The Guardian • Issue #1969

Capitalism and mental health

Content warning: discussion of suicide

“It is no measure of health to be well-adjusted to a profoundly sick society.”

Mental illness has become an epidemic. It has become so ubiquitous amongst the younger generation that it has become normalised, and a source of bonding. Among older generations, suicide rates have become a silent catastrophe.

It is hardly surprising that in advanced capitalist countries mental illness is highly prevalent and on the rise. Our current society creates instability and scarcity amongst the working class – situations that can almost certainly result in some degree of anxiety and depression. In many instances doctors diagnosing these conditions do not look into a person’s current situations that could be causing their condition. Psychiatric medicine under capitalism places a strong emphasis on a person’s upbringing or family history, but often overlooks the material conditions of the patient.

Human consciousness is a product of social relations and human engagement with the environment. The mind cannot be understood from a purely individualist perspective. But the predominant ideology in society impresses itself upon all fields, and psychology and psychiatry are no exception.

Treatment of individual mental suffering or dysfunction tends to be approached from the perspective of the individual, and perhaps their “brain chemistry” or a certain idealist concept of it. But what if “fixing” the individual can never be enough, while the society they are situated in is itself fundamentally broken?

Writer and activist Mark Fisher, who himself tragically died by his own hand, said: “The pandemic of mental anguish that afflicts our time cannot be properly understood, or healed, if viewed as a private problem suffered by damaged individuals.”

SILVER BULLET?

Psychiatric drugs are big business. “Making you think you’re crazy is a billion dollar industry.”

A recent report stated:

“The global antidepressants market is expected to grow from $14.3bil in 2019 to about $28.6bil in 2020 as mental health issues are expected to surge due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic making an impact on the global economy. The market is expected to stabilise and reach $19bil at a CAGR [compound annual growth rate] of 7.4% through 2023.

“The antidepressants market has also surged during the COVID-19 outbreak. The increasing number of cases and fatalities is affecting mental health by elevating anxiety worldwide. People who are already living with mental health problems are experiencing increased stress levels over the COVID-19 outbreak. This has triggered the demand for antidepressant drugs.”

businesswire.com

Antidepressants have been heavily marketed both to health practitioners and direct to consumers around the world. The claim that these drugs work by “correcting a chemical imbalance in the brain” has become widely familiar. Strangely though, this claim has not been meaningfully backed up by scientific research. Pharmaceutical monopolies skirt around this inconvenience by adding hedging words for deniability, but they have a clear interest in encouraging the perception of their product as a silver bullet, a simple chemical solution to a supposedly chemical problem. This is not to say that these drugs are necessarily ineffective; they are indeed effective for many patients. However, on the scale of the whole society, they are only one, poorly understood aspect of solving the wider crisis.

SOCIETAL SHIFTS

The fact that mental illness and the ways in which it manifests are socially and culturally specific is well-attested. To give an example, cross-cultural studies of psychosis have found that patients in advanced capitalist countries tend to have markedly more negative experiences of symptoms such as hallucinations than patients in India or many African countries. In the latter case, it is not uncommon for patients to describe experiencing helpful or friendly hallucinations, which is much rarer in Australia, for instance.

Public awareness of mental illness has greatly expanded in recent decades. The ruling class has at least some interest in combatting the decline in mental health amongst the entire working population – productivity. But at the same time, a dejected, atomised working class is easier to boss around, and less likely to fight back.

The shifting economic dynamics since the advent of neoliberalism have contributed to raising a young generation amongst whom psychological anguish is near-universal. The hyper-individualistic culture encouraged by decades of neoliberal policy, as well as ever-rising expenses of parenting, have propelled major changes in family dynamics. Many children and young people grow up feeling like a burden, or a burden-until-proven-innocent. Caught in the crossfire of ideological contradictions, the peculiarities of the “middle class” mindset, children are increasingly detached from material life, and the rapid proliferation of digital media provides a world to which to escape, bringing with it certain benefits but evident harms. The commodification and fetishisation of everything leave us all in a perpetual daze.

Children, especially affecting girls but also people of all genders, are taught to commodify themselves, including their body. Eating disorders are a widespread source of suffering and lasting physical harm.

Suicide rates are notably high amongst older people. Often this is linked to a person’s perception of being a burden on society or their family, and a sense of having nothing left to live for. These are symptoms of a deeply sick society.

The mental health care system in Australia is overwhelmingly privatised and expensive, which guarantees inequality of access. Homeless people have a high incidence of mental health problems, but lack access to high-quality care, keeping people stuck in the trap of extreme poverty.

ALIENATION

In some of Marx’s early writings, unpublished during his lifetime but first published by the Soviet Marx-Engels-Lenin Institute in 1932 as “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” Marx developed his now-well-known concept of alienation.

Marx describes the alienation, or estrangement, of labour from the worker by the capitalist as having a number of effects upon the worker.

“(1) The relation of the worker to the product of labour as an alien object exercising power over him. This relation is at the same time the relation to the sensuous external world, to the objects of nature, as an alien world inimically opposed to him.

“(2) The relation of labour to the act of production within the labour process. This relation is the relation of the worker to his own activity as an alien activity not belonging to him; it is activity as suffering, strength as weakness, begetting as emasculating, the worker’s own physical and mental energy, his personal life – for what is life but activity? – as an activity which is turned against him, independent of him and not belonging to him. Here we have self-estrangement, as previously we had the estrangement of the thing.”

Furthermore:

“Estranged labour turns thus:

“(3) Man’s species-being [‘Gattungswesen’ in the original, signifying the unique character of human beings as productive social beings with a creative, transformative relationship to their environment], both nature and his spiritual species-property, into a being alien to him, into a means of his individual existence. It estranges from man his own body, as well as external nature and his spiritual aspect, his human aspect.

“(4) An immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labour, from his life activity, from his species-being, is the estrangement of man from man. When man confronts himself, he confronts the other man. What applies to a man’s relation to his work, to the product of his labour and to himself, also holds of a man’s relation to the other man, and to the other man’s labour and object of labour.”

This theory of Marx’s was superseded in his mature writings by his breakthrough analysis of surplus-value production and exploitation, but it remains a valuable model to consider the impacts that capitalist society has upon workers, independent of their personal neurology or any other individual-centred aspects.

We are all fettered by the painful contradictions of today’s declining capitalist society. Our brains didn’t evolve for such a life, so it is no wonder that mental illness is becoming a pandemic. To cultivate healthy minds, we need to build a healthy society.

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