Why is there a mental health crisis today?
Posted by barry-curtis
11th Jan 2020

It is estimated that 1 in 4, if not more, people experience severe mental health problems in their lives ranging from psychosis to depression to acute anxiety. My question is why is this happening NOW, given mankind is materially better off than before and individuals face fewer objective threats?

Some say we have always had these symptoms, but just didn’t report them. So, it is argued, a quarter of the population has always been mentally ill at some point in their life but the British reserve of the ‘stiff upper lip’ and a desire to conform to a functional society meant people repressed the truth about how they were feeling.

This notion is dubious on a number of grounds. Firstly, one can agree certain stresses have always been there, but if they were not treated due to under-reporting, current psychiatry would estimate they would inevitably explode. So, the thesis is self-defeating – if past mental illness was brushed under the carpet, it would have led to more outbreaks of psychotic emotions. But that didn’t happen. And so, the idea that mental illness was under-reported in the past probably means it wasn’t actually there in the first place.

Secondly, the thesis is implicitly arguing for a ‘hooray’ to today’s society because it is more ‘open’ to discussions of mental health. Certainly, it was terrible in the past when patients were quietly rushed off to various Bedlams and the discussion – therefore, possible treatments – became neglected. The experimentation on mental health patients including such dangerous drugs as L.S.D. was abominable. But if the mass outbreak of mental illness today whereby an NHS budget of Ł32bn per year doesn’t even seem to paper over the cracks represents something entirely new, compared to a minority of a few thousand here and there being experimented upon and hidden away from civil society, then it isn’t really a lack of openness that explains the disjuncture between past and present, but points to something else that is currently absent from the discussion.

Therefore, it is welcome whenever anyone tries to theorise what is going on. In that spirit I welcome this article in the current weekly newspaper ‘Socialist Worker’, a newspaper published by the Socialist Worker’s Party (SWP) They argue it is “capitalism” that causes all the stresses people face and leads them into various forms of breakdown. What is novel about the SWP thesis is not just this diagnosis, but that they also recognise the various therapies on offer are little more than “snake oil” (i.e. a fictitious remedy that cannot work). The SWP want people to overthrow capitalism before they can get better, therefore. Although this approach to the issue is insightful, sadly it cannot work. You cannot go into a mental health clinic and argue this! These people really are quite weak and facing a hellish time in their lives. The idea they could be new recruits for a Marxist-Leninist revival is daft. So, if their solution is wrong, what is it in the SWP’s diagnosis that leads to the disarray?

Firstly, there is little in the article that indicts the state. So, for example, a state-funded psychiatrist and his or her team of therapists nearly always fail to make people better. Why? Because the social relation between the individual patient and the official has an authoritarian character. If the therapists and psychiatrist have the power to Section you, why would you ever be honest? And if you can’t be honest, what hope is there for honourable treatment? Nevertheless, to include these remarks in the SWP article makes the challenge even more difficult! Suddenly it’s not just about overcoming capitalism, but also smashing the authoritarian structures of the state as well! This won’t do – a person quivering from anxiety, someone so depressed they cannot get out of bed, someone so psychotic they hallucinate their idols in a poster on the wall, no they cannot do much in terms of confronting the authoritarian structures of the state!

So, secondly, and far moreover, we need a greatly enhanced theory of why the epidemic of mental illness is striking now. For that, I recommend we look at ideological factors, not just the stresses imposed by “capitalism” for an explanation. Capitalism has been around for centuries yet people did not understand their various predicaments in the terms of mental health before. Something new has emerged, and only current ideological themes can get to grips with why the individual has become so diminished.

The sociologist Frank Furedi argued in his 1992 book “Mythical Past, Elusive Future”, that to live in the present moment means you feel squeezed by both the past as well as the future. So, regarding the past, the official account is that Britain was once a glorious Empire. Then, from the right, they mourn its loss, and from the left, they mourn the negative features of this epoch. The past becomes something we hate rather than something that can rationally inform our identities. And meanwhile we are squeezed by the future because we are told the world may end at any point, either from climate change or war. Doubtless, some niches within this idea of the future point to real risks, but they are posed in such ways that we cannot overcome them – we are paralysed through fear of destroying the environment or each other. The ultimate result of being squeezed from past and future is that the individual is left feeling uniquely vulnerable.

Cue then, the messages over mental health that begin in primary school, and ultimately permeate our whole society, now with even beer mats in the pub asking how we feel, enter Meghan “give me the money” Markel’s mental health helpline that has been widely promoted, and suddenly you have an extremely fertile climate for a total national mental health breakdown. The stresses of capitalism, as the SWP argued, pervade in this day, but it is only when they exist in a social context of historical isolation from past and present that you are bound to get a mental health crisis.

The solution? Wise up!

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