It’s Mental Health Awareness Week and this year the focus is on why people struggle to thrive with good mental health. Instead of looking at why people get ill, the Mental Health Foundation is asking how we can cultivate good mental health and thrive rather than just survive. They’ll be publishing a report on why so many of us feel stuck surviving, and calling on the government to do more to promote better mental health.
I haven’t read the report yet, but I already have mixed feelings. It’s such a complex situation. I’m all for reducing the stigma of mental illness and increasing the level of support that people receive. But…there are so many buts…
Mental health budgets are being slashed despite pledges from the government to improve services. Meanwhile, demand for support is going up, while funding for services is cut, and many organisations are at breaking point. Schools are also cutting their mental health provision because they don’t have the cash, despite the fact that more than half of all mental illness starts before age 15.
As with most things the government says, what they actually do is what counts. And what they’re doing is systematically undermining the mental health of millions by making it harder to access the care they need, at the same time as slashing welfare and punishing the poor for being poor. Austerity is entrenching problems that have been in place for generations.
There’s a lot of talk about mental health, and awareness of the issue is increasing, but nothing changes. The problems that people face go deeper and can’t be solved with sound bites and hashtags. If we really want to help people, we need to transform the entire culture. And that isn’t easy or straightforward, and may not even be possible. As the punchline to the joke about asking for directions from a local in Ireland goes:
“Well, I wouldn’t start from here.”
Which brings me to the point of my little rant: the real reason people don’t thrive is because they live in a culture that doesn’t value human beings.
While researching this post I read a ton of statistics that are pretty damning of society, and yet the idea of changing how we live is rarely taken seriously. It’s idealistic and impractical so we shrug it off and continue the important business of exploiting each other to make money. Nobody questions whether the way we live even makes sense.
Here are some of the stats from the Mental Health Foundation. You can read the whole thing here: Fundamental Facts about Mental Health 2016
- Mental health problems account for 21.2% of people living with disability
- The predominant problem is depression, followed by anxiety, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder
- In 2013, depression was the 2nd leading cause of living with a disability, after lower back pain; and in 26 countries, depression was the main cause of disability.
- The World Health Organisation estimates that 35–50% of people with severe mental health problems in developed countries, and 76–85% in developing countries, never receive treatment
In the UK:
- 17% (1 in 6) had a common mental health problem in the week prior to the interview (that is: depression, anxiety disorders, panic disorder, and OCD)
- 26% had received a mental health diagnosis at some point in their lives
- 18% said they had experienced mental illness but hadn’t been diagnosed
- So almost half (44%) had experienced a diagnosable mental health condition at some point in their lives
- In 2014, suicide was the leading cause of death for men under 50 in England and Wales, and for women aged 20–34. The highest rate was for men aged 45–59 (23.9 per 100,000)
- 20.6% of people had considered suicide at some point in their lives
That’s a lot of suffering. The question is: how much of it is unnecessary?
Multiple factors interact to influence the likelihood of experiencing mental health problems. Genetic and biological factors have some influence, but environmental and social factors play a huge part in determining your overall level of physical and mental health.
Access to essential resources like money, decent housing, food and clean water, employment opportunities, healthcare, and education, as well as levels of social isolation, all contribute to the problem. And all of these are influenced by the politics, economics and power structures at local, national, and global levels.
The most unequal societies have the highest levels of mental illness and you’re more likely to experience these problems if you’re poor. People in the lowest 20% income bracket in the UK are 2 – 3 times more likely to develop problems than those in the highest income bracket. It’s not that being poor makes you ill, it’s that poverty increases the likelihood of other problems, such as debt, poor housing, insecure employment, and so on, and these things can make your mental health worse.
Statistics are notoriously unreliable, but you have to start somewhere and what they seem to indicate is that there are record numbers of people struggling with mental distress in a world that is richer than it has ever been.
But you can’t fix this problem by throwing money at it. The situation evolved over time to become what it is. A series of choices have been made that have given rise to unintended consequences and this is where we find ourselves.
But we are responsible for making those choices. As Jung famously said:
“If things go wrong in the world, this is because something is wrong with the individual, because something is wrong with me. Therefore, if I am sensible, I shall put myself right first. For this I need – because outside authority no longer means anything to me – a knowledge of the innermost foundations of my being, in order that I may base myself firmly on the eternal facts of the human psyche.”
This is where it all gets a bit circular. Yes, society is created by individuals, but individuals are born into society and then unconsciously conditioned by that culture. So if you want to know how to thrive, you have to understand why somebody becomes ill, or fails to thrive, and for that you have to look at cultural issues.
Individuals don’t live in a vacuum, and while Jung’s statement is undoubtedly true, not everyone is capable of putting themselves right first. You could just as easily state it the other way around: if there’s something wrong with me, it’s because there’s something wrong with society.
To throw the emphasis back onto the individual and expect them to thrive despite their circumstances is unreasonable. It subtly implies it’s your fault if you become ill. But it’s not your fault if you don’t have the inner resources you need in order to thrive. You’ve grown up in a culture that failed to help you cultivate those resources. Every single person who suffers with mental illness has been failed by society – abandoned and then blamed, in the same way the Tories blame the poor for being poor.
People who suffer with mental health issues (myself included) are the canary in the coal mine. They let us know something is wrong. They’re what is called the ‘identified patient’ – the person in a dysfunctional family who acts out the disowned subconscious content of everyone else. The mentally ill carry the shadow for the rest of us so we don’t have to look at our complicity in living this way.
