If there’s one conclusion I’ve come to after five years of suffering from it, it is that mental illness doesn’t happen in isolation. We know that 1 in 4 Britons will suffer from a mental disorder in their lifetime. The World Health Organization even predicts depression will be the second most widespread illness in the developed world by 2020. But mental illness is not just statistics or distant “others,” far removed from regular human activity. It is all too human. It is dependent on how we order our own individual worlds and how we relate to other human beings. We evolved as a social species and it was largely thanks to our ability to co-operate, to share tasks in small, mobile, co-dependent groups, that we outlasted other early humans. In recent decades political, economic and cultural shifts have made society far less socially interdependent and far more greedy, selfish and acquisitive but this goes against our evolutionary biology. We are not built to go it alone.
Mental illness must not be just a burden for the individual sufferer or their family because it is reflective of our society. The social breakdown, health and wealth inequality, celebrity, consumerism and binge culture that we see all around us affects our mental health. These damaging phenomena are a monument to the unfettered market that has ruled our lives. The economic model that the establishment are desperately trying to prop up is premised on exploiting our worst instincts. The sole purpose of advertising is to harvest the feelings of inadequacy that we are all capable of experiencing, or failing that, to create brand new voids which, conveniently, can only be filled through the acquisition of the commodity they are peddling. The economist Tim Jackson sums up this central plank of our society best in his book, Prosperity without Growth: ‘We are persuaded to spend money we don’t have, on things we don’t need, to create impressions that won’t last, on people we don’t care about.’
The policy of ‘Care in the Community,’ which has been pursued for the last thirty years, does represent a more humane approach compared to the large Victorian asylums. These imposing buildings were conceived of more as quarantines where the uncomfortable truth of “madness,” an ever-present throughout human history, was sealed off as an act of segregation. However, despite this move towards inclusiveness and a softening of political language the reality is still too often one of isolation, stigma and neglect if not outright abuse. By accepting that sufferers of mental illness are a part of and not apart from society, we must now accept that aspects of our society are contributing to our dire problems with our mental health. It is also crucial that there is widespread acceptance that mental illness is something that can befall anyone, including investment bank CEOs.
The pervasive neoliberal mantra of ‘private good, public bad’ has ring-fenced large swathes of the economy as beyond regulation but if the supreme aim of every country is to create an amenable business environment then the wellbeing of its citizens can never be anything more than an afterthought. Instead we’re left with reactive government measures in health, crime, education and environmental policy being largely a thankless struggle to clean up the mess wrought by an economic system that fosters inequality promotes narcissism and propagates that all human meaning resides in the relentless pursuit of material wealth. Too much of healthcare becomes “fire-fighting” when much more should be prevention and care.
I prefer the argument for helping people to lead healthy and meaningful lives, but even those with a solely economic view of humanity must deduce that it costs much more to deal with the effects of these problems than it would to begin to tackle them at root. Research by Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson for their book, The Spirit Level, reveals that more unequal societies have higher rates of mental illness and do worse on various other social indicators. They write that mental illness is closely related to status anxiety and so more unequal and callous countries, like ours, leave more people marginalised, more ‘losers’ and more problems for us all.
Such high levels of mental illness mean this issue can no longer be brushed under the carpet. Is there any issue which touches nearly everyone’s lives yet is so ignored or misunderstood by politics and media? Our rates of mental illness demand that we re-examine our attitudes and language towards the concept of ‘madness.’ #Occupy is teaching us all how interconnected our lives and our struggles are and we’re learning that the only way to fight the atomising force of neoliberalism is through solidarity and the reclamation of public space.