By J Aitkin – Contributor
In the past few years the issue of mental health has garnered a huge amount of public attention, being increasingly de-stigmatised and discussed openly. In fact, the idea for this article came after seeing a campaign that ITV are running, in relation to staving off loneliness in these times of quarantine.
However, I think through this process of bringing the issue into the mainstream, we have made the absolutely fatal mistake of de-politicising it. Thus, seriously hindering our chances to make real strides towards truly improved mental health. Addressing not only individual but societal neuroses.
To discuss why we need to change our way of understanding and treatment of mental health we must first clarify its current de-politicised condition. Perhaps ‘de-politicised’ is a clumsy term, as my first issue with our current perception is how much it is informed by neoliberal ideological hegemony. Just as our society is increasingly atomised, so too is the way we perceive mental disorders. Writer Mark Fisher describes this best when he states how we encounter the issue like we do “the weather”, as if they were a fact of life that unlucky individuals cannot control and are at the mercy of. He also laments that our current individualistic outlook prevents us from seeing the possibility of social causation – it is a problem with you, not with society, which thus removes any way of contesting it in a meaningful fashion. But if it is a truly societal issue, then what are the causes and how can it be observed?
The number of examples are dizzying, but in an attempt to be succinct, it is ‘neoliberal values’ which have inspired a general uptick in mental health issues, whilst also nullifying resistance. I acknowledge that this is somewhat vague but it is used in the interest of not wishing to pin the blame for such a multi-faceted issue on one phenomenon. An example of many possible options would be the concept of competition and its externalities, one of which being what Bogost calls “hyperemployment”. Originally set out in an article for ‘The Atlantic’, it is a phenomenon that is familiar to many of us, generalised as the blending between the domestic sphere and that of work. He makes reference to Keynes’ famous prediction of our growing leisure and free time as society progressed, hoping technology would aid in liberating us. Instead it has served to encroach upon our relaxation, the smartphone bringing the office to you, with an expectation that you attend to work-related matters at all times in order to stay on top of things. This is akin to working several different jobs in a style which was not possible a decade or so ago, all in the interest of the highest degree of productivity for the lowest cost. The mental health implications of this scenario are obvious to anyone who has experienced it. I can even recall multiple adverts that reference the overwhelming nature of modern work and yet that final step is hardly ever made. When it is discussed it is taken as a fact of life, or it isn’t sufficiently linked to the current political zeitgeist and is thus de-politicised.
If neoliberalism extols competitiveness as a value then this goes hand in hand with insecurity. This has been in the public eye slightly more, manifesting itself through controversy around zero-hour contracts; and yet it still isn’t fully acknowledged for its potential toll on one’s mental state. In this context the issues become a lot less abstract, the ‘victims of the system’ are much more conspicuous through the measurement of those in certain types of work arrangements along with the unemployed. This information has been cross-referenced with trends in mental disorders with effects that refute its divorcement from material conditions and ideology. Research observes a general upward trend in reported mental illness within the time of the financial crisis, the effects being more pronounced amongst areas with increased poverty and unemployment with this being mirrored in suicide rates. Furthermore, in nations where the welfare state is more able to protect these individuals who have their job security threatened, there is a marked decrease in suicide and other such negative externalities. Yet when these figures are reported in relation to economics and/or politics, which is a rarity, it is treated as unexpected.
I’m sure this claim seems somewhat uncomfortable; perhaps that it is unnecessarily politicising an issue as sensitive as suicide. Do not believe that I am claiming all mental health issues have this materialist base, but the effect of our current politics and furthermore our methods of societal and workplace organisation must be properly examined. When doing this, it is necessary that we don’t take these arrangements as permanent but as something that can be changed or overcome. The current political malaise might seem unshakeable and the stress of modernity might seem absolute but in our growing awareness concerning mental health we must remember that these things are alterable.
Barr, Ben, Peter Kinderman, and Margaret Whitehead. 2015. “Trends in Mental Health Inequalities in England during a Period of Recession, Austerity and Welfare Reform 2004 to 2013.” Social Science & Medicine 147 (December): 324–31.
Bogost, Ian. 2013. “Hyperemployment, or the Exhausting Work of the Technology User.” The Atlantic, November 8, 2013. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/11/hyperemployment-or-the-exhausting-work-of-the-technology-user/281149/.
McVeigh, Karen. 2015. “Austerity a Factor in Rising Suicide Rate among UK Men – Study.” The Guardian, November 12, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/nov/12/austerity-a-factor-in-rising-suicide-rate-among-uk-men-study.