in our brain. Interestingly enough, the neurotransmitters that are released naturally through human connection (dopamine & serotonin) are the same ones that are targeted by common anti-depressants and psychiatric medications.

Moving forward, what else can we do? Can we intelligently build public spaces that promote connection with others? Can we address the marginalization of particular groups that effectively bars them from social participation? Can we be more neighbourly? Can we make an effort to connect with people we don’t typically connect with? How can we actively practice the compassion that Dr. Maté so eloquently described as the compassion of transformation?

Dr. Maté contends that in practicing the compassion of transformation, we see people not as their “bad” behaviours, but rather who they are as a possibility of love, wholeness and health. That the true nature of human beings is not to condemn one another or engage in war, but rather that our true nature is one of connection and belonging. In our journey to see others in this light, he encourages us to reflect on our own darkness and see that we may not be so different from one another.

Aware of this information, I would encourage you to think of how we can shape both our social and physical world in a way that is conducive and supportive of human connection. How can we actively combat the toxic culture that Dr. Maté speaks of? If we choose to acknowledge and incorporate his wisdom, I believe we have a fair shot at deeply addressing issues of mental health, addiction and poverty in our wonderful city.

If you are interested in engaging in discussion that addresses how our city can affect our well-being, I’d encourage you to come out to a free screening of the documentary Human Scale. The Human Scale discusses how the built city influences human health and well-being. Following the screening, we will be hosting a panel where we engage in a more depth discussion. Get your free tickets here: www.makesomethingedmonton.ca/HumanScale

If you’re interested in learning more about Dr. Maté, visit his website: www.drgaborMaté.com

You can find his books at the Edmonton Public Library here

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3 thoughts on “Combating a Toxic Culture in Edmonton: Some Thoughts on Dr. Gabor Mate’s Wisdom

  1. ‘Compassion of Transformation’ is a very powerful concept, the challenge will be in completely embracing it and informing our existence.

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