It's in your head: Why reducing all problems to 'mental health issues' hurts humanity
Talk of mental health is everywhere. But we need to ask whether we are really becoming more open to discussing mental health, or less open to discussing – and solving – other social problems.
The recent United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) has made headlines around the world, but some of those headlines took a peculiar shape. A Canadian source described “How climate change is causing grief, anxiety and depression,” while a US article warned of the “mental health toll” of climate activism. But it was the UK’s Royal College of Psychiatrists’ press release claiming that “the climate and ecological emergency is a mental health emergency” which really gave me pause. It’s not that climate change will cause mental health problems. It is a mental health problem.
This framing of an increasing array of social issues in mental health terms raises important questions about how we are being asked to think about the problems that face us. In a recent project exploring the rising significance of mental health in UK higher education, I noticed that the ‘causes’ of mental ill-health on university campuses were becoming increasingly difficult to disentangle from mental ill-health itself. Uncertain job markets, exams, access to drugs and alcohol, all came to be considered not causes of mental health issues, but mental health issues themselves, for which students were encouraged to seek out a growing array of professionalised support.
Can issues like dwindling graduate employment prospects really be solved by mental health professionals? Unlikely. But that is not the point. While offering ever-upwardly spiralling amounts of support may not actually solve the problems for which people are being directed to the therapist’s couch, it does make us feel like something is being done. Yet it does so at a cost. Not only do such framings make it difficult to understand and solve problems, they encourage us to believe and accept that many of these problems may never be solved at all.
Indeed, it has become nearly impossible to find an issue that can’t be reduced to mental health in some way. A recent article in the LA Times detailing how already-struggling pupils – and especially black and Latino students – have slipped even further behind as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic nonetheless confidently states, “Even more key than drilling long division or algebra at the moment is an emphasis on mental health and social comfort.” While locking children away from much-needed socialisation cannot have been good for them, it is worthwhile to note the ease with which the language of “mental health” is able to sideline the once-perennial wicked issue of educational inequality.
And young people aren’t the only ones affected. Talking to a female colleague at another university, she remarked that life during the pandemic had been a perverse game of “Divorced, Damaged, or Fired.” Every day was a constant struggle to avoid divorcing your spouse, damaging your children, or getting fired. Most days, you could only choose one. Her employer did offer ample “wellbeing support,” but what was needed was not an array of interventions and advice inviting her to “take a walk” or meditate, but workable childcare solutions and additional staff to deal with workloads that had already become insurmountable before the pandemic struck. Instead, the opposite happened. Alongside additional responsibilities like home-schooling children, staff in many countries actually worked more hours and had their workloads increased.
Through all of this, we were endlessly encouraged to view this situation primarily as a threat to our mental health. The wellness industry was quick to shamelessly exploit the strain, with mindfulness meditation apps setting up introductory offers for the overworked and anxious, and headlines shouting about the “mental health toll” of the pandemic.
Mental health has become a stand-in solution for the wicked issues of our times. We don’t know how to deal with declining employment prospects and solutions to climate change seem to be slipping from our grasp. In response to this, we are increasingly seeing calls for “coping strategies” to deal with radical demands.
Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz note in their book ‘Manufacturing Happy Citizens’ that discussions of mental health and wellbeing have the perverse effect of flipping American psychologist Abraham Maslow’s famous ‘hierarchy of human needs’ upside down. This hierarchy describes the once-widespread assumption that the material needs of life must be satisfied before higher needs of self-actualisation can be reached. Now, this has been flipped on its head. First you must learn to cope, to think and feel in the correct ways, and then – somehow, some way – success and fortune await. Karl Marx once remarked that people must eat before they can philosophise. Now, you must self-actualise before you can eat.
However, I think our current situation is much worse. We have not just flipped the hierarchy upside down, we’ve lopped the top clean off. Success and fortune no longer await. Learn to cope. Period. As mindfulness guru Jon Kabat-Zinn has put it, the ultimate goal is “being at home in our skin within the maelstrom.”
In all of this, populations have become convinced that the most radical demand is that feelings be protected. Why wouldn’t they? Deprived of any ability to solve problems and constantly told that the world is simply too complex for mere humans to understand, let alone control, it makes sense to pick the low-hanging fruit. But this is a diversion. We don’t need to call on ever expanding ‘supports’ to deal with the supposedly insoluble problems of an increasingly complex world. We can use our minds and our reason to solve them. Indeed, we’re the only creatures that ever have.
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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.