Insights & opinion

The Rancho Mirage Writers Festival

Portobello Behavioural Health's founder Johan Sorensen embarks on his annual pilgrimage to Rancho Mirage where he finds solace in the Writers Festival.

February 12, 2024

For the past decade my favourite trip of the year has been to Rancho Mirage, a town just outside of the mid century Mecca that is Palm Springs. Nestled in the San Jacinto Mountains, this desert city has near perfect weather when I make the long trek from London at the end of each January and whilst the weather is a draw and it being where the famous Betty Ford centre is located,  the real reason I go is to attend an annual cultural feast. The Rancho Mirage Writers Festival was started and still run by my indomitable father-in-law, Jamie Kabler.

I am not one to sit around on a beach. I find that one of my best ways of relaxing is by being stimulated, just in a different way, and in my case, it normally involves intellectual or conversational activities. A way really of engaging my brain in topics which are interesting enough or distracting enough that the other parts of my mind or my anxieties are quietened. This is the perfect venue for just that. There were 76 authors, journalists and experts either discussing their books or discussion panels on relevant current affairs. Whenever I am lucky enough to attend an event like this, I always find topics which are relevant to the work PBH does or the ecosphere in which we inhabit and in this case a couple of the sessions particularly stood out.

One of the authors was Anand Giridharadas. He has written a book called ‘Persuaders’. In essence it looks at polarisation and how political movements are increasingly writing people off or just speaking to those who already believe in whatever message is being preached rather than seeking middle grounds or using persuasion in the old-fashioned sense of the word. He looks at many different leaders and movements and the ways in which they were successful in genuinely moving people with honest argument and hard work. As it often does, it made me think how good therapists are under-utilised.

Professionals who are trained in mediation, emotional intelligence or motivational interviewing for example work day in and day out to help people shift their perceptions or views. It is done collaboratively and through exploration and consensus rather than either brow beating or “cancelling” How nice would it be if this was reflected in the political discourse of our current age?

The second author who I thought was interesting for our field was the Anglo-American author and scholar, Richard V. Reeves. He is a Fellow at the Brookings Institution and President of the American Institute for Boys and Men. He has written a book called ‘Of Boys and Men: Why the modern male is struggling, why it matters, and what to do about it’. It is based on mainly US research around boys and men, but I believe that the UK and Europe would echo many of the same statistics. In the US men are 4 times more likely to die by their own hand than women. 71% of opioid deaths are male, there has been a 14% decline in median earnings for men without college degrees and 15% point gap between boys and girls receiving college degrees. There was a lot more information as well. Why do I think this matters? Well, it echoes some of what we see in the work we do at PBH. The work of the feminist movement of last century and continuing today is, in my view one of the greatest societal achievements of all time. It still needs more work as there are still unjustifiable gender gaps in many areas of our society. At the same time, we would do well to keep an eye for where new gender gaps are emerging in order not to be affected by the laws of unintended consequences. Disaffection amongst young men or a real or perceived shift in men’s roles and standing in society has given rise to some fairly sinister subcultures and belief systems. Andrew Tate, for example, is known to 84% of boys between the ages 13 and 15. 23% of this population have a positive opinion of him. The rise of Incel communities are examples of where men and boys who may feel lost or disaffected can find people of common interest. I think it is incredibly important for men, boys, women and girls that we find alternative narratives and spaces of hope, optimism and leadership in order to capture the individuals who may be turning that way and instead show healthy and productive pathways for them.

This year's trip reminded me of the importance of being in the world. The importance of having a voice in society and of translating what we do professionally or the growth we have experienced personally into our communities or areas of influence. It is all well and good for us to speak to each other at conferences and over lunch or even in our online, social media bubbles about the difficulties we see around us, but what change could we affect by expanding that narrative or influencing the arguments and the ways they are being had with our expert skill and knowledge? So be proud of what you know and what you do. Have the courage of your conviction in how you live in the world and the power that can have in creating lasting societal change. Let the voices of reason and compassion prevail over the voices of hate and division. That is certainly something I would wish for the world in which my children and I inhabit. I would argue that there has never been a time when communities dedicated to personal growth and wellness were as essential and their expertise was more needed than this current era.

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