Mental health and capitalism


Mental illness is increasing among the young. According to CMHA statistics: In any given year, one in five people in Canada will personally experience a mental health problem or illness and, by age 40, about 50 per cent of the population will have or have had a mental illness. I don’t know about you, but I find that scary. People near and dear to me are taking medication for mental issues. Taking medication is becoming so prevalent that people in dating websites are writing on their profile “non-medicated” as a personal attribute!

Most of the material I have read view mental illness as a personal or biological issue with sometimes a passing mention of environmental factors. Although there is a biological and personal link, I am interested in the connection between mental illness and our economy.  

I think if it was solely an individual issue there would be cases here and there, but it wouldn’t be so generalized. The fact that 50 per cent of people in Canada suffer from mental illness by the time they’re 40, makes me suspect  social issues, something we are all experiencing in this society that is leading to mental illness. And if part of it comes from social causes , we will need to apply social solutions as well as medicating individuals.

The recognition of mental health having a social cause is now even beginning to be acknowledged by some governments. We have the recent example of England and their new Ministry of Loneliness which was established to deal with the epidemic of loneliness in Britain. In an article by the Guardian by Natalie Gill, she cites the Mental Health Foundation in 2010 found loneliness to be a greater concern among young people than the elderly. The 18 to 34-year-olds surveyed were more likely to feel lonely often, to worry about feeling alone and to feel depressed because of loneliness than those over the age of 55.

According to Johann Hari ‘s latest book, Lost Connections, we are essentially social beings since we lived 150, 000 years in hunter and gatherer societies of 50 to 100 people. The only reason we were able to survive hunting bigger and more dangerous animals than us was our ability to cooperate and work together. After the establishment of agriculture 10, 000 years ago, we started to leave the nomadic lifestyle and settled in communities that resemble how we live today. After living thousands of years in groups and in cooperation with others , we are wired for cooperation and socializing.

When Capitalist relations began in  England around 500 years ago, these cooperative instincts ingrained in us no longer served the demands of the system. Capitalism needs us to be individualistic, acquisitive, non cooperative, profit maximizing consumers. It takes a lot of effort and suffering to go against the grain of our 150 000 year cooperative nature  to become individualistic profit maximizers in 500 years. This effort at always going against the grain leads to mental anguish.

I don’t know if I can say I feel depressed, bipolar, psychotic or any other condition. I don’t want to label it. But I do know that I am not happy, I don’t feel joy most of the time. I do not feel creative or feel alive all the time. I feel anxious. I don’t feel satisfied. And I think this anxiety reflects the gap between what I am and what I could be if the system allowed me to fully express my true human nature. I sometimes feel an impending sense of doom. And I don’t say this to elicit pity or compassion. I am describing to you what I think is an objective fact and I know it resonates with many of you.  

I also catch myself constantly worrying about money or my job. Sometimes I worry what would happen if I lose what I have. I also sometimes fantasize about winning the lottery and how I will distribute my good fortune with the ones I love. I also find myself constantly coming up with schemes as to how I can become independently wealthy.  Now, is that a normal feeling? Is feeling like this all the time conducive to mental balance? I don’t think it is. The Chilean writer and Physics professor Carlos Perez Soto writes that our capitalist culture of endless pursuit of success, consumption and competition leads to a somatization of a subjective malaise: we are constantly tired, sometimes tears erupt in our eyes out of nowhere. We become irritable at the smallest things. The default mode is always aggression in our culture: if our coffee is not garnished right, we get upset, if there are no outlets to charge our phones, we get stressed, if somebody cuts us off on the road, we swear. Aggression is never far from the surface, outward displays of anger if turned to others, tears and depression if turned inwards.

The subjective feelings most of us experience is a social phenomenon. One interesting example is a recurring feeling that western middle class women experience  called the “Bag Lady Syndrome.” This is how it is defined on the net: “Bag Lady Syndrome,” first coined in the 1970s, is the term given to describe the feeling some middle-aged women have that they’ll wind up homeless and carrying around their possessions in shopping bags.” Psychiatrists around the world cite it. These women dream of losing all the have and becoming “bag ladies.”

Where does that come from? Why are so many feeling this in different parts of the world?

