It ought to be well within your attention that we are in the middle of what is being called a mental health crisis, and I want to make a few suggestions as to why this might be.
As it stands, the regular statistics for the UK suggest that 1 in 4 people are experiencing a mental illness at any one time. Most common at the moment appears to be anxiety: the Mental Health Foundation says that in 2013 there were 8.2 million reported cases of anxiety disorder in the UK – which amounts to nearly 13% of the country. Under the banner also come illnesses like depression, schizophrenia, psychosis, eating disorders, PTSD and ADHD.
And it appears, at least superficially, that it is getting worse. A statement from the NSPCC released just last month revealed that there had been a 35% rise in the number of Child Line counselling sessions on anxiety in the last year, for example; and meanwhile local mental health services are being overrun with demand. In one of the more ominous claims, the WHO have predicted that, by 2020, depression will be the second biggest debilitating illness in the world and by 2030 the biggest. They seem to think it is growing; and if it is, then we ought to start asking some serious questions.
I personally am under no illusions that our society is to blame more for these problems than, say, genetic characteristics. I say this in part because there is no conclusive evidence that these problems are innate: most people assume that disorders are a result of genetic and neurological processes, but there is no outright evidence on this. Every finding can be contradicted by another.
I say this also in order to fight something called the ‘illness model’, which is basically the belief that mental illnesses are not related to any environmental factors. Consider for instance, if you were feeling interminably down, and you were told you have depression. Then when you feel down you can think to yourself, ‘I feel down because I have depression’, rather than asking any questions about what other things might have affected your mood in this way. This hiding behind the label – ‘I feel anxious because I have anxiety disorder’ – lets society off the hook. It ignores the really very obvious relationships between us and our environment that could be causing these problems – and anxiety in particular.
So – what angle to approach this from? Where do we begin with deciphering the prevalence of mental illness in our day and age? For now, I want to come at this from one theoretical view: hyper-individualism.
Now I find it very interesting that those who suffer from mental illness often report the sensation of being ‘trapped’ in their own head, like they’re just stuck in this body that doesn’t really have anything to do with them. Part of the reason mindfulness is so effective for anxiety and depression is arguably because it allows you to ‘escape’ your own head by getting more in touch with the world outside you. The feeling of being isolated, separate and trapped is one that goes hand in hand with any experience of mental illness.
So is part of the mental health crisis down to the way we are encouraged to experience ourselves psychologically? And is this being made worse at the moment?
I would say yes. The fierce individualism that characterises our society, intensified by social media, the press, celebrity culture, the atmosphere of competition, the need to look as well as be beautiful, the feeling you are missing out all the time, that you aren’t as good as the others, that you don’t fit in – all of these are things that are poisoning our social environment at the moment.
And it is exacerbating the already questionable way we experience ourselves as centres of consciousmess.
In the West, and particularly the countries that grew up with Christianity, we have learnt to experience ourselves as a centre of consciousness located inside our head. We tend to view our body and the world around us as something alien and even hostile. Not every culture does this: many think of ‘themselves’ as being located in entirely different parts of the body, like the heart and diaphragm. But for us in the West at least, the last three hundred years have made this sensation of being an isolated ‘thing’ in a body intensified by enormous social, cultural and philosophical upheavals.
So I’d like to be brave (or stupid) enough to suggest one thing in particular that sums up a lot of this negativity: egotism.
Essentially, as a society we have become more egotistical – by which I mean we have become more concerned with ourselves. We are more focussed on the phenomena of ‘self’, the sense of who we are, what it’s like to be within our own consciousness, and on what constitutes a successful ‘self’. We are supremely individualistic.
The reasons for this are, of course, varied and complex enough to not be able to explain them in the required depth in this short and rather chaotic article, but they can still be summed up. They are more or less all down to capitalism, consumer culture and certain attitudes that philosophical movements have left us.
If I may sweep indelicately over the history that may have led us to the mental health crisis:
The pattern of every major socio-cultural or economic movement of the last three hundred years has encouraged us to become more individualistic. Industrialism broke up the old rural communities and pushed the labour force into cities, where work was divided and community was sparse. At about the same time, from the 17th Century onwards, the philosophical movement we know as the Enlightenment completely changed the way we approach ourselves and the world around us. Individualism was one of its key tenets: suddenly political discourse was about the freedom of the individual, and spiritual discourse about the potential non-existence of God. Suddenly, instead of relying on a divine being as the centre of cosmic power, we became sceptical and began to consider more how our own consciousness defines reality rather than a God. While capitalism was causing community to disintegrate, the emphasis of the public mind had shifted irrevocably onto the individual.
