The Scottish Mental Health Arts Festival is currently taking place online, and yesterday I watched ‘Riptide’, a film produced and directed by Tim Barrow, one of our Source Direct subscribers. It is a story about Jacob, living in Edinburgh and suffering from schizophrenia. He falls in love with another schizophrenic person, and what follows is a complex story of two people trying to understand and support one another, unsure about what is real and what is imaginary.
For much of the film Jacob lives an isolated existence in his poky flat, and it got me thinking about mental health and lockdown. It almost goes without saying that forced isolation exacerbates mental health issues; by necessity, we have been keeping away from others physically. The longer-term risk is that the shifting trends towards digitalisation and tele-working will entrench work practices and social behaviours which are detrimental to mental health. But like in so many other things, Covid-19 has just acted as a spotlight on what was already happening – we were already moving to a world where more of us spent an increasing amount of our lives through our digital vectors, where social relationships are mediated by digital platforms like Facebook and Instagram, and the quality of our interactions are diminished. This combines with other alienating trends, including economic ones like the growth in insecure work and moving around from flat to flat in the commodified housing market, as well as ideological ones with the rise of individualism and reduced commitment to collective moral paradigms, the decline of religion being one important example of this. The combined outcome is a reduced feeling of being part of any sort of community.
There is evidence that not only are we becoming more aware of mental health problems, but that – especially among young people – they have been getting progressively worse over a long-period of time, if at a fairly slow rate: the number of under-16’s experiencing a mental health disorder rose from 11.4 per cent to 13.6 per cent between 1999 and 2017. A 2018 Audit Scotland report found that it was “not clear” how the Scottish Government’s strategy was going to address the growing crisis in children’s mental health, with referrals to specialist services rising by 22 per cent in the previous five years. So, in one sense, we can put aside the pandemic – this is a problem that was worsening and that we didn’t have clear answers to before Covid-19 hit. The default structure of our lives is one that generally induces poor mental health.
While an increase in NHS funding for mental health services is clearly necessary to reduce growing waiting times, the debate should focus on tackling the cause of worsening mental health, rather than the size of the sticking plasters. We need to generate socio-economic environments which induce security not anxiety, participation not alienation, community not isolation, but while everyone will agree with this in the abstract, the question is what are we willing to sacrifice to support these outcomes? Are we willing to take economic power out of the hands of those corporates which generate precarious work? Are we willing to fund co-operatives, trade unions, and other organisations which increase worker participation and control? Are we willing to control the housing market so that stability for tenants is prioritised above profitability for landlords? Are we willing to take power away from the digital platform giants which create algorithms designed around increasing quantity of social interactions rather than fostering quality and healthy social relationships? If we want more community and collectivity, we have to confront the structures of power which induce individualism and social isolation.
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