“At the moment all our family scapegoats, the schizophrenics and the anorexics and the depressives, act out our collective pain, while the rest of us get on with it blandly and free of conflict. Think what it would mean if each of us confronted our own individual psychosis.” – Liz Greene, The Outer Planets and Their Cycles
Maybe I’m cynical, but I can’t help thinking the only reason for the growing public concern over mental health issues is that it leads to lowered levels of productivity in the workplace. It’s costing businesses too much each year to deal with all these stressed out workers. It would be better for everyone if they could get their shit together and get back to work. (This feeds into the craze for mindfulness practices that I explored here.)
I have the same concern with psychotherapy and counselling that seems to be about getting the client back to ‘normal’ so they can fit in and continue to be a good little cog in the great economic machine.
You learn a few coping strategies so that when you’re at the food bank you can meditate and practice self-acceptance, while the government call you lazy and a scrounger because you need help paying your rent because there’s no decent housing or jobs in your area, none of which you have any control over – just take a few deep breaths, maybe go for a walk or talk to a friend…
The victim is blamed and shamed in the same way as happens in dysfunctional families, and we all carry on as if this situation is absolutely normal. We talk about unfairness and social injustice and wring our hands and say how awful it is using the appropriate hashtags, and then…what?
Am I Surviving or Thriving?
To thrive means “to grow or develop well or vigorously” and “to prosper, flourish.” It’s connected to ideas of improvement and progress, of things getting better, increased health and happiness, and so on. If you look at how the World Health Organisation defines mental health, you start to get a sense of what’s expected of you. Mental health is:
“…not just the absence of mental disorder. It is defined as a state of well-being in which every individual realises his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.”
So many alarm bells! How do you classify the “normal stresses of life” and who defines my potential? What does it mean to work productively? What does making a contribution to society mean when that society doesn’t value me as a person? Will it value my contribution? Only if it conforms to certain criteria; i.e. only if it makes money. What does any of that have to do with mental health?
If you view fitting into the system and finding a place where you can be productive and make a contribution as the foundation for mental health, then you’re allowing yourself to be disempowered. The danger is that you begin to see yourself as a victim of society, which isn’t helpful, even if it contains an element of truth.
Support for people with mental health problems needs to empower the individual – not to conform and be an obedient productive cog in the economic machine, but to break free of the machine. To become free of your conditioning and become fully human.
But society sets limits on the individual’s ability to be truly free and to know themselves and fulfil their potential as a human being. Your potential only exists as far as it supports the goals of society, and in this case, that means making money. Not necessarily even money for yourself. As long as somebody somewhere is making a profit from your existence, then you have a value.
This is the real reason why the poor, the mentally ill and the disabled are demonised. They don’t contribute anything. They’re a drain on resources. (Apparently.)
Those who thrive in this culture, do so because they’re willing to exploit others. Am I mentally ill because I refuse to go along with this barbarism? Is the fact that I struggle to fit in and conform a sign there’s something wrong with me, or am I just prioritising my humanity and my soul’s wisdom over mere utility? Is my function really to consume and spend and contribute to society by allowing myself to be exploited for profit?
For the sake of balance, I need to say this: not everything in society is shit. It’s a complex situation and there’s much to be grateful for.
I’ve benefited from improved healthcare, free education (up to a point), access to an incredible amount of information on a machine I barely understand and that I’m using to write and share this. As a woman in the West I’ve benefited from social advances won for me by women in the past who sacrificed their lives so I can vote (one of the many reasons politics makes me so angry these days), and I can choose to not marry because I can own my own wealth (if I had any), and I have (some) control over the use of my body (my bowels might disagree).
It seems churlish to complain. Maybe I should just suck it up. Conform. Learn to enjoy being exploited.
“It’s no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” – Krishnamurti
There’s a misperception at the heart of this problem that interferes with our ability to think about it or to make constructive changes to the way we live. Jung hints at it in the quote above: that in order to put yourself right, your sanity must rest on the “eternal facts of the human psyche.”
In other words: What’s wrong with being unhappy?
To answer that question, you could beat yourself around the head with more statistics that reveal you’re more likely to die at a younger age and have an increased risk of various nasty diseases if you’re unhappy. But this implies that if you were happy and perfect and had no problems that life would somehow be easy and risk free.
If you were happy you would never get ill or fail or die. If you could solve your mental health issues you would be free to do whatever you want, to stride like a colossus across the world, skip through fields of daisies with unicorns and bunnies, beaming joy from your perfect teeth.
But the truth is that even if we could eradicate poverty and inequality and ensure everyone has enough food and clean water and meaningful work and supportive relationships, people would still experience mental distress and emotional problems. People would still get depressed and scared and confused and anxious. It’s what humans do.
Being human is hard – it always has been – because our big brains make us crazy. It’s the price we pay for being self-aware.
The root of the problem is in our minds and the nature of our self-awareness, and in the realities of life that we find so difficult to accept. Things like death and change and uncertainty.
Society tries to solve these problems the wrong way – mainly by trying to solve them. But you can’t solve death. You can’t stop change or resolve uncertainty.
We seem to be allergic to unhappiness and suffering unless it’s part of a narrative that ends with things getting better. You struggle with a problem so you’ll grow in strength and knowledge and wisdom, and then re-enter society as a ‘better’ person. You become the hero of your own story.
But things don’t always get better.
Maybe we expect too much of ourselves. We think everything should be perfect, that we should be able to fix every problem. But maybe human nature isn’t fixable and maybe it isn’t meant to be fixed.
Maybe we’re meant to be confused. Perhaps there’s a deeper reason for our suffering, and that if you go into it and explore it, rather than trying to solve it, or get rid of it and make everyone blandly happy and productive – maybe then you would understand.
The purpose of suffering is to wake us up.
The craziness of the current situation may be an opportunity to wake up and discover the truth about who you really are. Because you’re not here to pay your bills and consume crap you don’t need just to enrich somebody else. You’re here to remember.
Thanks for reading. Sorry for ranting. I’m off to fulfil my potential by doing something productive…