What are the roots of the mental health crisis?

Ben Wray

Introducing CommonSpace’s special week of coverage on the mental health crisis, CommonSpace editor Ben Wray explores the root causes of what is an increasingly pervasive problem in modern society. You can contribute to our special week of coverage by giving your own views: email ben@common.scot to get involved

THE mental health crisis is pervasive. We don’t need statistics to show us this. We know from experience – it’s all around us – that poor mental health is a normalised part of modern society.

An article in The Scientific American identified new research which showed “almost everyone will develop at least one diagnosable mental disorder at some point in their lives”, though for most it is only temporary. We need to stop acting like mental health issues only affect some individuals, and instead recognise that our social structure is one that generally induces poor mental health.

There is also scientific consensus that this is not just about increased awareness of the problem, although that is important. Academic Noibe Way has written about how the issue is growing: “Research in psychology, sociology, and the health sciences shows three broad patterns of increasing disconnection from ourselves and each other. One is a decline in levels of trust and empathy, the second is rising indices of depression and anxiety, and the third is increasing levels of loneliness and social isolation around the world.”

So if we start by accepting that this is a structural problem and that the problem is growing, what are the drivers of this mental health crisis? I believe it is possible to identify three key features: technological, economic and ideological.

1) The rapid rise of the internet age

I feel slightly fortunate, in hindsight, that I was not born five or six years later than when I was. That’s because I grew up just as the internet age was getting going, before it had totally transformed the social structures of our lives.

I played playstation too much, but when I got a mobile phone at about 12 or 13 the most addictive thing to do was play Snake repeatedly. It was no match for the football. In the space of a few short years, the smartphone was everywhere, and suddenly children had the whole world open to them on something small enough to fit in their pocket.

Researcher Glenn Geher has identified three ways in which the internet is an important driver of mental health problems, especially among young people, who tend to have far higher levels of addiction to smartphones than older generations:

1) The social environment of the internet has been proven to be much more hostile and mean-spirited than face-to-face interaction. This isn’t just about anonymity – two people who know each other can still lose empathy for one another when they don’t have to look them in the eye.

READ MORE: First minister and MSPs speak out on online abuse as report exposes ‘Toxic Twitter’

2) Social media is highly addictive, with likes and shares providing dopamine hits which have a similar effect to drugs. Like any addiction, this has negative effects on our mental health as we struggle to maintain balance in our lives.

3) People are less likely to spend time in outdoor environments when they are hooked on the internet. Humans have evolved over thousands of years of spending time outdoors, so a sudden decline in outdoor activity is a shock to our mental and physical wellbeing.

These three problems are perhaps the most proven, but are almost certainly the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the internet and mental health. The internet is a totally different social environment to exist in, so how could it not destabilise socio-cultural norms which are fundamental to how we understand ourselves, such as our identity? The internet’s accessibility, whilst enriching our understanding of the world, is also an overload of information, choices and perspectives which generates insecurity and anxiety.

2) The economic anxiety of neoliberal capitalism

There is no escaping the fact that an economy where jobs are precarious, hours of work are erratic and long, and debt is ever-present will be an economy which induces stress and anxiety.

Wilkinson and Pickett in their groundbreaking book on equality, the Spirit Level, found that societies that were more equal, that had stronger trade unions, where friendship and community was valued above independence and competition, tended to have significantly better mental health. Britain and the US, two of the most unequal economies in the western world, are among those with the worst mental health.

The age of neoliberal capitalism, which began in the late 1970s and continues to this day, is almost designed to increase our atomisation from each other and from ourselves, with privatisation and marketisation increasingly creating a society that “knows the price of everything and the value of nothing”.

READ MORE: Analysis: With teachers and pupils suffering mental ill-health, its time for a total school re-think

Competitiveness has seeped into our schools, housing, even welfare work programmes, and as William Davies, author of the Happiness Industry, has pointed out, such an approach can never be successful for everyone –  where there are winners there has to also be losers.

“There is an obvious flaw in neoliberalism, which doesn’t just appear at the level of the individual, but also the city, nation, school or university, namely that it views ‘excellence’ and ‘winning’ as the mark of value. But this implies that being normal, average (let alone below average or ‘sub-normal’) is to be without value…This culture is disastrous for mental health, producing dynamics of depression and anxiety.”

Darren McGarvey’s award winning book Poverty Safari shows eloquently how the social structures of poverty almost appear designed to induce stressful environments, which create negative feedback loops which increase the severity of the problem, like drugs & alcohol, unemployment, prison and so forth.

3) Lack of meaning and purpose in a confusing ideological paradigm

The modern world appears to have little by way of a moral compass –  a clear direction for our lives. Religion once provided a sturdy, if stodgy and hierarchical, set of ideological beliefs and moral values which would provide an intellectual framework by which most people could understand the world. The combination of religion’s rapid decline and an increasingly fragmented politics post-Cold War (a fragmentation that has been exacerbated by the internet age) has generated an “existential confusion”, according to academic Gregg Henriques, which exacerbates poor mental health.

Neoliberalism has commodified spaces which previously would have seen moral purpose flourish. For instance, whereas universities were once a place where a person’s philosophy and moral standing would be shaped, today higher education is a purchasable commodity – what is taught and why it is taught is geared towards market imperatives.

In fact, what partly fills the ideological abyss in our age is individual pursuit for its own sake. “Competition and individualism are the values at the heart of the twenty-first century’s secular religion,” George Monbiot argues in his 2017 book, Out of the Wreckage.  He makes the persuasive case that the biggest factor in driving our increasingly atomised existence is “the dominant political narrative of our times”, which repeats from all angles “you are on your own”, pressurising people to internalise their discontent.

READ MORE: ’68, ideology and the alt-right: Are the Left the conformists now?

The book, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood by Christian Smith examines “emerging adulthood” with detailed interviews and case studies. It finds that emerging adults struggle to be able to articulate any clear sense of meaning for their lives. Their aims are material affluence. This, according to Henriques, “creates deep-seated vulnerabilities for anxiety, depression, and other mental ailments”.

And, of course, the ultimate victory of individualism is when the solutions to the problems it fosters are themselves individualised. The ‘mental health industry’ is a multi-billion pound money making machine where individual solutions are always given primacy. For if we are all commodities seeking to maximise our utility, why not see depression, anxiety, eating disorders and so forth as merely weaknesses in our profit-maximising capacity as individuals with a market value?

Structural solutions are the only solutions

The Scottish Government is quite rightly increasing its investment in mental health services, as the problem of poor mental health for people of all ages rises up the political agenda. But any serious conversation about how to address the increasingly prevalent problem of poor mental health can’t start with treatment, just as if there was an outbreak of legs getting broken we wouldn’t start the conversation by asking how much we’re spending on primary healthcare.

A toxic combination of the internet age, with neoliberal economics and individualist ideology has generated a social environment that is not healthy for our minds. Transforming the structures of society, including the internet, so that it promotes sharing, caring, participation and positive social interactions, or what some economists are calling human flourishing, is the only way the mental health crisis can be effectively tackled.

Give us your views

In our week of special coverage on the mental health crisis we will explore specific aspects of the mental health crisis, including masculinity and mental health, activism and mental health, and the impact of social isolation on older people’s mental health.

We also want to hear from you – send us in your views on the mental health crisis and what you think the causes and solutions are, as well as any examples you may want to highlight of postive examples of tackling the mental health crisis – by emailing ben@common.scot.

If you are going through mental health issues of your own and want to talk to someone, Mind offers this guide to helplines and mental health listening services.

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