Could it have something to do with this system of capitalism that asks us to be something so different from what we really are? Could it be that many of us are feeling afraid for our futures? Hopeless? Could it be that mental illness is not an illness but a symptom? Something we are acting out? Could it be that we are feeling this right now but no one talks about it? Our collective little secret?

I write about it because I refuse to feel this way, I want to reclaim my joy in living. I believe the misery that I feel is shared by many of us, particularly the poor, women and youth , aboriginal youth are in a class all by themselves.  

Some authors even refer to our youth today as the “canary in the mine” (canaries were carried into the mines in order to warn them when oxygen levels were decreasing. When the canary dropped dead, it was time for them to get out), so our youth are exhibiting these symptoms and acting them out .

Author and teacher Robert Shedinger says the following in an article titled Canaries in the Coal mine, reframing mental illness in young people: “The emotional suffering of young people might be better understood as a reaction to the requirements of living in an unhealthy environment, not of their own making. They may be reacting to the stress of dysfunctional home environments and the physical and emotional abuse that too often results. LGBTQ young people may be reacting to bullying or a lack of family or societal acceptance of their sexuality. African American young people may be reacting to the systemic racism that constantly assaults their own sense of self-worth. Muslim young people may be reacting to the Islamophobic environment that constantly undermines their own sense of personhood.”  

Aside from identity social locations, I also believe there is a class component to the issue of mental health. Lower class individuals have the highest the chance to suffer from mental illness and the less control you have at work, the greater the chance you might suffer from anxiety. (See study by Perry, MJ, about the social causation model that emphasizes the importance of psychosocial stressors in the onset of mental disorders, the article is titled “The Relationship between social class and mental disorders”). When the rich are crazy they call them “eccentric”, when the poor are crazy, they medicalize or criminalize them.

Another author (Theodor Adorno) once said that “wrong life cannot be lived rightly”. Telling us that the problem is how life is organized, not us. Psychiatrist R.D.Laing agreed somewhat with Adorno when he said that “insanity can be a perfectly rational adjustment to an insane world.”  

I think that living with low wages, high rents, boring jobs, student debt, and uncertain futures has a lot to do with not feeling well mentally, (and I haven’t even mentioned climate change!!).

As a matter of fact, this seems to me to be so very basic and self evident that sometimes what surprises me is not that one in five of us suffers from mental illness in any given year, but why there are not more of us going crazy. Surely it is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit. Maybe also to the escapist behaviours all of us participate in once in a while, (smoking pot, binge drinking, etc.)

I believe there are two ways to change your reality: one is chemical, inward focused and short term that leaves your reality unchanged after a brief chemically induced hiatus. The other is social, outward focused and longer term and has a chance to change the outer reality.   

Believing that there are also social causes to mental illness as I do has implications for policies addressing mental illness. I believe we can start by providing the basic necessities for people: affordable rent, fulfilling and well paid jobs, social security, relational needs and a well founded belief in a bright and  hopeful future. I believe that social policy should complement individual therapy.

I believe our focus in social policy should be to fulfill these basic needs (Maslow’s hierarchy of needs) and then by lessening this unnecessary socially caused human suffering, we can then deal with the still remaining more existential ailments at the top of Maslow’s pyramid which  will always exist .

In order to do this, we will have to become more politically and socially active. We will have to take our mental distress out of our heads and into the streets. We will have to trade in our depression for anger. After all, a  little irreverence has always been necessary to promote social change. But what can we do? Well, you can focus on any of the issues outlined above. Choose anything and get a group of like minded people to join you. History tells us that change only comes from below, it is never just given to us. Witness the students in Quebec and how they stopped the government’s attempt to increase their already low tuitions. At issue was the provincial Liberal government’s plan to nearly double tuition fees over five years to $3,800 per year, which would still leave the province with some of the lowest fees in Canada! They went out on the streets and marched and got rid of the Jean Charest government!! The great marches were called the “Maple Spring.” That must have been quite a high for them! Now the Quebec students have one less thing to stress about. This experience leaves us with at least one lesson: if you want a novel way to address mental health and change your reality, don’t chemicalize, organize!!


Eduardo Queiruga

Community Member


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