We see this change reflected in literature from 1800 onwards, when the Romantic movement came into being – an artistic explosion that was completely and utterly focussed on the experience of the individual. For the first time the world was experiencing a wealth of literature that explored what it is to be a ‘self’: Wordsworth’s Prelude, for example, first begun in 1798, is an entire poem dedicated to the development of Wordsworth’s mind as he grew up (it was subtitled Growth of a Poet’s Mind). It follows his memories from boyhood to adulthood, and all the significant ‘spots of time’ that he decided made him what he became. His Romantic acolytes, Byron, Shelley et al., were all similarly employed in writing literature concentrating on the individual’s experience of life, and in doing so they set a very strong trend that continues to define our culture.
Similarly, in the period after WWI we had Modernism, another artistic movement that had the individual consciousness at its heart – only this time it was more engaged with using form to recreate conscious experience. James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1917) is directly indicative of this, as a whole novel dedicated to tracking and replicating the construction of Joyce’s consciousness as he grew up. And from Modernism later grew Postmodernism: a movement that illustrated the meaninglessness of life, sceptical of any greater significance, any absolute reality, and that often conjured images of the dazed human consciousness facing up to a world too bewildering to understand. Postmodernism suggested that the only ‘truth’ you experience is your own subjective experience, that there is no purpose to existence, that we live amongst a disorienting collection of symbols that bare no relation to reality, and that life is a violent occurrence in which people attempt to exercise power over one another. Protection of the self is therefore of the utmost importance in this careless, vapid universe that makes no sense and appears to have it in for us.
The Postmodern condition is the poison we are living with now. Not only are we encouraged to feel like scared, isolated centres of consciousness in a universe that does not care for us, but we are encouraged to be totally individualistic in order to ‘get through’ life. You’re not encouraged to enjoy life necessarily – just to ‘get on’ with it. Forget other people: you may as well look after number one. Perhaps as a concurrent result of this, in the decades following the creation of Postmodernism, membership of both political parties and religious institutions declined sharply. Herein perhaps lies one clue to the sense of listlessness, loneliness and despair that we know as depression.
So there is one way of seeing our present ill health: in the way our intellectual history has guided us. But we can’t stop there. A postmodern society is bad enough by itself, but it is capitalist consumerism that has really driven the nail in deep.
It is generally accepted that consumerism on the scale that we call mass consumption started in the 1960s. More than just a market practice, consumerism is an entire ideology: it emphasises the ‘freedom’ of the individual in being able to choose which products they consume; it encourages the pursuit of ‘the good life’ through the acquisition of money and material goods; it attempts to cut across all social boundaries of class, race, sex and gender, whilst simultaneously and implicitly reinforcing them.
As briefly as possible, consumerism reduces the scope of human endeavours to material things that belong to the individual. We are encouraged to define ourselves by what we own and the way we look, and to become an individual based on these things. Consumerism is necessarily divisive because it needs to create as many different kinds of markets to sell as much stuff as possible. Therefore it will make people believe that they belong to an ‘identity group’ that can be sold specific things: even, for example, children’s food. Children’s food is a total creation of consumerism. At no point in history would the children of the family every have eaten anything very different from the adults, whereas now you can walk into a supermarket and find food marketed for specific age groups. The same goes for any product marketed at specific identities. Humans are encouraged to feel that they belong to rigidly defined ‘categories’ that force them to be individualistic, perhaps even narcissistic, and separate from others.
This shaping of rigorously divisive identity is something that consumerism has aided and abetted as much as started. We can see the intensification of the focus on self elsewhere in the identity movements of the last half-century: feminism, LGBT rights and the race rights movements. These are important movements that anyone with eyes in their head ought to be behind, but they do also carry with them innate problems. On the one hand their grouping together under an ‘identity’ has allowed them to organise and mobilise, and thereby achieve a better status in society; on the other, they have cut themselves off from others who do not belong to their ‘identity’.
This is the inherent problem of identity: it makes you feel separate. It encourages you to focus on yourself. And this is precisely why the kind of consumerism we have in our society could have everything to do with the mental health crisis.
Clumsily put together though this is, I hope I might have outlined some of the things that have influenced the individual consciousness in recent years, and indeed pushed it into unhealthy waters. When the human mind is made to feel isolated, when pressure is loaded on it to perform, when it is made to feel that the world around it is hostile and confusing, it becomes distressed. Both our intellectual history and our present socio-economic circumstances seem to encourage this to happen, and therein might lie a clue to why anxiety is the new norm.