Cases of schizophrenia, depression and other mental illness are increasing in Berlin. The city can make you sick, says DW columnist Gero Schliess. But culture can help you stay sane.
A while ago, the Berliner tabloid B.Z. made me nervous for a few days with its article title, "Why Berlin makes our brain shrink." Apparently, chronic stress in Berlin affects the structure of certain parts of the brain, as well as the way they function.
Hmm, that can only be related to the city's exhausting party life, I thought.
Berlin is stressful
But reading the article made one thing clear: It's actually the exhausting jobs and the life of deprivation experienced by the hard-working middle class that make people lonely and socially stressed — thereby leading to shrinking Berliners' brains. No wonder I feel concerned.
Dear reader, I am turning to you: You've been following my work for over a year. Have you noticed any changes? I ask for your non-sugar-coated feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org
Luckily, an acquaintance of mine explored the topic in depth. Mazda Adli, a psychiatrist living in Berlin, wrote the book "Stress and the City."
He reassured me and brushed aside the warning. Berlin doesn't shrink brains, Adli said, otherwise he would have left the city. OK, I would like to say the same thing now, too. After all, Adli is a true "brain expert," and I believe him when he says that everything is a little bit more complicated than it first appears.
Social isolation adds pressure
It starts like many Berlin stories. Berlin once again comes out on top.
This time, however, it's for its high number of single-person households. It's hard to believe that the Berliner is such a loner: More than 30 percent live by themselves in the city, whereas Germany's average is only about 20 percent.
Those are ideal conditions for "social isolation," says Adli. And this could possibly trigger dangerous chronic stress.
Social isolation. I'm giving myself a checkup. Of course, I have friends and even more acquaintances in Berlin. And I don't live alone. But is it just my impression, or have people actually been avoiding me since my return from Washington, DC? Even a few colleagues? It's probably just an impression — I have to stop listening to that little voice in my head. But I've definitely become more sensitive. And I definitely find Berlin more stressful than Washington. The long distances, the large chucks of time spent traveling, the late meetings, the cooler mentality. It's all part and parcel.
Berlin doesn't sleep well
Keep cool, I think to myself. I might need to sleep on it.
Forget it! If only it were that easy here. Berlin is a city that never sleeps, as the saying beautifully and brutally goes — even though that was actually New York City. But putting aside any plagiarism accusations. it's true that Berlin doesn't sleep well.
A study by German health insurance company DAK rings more alarm bells. It reports that 76 percent of Berlin's working population does not sleep well — that's 1.25 million workers, whether employed or self-employed. And that even applies to public servants.
Yes, and it applies to me, too. The overload of impressions and experiences. Going to bed at irregular times. Playing on my smartphone just before dozing off. That's not healthy.
Does Berlin make people sick? No, says Adli, and I decidedly agree with him. The city compensates, for example, with its amazing cultural offerings: operas, orchestras, theaters and museums keep Berliners healthy. A fan of culture, the Berliner's brain reacts positively.
But caution: Those temples of culture don't unleash a magical effect through mere presence alone. You actually have to go there.
Or do like Mazda and sing in a choir.
Or follow my recommendation: Expose yourself regularly to the beneficial health effects of Berlin 24/7.