Why Do People Who Join the Peace Corps Get Depressed?

Disclaimer: I didn’t actually come up with any of these ideas myself. Nor did I even do any research. All of what follows came directly from an interview that Sebastian Junger did with Tim Ferriss on the Tim Ferriss Show. Although you probably don’t recognize the name, you probably know some of Sebastian’s work. He wrote The Perfect Storm and co-directed the widely acclaimed film Restrepo.

Lately he’s been researching tribal societies and conversely, the effect of living a decidedly non-tribal society like our own. His exploration into this topic is what led him to discover that half of all Peace Corps volunteers become depressed after returning home. What follows is an edited version of an email that I sent to my sister, who is joining the Peace Corps after college, and as such the writing has a unique flavor.

The Peace Corps and Depression

So here’s the deal. The Peace Corps doesn’t actually cause depression, it’s our society that causes it. Let me explain.

Sebastian Junger is an expert on tribal ways of living. He’s done a lot of research with Native American tribes, and other small community based systems the world across. One of the things that he noticed is very interesting. Back in the day Native Americans would capture white settlers. They would kill some of them, sure. But others they would welcome into their tribe. And the thing is, when they took someone into their tribe, that person instantly became a fully recognized part of the community. They were treated the exact same as everyone else. No hazing or bullshit.

Naturally, other white settlers would come back and recapture these “hostages”, bringing them back to “civilization”. What they found is that a lot of the people who had lived with the Native Americans liked it a lot more! In fact they would run away from their “valiant” saviors, and go back and join their tribe. There are reasons for this, if you want to learn them you have to check out the podcast.

So fast forward to today.

You’re in the Peace Corp. You go to a small village in Africa. You live in a village of fifty, sixty, seventy people. You live there for two years and get very used to it. It’s how we lived for thousands, tens of thousands, maybe even millions of years. It feels right and natural to live like this, and you develop a strong sense of community. Now you come back home to America. Everyone lives in a large house in their own room. Their are fences between the homes. Their are douche fucks like the Dolces (our evil neighbors) who seem to hate you. Everyone is on a cell phone. Relationships seem superficial. You’re used to living on a village where people can depend on each other, literally, to survive. Now you are meeting people who care about celebrity gossip and maintaining a manicured self image. The lifestyle is inherently solitary and materialism abounds.

You get depressed.

You miss your village, you want to runaway, back to the seemingly displeasing lifestyle, which is actually not that displeasing at all. You have no friends in the USA who you can relate to. Or maybe you do but they’re on the other side of the country, certainly not in our town of 3,000 people.

You feel alone and crummy.

And that’s why 50% of the people who come back from the peace corps get depressed. You learned what it’s like to live in a society where everyone can fully depend on everyone else. All people are close and you know that even the people you don’t like aren’t going to turn you over to the lions. Then there’s America, where people kill their spouses for life insurance money.

Makes you think.

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