We spend more time than ever talking about mental health — but are we better off as a result? Hardly. One in four adults in the UK (nearly 12 million people) experience mental health issues. That’s roughly eighteen per cent of the country’s population who are suffering from some form of mental health condition. This dilemma is also mirrored in the US: a 2020 survey published in JAMA revealed a sharp increase in the number of adults who reported feeling symptoms of “serious psychological distress”. Just a couple of years ago, in 2018, only 3.9 per cent of adults in the US reported feeling such symptoms; by April 2020, that number had more than trebled to 13.6 per cent.
This troubling trend sends a clear message: we must reassess how we are dealing with mental health, because our current approach falls short.
The mental health literature today is dominated by critical social justice theory. Pressured by the leftwing bias in leading professional groups such as the British Psychological Society and American Psychological Association, many researchers now focus on how to centre social justice in mental health practice. Numerous authors have written about critical race theory’s contributions to mental health studies. A spate of recently published articles introduce the assumptions of these theories into mental health studies of populations including men, transgender, and ethnic minorities.
Advocates of critical social justice theory claim that their approach is rooted in the principles of diversity, equity, and inclusivity. These enlightened objectives may seem to validate the theory. But, especially over the last few years, whatever noble idea lies in this concept of justice has been subsumed by an overzealous focus on protecting people from all trauma, whatever the cost.
When you overprotect people from risks, you’re not doing them any favours
Mental health researchers guided by social justice theory take “speech” and “discourse” as primary causes of trauma. In The Coddling of the American Mind, Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt expound on how this approach undermines young people’s mental health by contributing to campus censorship. Social justice has turned university campuses into places where students can go to avoid hearing things that they do not like, instead of places where they can learn about different perspectives and how to think critically.
Trauma-informed policies attempt to erase any possibility of struggle from someone’s surroundings, for the sake of avoiding the risk of re-traumatising them. Speech codes are often described as necessary to protect university students from intolerant speech, but these codes generate a culture of safetyism. This belief system generally equates emotional discomfort with physical danger. In such an environment, people are unwilling to make any trade-offs; no risks are acceptable.
When you overprotect people from any and all risks, you’re not doing them any favours. Trauma-informed approaches and safetyism lead to antifragility, a term coined by Nassim Taleb, which refers to the fact that many systems — including our immune system and psychological system — need to experience stressors to grow strong. Instead of helping young people, we are empowering their anxiety. These overprotective approaches can stunt the natural coping responses that individuals need to develop.
Critical gender studies can also have a detrimental impact on mental health. In 2016, Dr Jordan Peterson expressed his concerns about a bill under consideration by the Canadian federal government. The bill included a list of gender expressions whose use would be prohibited on the grounds of discrimination. Peterson pointed out that the bill let the notion of identity be determined solely by the individual in question — whatever identity that might be. The problem with this is the fact that identity is not solely an individual construct but also a social one. There’s more to it than a person’s choices; identity oscillates between the psychological and the social. Therefore, if someone subjectively decides their identity without taking society into account, this decision will potentially compromise others by unilaterally redefining their roles in society.
No matter how inclusive critical social justice theory claims to be, the reality is that the outcomes of approaches based on this theory — whether racial, gender, or identity studies — tend to polarise rather than unify. The polarising effect of critical social justice theory has been clearly demonstrated by studies that take critical race theory as their point of departure. While they aim to be pro-diversity and champion “inclusive theories”, they align themselves with select groups within society. For example, when members of the Black community in the US and the UK are repeatedly taught to consider themselves victims of racial discrimination, this triggers the “othering” of those who do not share their identity. Social justice classifies particular social groups as the “oppressors”, and cements the perceptions of different groups as irreconcilable.
People come to feel a constant fear of judgemental social interaction
In White Fragility, Robin DiAngelo ignores the differences within White groups and considers every White person in the world as a member of the same social group. DiAngelo perpetuates notions such as “White dynamic”, “White voice”, “White frame of reference”, and “White experience” — all of which imply that there is a homogenous, oppressive racial group of White people, pitted against a culturally and ethnically diverse group of Black people and other minorities. This dynamic constantly reinforces the identity of victimhood.
Living under the conditions of safetyism, reinforcing victimhood and avoiding interactions with people who we define as “the other”’, damages not only the people actively wielding critical social justice theory. The so-called “others” demonised by this approach are affected as well. As people are consistently portrayed as “others” and oppressors, they come to feel a constant fear of judgemental social interaction.
We can’t afford to ignore the negative effects of critical social justice theory. These ideas are being introduced to children at an early age and may cause lasting damage to their mental health. In one case, the parents of a six-year-old girl filed an application before the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario because her well-meaning teacher subjected her to the new tenets of gender identity theory, upsetting her greatly as a result. No one knows how this experience will affect her in the long-term.
So how can the mental health professionals and psychologists on the ground make a difference? Dr Nina Silander suggests that mental health professionals maintain as much of an unbiased regard for all their clients as they can, apart from the dictates of their respective ideological value systems.
It is time to change how we foster inclusive environments, to a method that’s actually conducive to mental health, before it’s too late.
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