There’s a strange, misty-eyed expression that occasionally passes over the face of some of my friends when I tell them I’m looking forward to heading back to the country - where my family has lived, and where my paternal grandmother still stays.
The largeness of the metropolis, specifically cities like Melbourne and Sydney, remain the norm for standards of queer acceptance and connectivity. They’re the centre of all things (allegedly). How could an insufferable inner west rat even survive in the thickets of the outback?
Yet the tight-knit communities, the clear skies, the open space, the occasional solitude of regional life still remain appealing, particularly to those with specific mental health issues. To certain people it might feel isolating - for others, it’s a necessity to be able yourself think and focus without the noise and drama of others threatening to drown you out.
Melbourne and Sydney, remain the norm for standards of queer acceptance. How could an insufferable inner west rat even survive in the thickets of the outback?
Going back home and reconnecting with long-standing family and friends helped contextualise my life, rather than existing within a cyclical bubble of neurosis and careerism of city living.
Even when I moved back to South Australia for a stint for work, I found myself thinking clearer, categorising my thoughts more easily, being more present in my body, without the over-stimulation of advertisements flashing on every train station stop and the consistent traffic and other forms of noise and light pollution.
I remember catching the train in the middle of the night in Tokyo, one of the most visually vibrant cities in the world, during a solo trip in 2014.
Tokyo was a place I’d canonised in my head as a pocketbook utopia (unfortunately a common reflex for sheltered white westerners) but the constant sound, visual stimulation and flashing lights from LED billboards and other stimuli were too overpowering.
I would get home feeling the front of my brain tingling, my whole nervous system alight. Something like this would have never affected me before. I was drained for much of that trip, during what should have been one of the most exciting times of my life. I’d feel similar things on first moving to Sydney.
Tight-knit communities, the clear skies, the open space, the occasional solitude of regional life still remain appealing, particularly to those with specific mental health issues.
Later, I would learn from a trusted therapist that there were reasons why I reacted more immediately to these things than others - sufferers of PTSD can easily overpowered by certain kinds of stimuli. Some practitioners are beginning to experiment with tactics related to exposure therapy, accompanied with lighting and sound in order to treat patients (as part of something called EDMR.)
A friend, Doita, who lives with ADHD, made similar observations: “It takes time for me to process things, and in busy cities stimulation is everywhere and its constant. Smaller, quieter places give me the space and time to figure out what I want to pay attention to or not.”
Conversations around “accessibility” have evolved in recent years thanks to fierce advocacy by disability rights figures, as they agitate for a place in the cultural lexicon. People are more vigilant about the use of strobe, for example. Still, understanding of neuro-diversity should welcome debate around who gets to exist in public space.
There’s a number of arguments against companies profiteering from our shifting attention spans, particularly only social media, but still little about how they make public life inaccessible or even triggering for a great number of mental illness sufferers. What prohibits us from participation in civil life?
Each place comes with its own battles and ideally we'd have the best of both worlds.
Smaller, slower-paced towns are often more forgiving of the relentless need to be productive.
The dominant model regarding mental illness either gestures towards vague theories around “brain chemicals” or otherwise relies upon the language of the individual: what are YOU doing wrong with your life to ward off the possibility of depression?
Someone must be devoting all their time to exercise and expensive therapies before we are given the green light to offer compassion. This is a typical way to pathologise. It diverts attention away from broader environmental concerns, our need for collective care, and singles out neuro-divergent people.
For example, there are many reasons why certain cities are “inaccessible” beyond just the architectural. Even though major cities are looked upon often as multicultural utopias, smaller towns are underrated in terms of social connection. It’s a simple fact that the cognitive energy used to isolate this from our brain costs us in the long run. When I moved back home it took me some time to realise how my environment dictated my understanding of safety and autonomy.
Doita tells me: “Bigger cities have the population density, for example, for neurotypical people and/or people with disabilities to find more alike people, get support, and access health services tailored to them. Smaller, slower-paced towns are often more forgiving of the relentless need to be productive. Each place comes with its own battles and ideally we'd have the best of both worlds - the preventative effect of slow-living and the accessibility to treatment in more severe circumstances in bigger cities.”
The power of a slow pace and the benefits of small living have been left largely unacknowledged. Divesting from the narrative of individualism may help us understand which environments are suited to different kinds of people - but also to theorise about how to make larger cities more accommodating to everyone.
Jonno Revanche is a writer. You can follow Jonno on Twitter @jonnoxrevanche.