Beyond mental health awareness
The roots of better mental health may lie deeper than we are willing to admit
Today we claim to care more than ever before. Our focus on creating a “kindness culture” stands at the forefront of our dire mental health statistics. Whether it is acknowledging World Mental Health day or even policing the words we use to discuss problems, people want the world to know they care.
Yet we also live in a society demanding accountability for our actions — and today that not only means our private behaviour but our online activities. It would be unfair — so far — to say we live in a digital panopticon given our ability to anonymise ourselves but we must acknowledge our interconnectedness is a double edged sword. In one sense interconnectedness can provide us with greater support networks, in another sense, those networks can turn against us with a brutality and psychological force which can break a person.
The complicated matter of mental illness defies the simple slogans we trot out. Stating it’s “okay not to be okay” fails to ask whether we are okay with someone not being okay. Depression does not merely make someone cry more often — it makes them unpredictable, fragile, intemperate, and even menacing.
This is not to deny that the bed is oftentimes the most comfortable place for the depressed — it is. The heavy duvet and yellowing pillows grant a minimal degree of comfort. The bed offers solace, security, and a wall against what appears to be the tiresome, alien, and threatening world appearing outside of it.
It is these perspectives that guide the depressed mentality. Small requests can become mountains to climb, fostering both exhaustion and frustration. Minds turned inward, fixating on problems to the extent that it is hard to know which are big and small. Overreaction becomes the norm, both in periods of crying and self-harm and in our response to others. The menacing glint of annoyance in our eyes is rarely far away if someone challenges us to exert ourselves beyond what seems tolerable.
As Salman Rushdie wrote in his essay Truth, our modern reality is multi-dimensional. In this essay, Rushdie was discussing the role of the news and the internet, but I wonder if this logic applies just as much to the unpredictability and multi-dimensional reality of mental illness as to the increasingly complex social and political spheres we navigate.
How can we argue, on the one hand, that modern reality has become necessarily multidimensional, fractured and fragmented, and, on the other hand, that it is a very particular thing, an unarguable series of things that are so.
Only rarely are depressed peoples’ actions and our reactions to them analysed in any significant way. Popular depictions of depression, such as in the unfailingly delightful comedy Little Miss Sunshine, focus primarily on the emotional spiral of depression without some of the less acceptable modes of behaviour. Steve Carrell’s touching portrayal of a humiliated scholar juxtaposes with the “upbeat” brother in law who’s focus on winning contrasts with his own failures yet rarely do his actions during his depressive episode get attention. Instead, they are awarded only the briefest of mentions compared to the focus on his suicide attempt.
In today’s culture we focus on harm. Indeed, when I teach John Stuart Mill’s “harm principle”, Mill’s lack of emphasis on mental harm always comes up with my students. They find it frustrating that Mill doesn’t take into account people’s emotional hurt. What makes it even more mysterious for them is when they learn about Mill’s own early mental health troubles.
Society today is geared closer towards Joel Feinburg’s “offence principle” than Mill’s harm principle. Feinburg’s offence principle focuses on the notion that if speech, or an act, is done merely to deeply offend someone and there is no other reason then it constitutes harm. We see this principle being adopted not just in our politics but in our social lives. It is not limited to self-serving politicians lecturing us on kindness in one speech then quickly demanding “accountability” for something quickly later but something almost all of us do.
Our “kindness culture” masks deeply rooted misunderstandings about the mentally ill. This is obvious in the tragic reality that our mental health problems are skyrocketing. That is not to say that everyone who appears in those statistics necessarily suffers from a mental health problem. Increasing numbers of people are conflating depression with melancholy or even reasonable reactions to stressful situations. Yet, the statistics also cannot be entirely ignored either. The growth in teenage self-harm, for example, exposes a worrying trend we don’t appear to have the tools to fix.
Some, such as Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt in The Coddling of the American mind, are concerned about the role that social media and endless screen time plays. The pressure of everyone “living their best lives” creates an atmosphere of constant competition and the fear of missing or being left out. Combined with the simultaneous infantilisation of young people who have delayed “adulting” and increasing pressures on their academic and social lives, this makes for a toxic combination. For Lukianoff and Haidt, the result is a generation of young people who are increasingly unable to cope with minor or major reversals in life, worsening existing problems.
But this kind of discussion does neglect traditional forces in pursuing mental health. Today we talk of “support networks” when really we mean family and friends. The notion of family breakdown and communal dislocation in our increasingly atomised society rarely gets proper consideration. Pretending that we are all blissfully independent cosmopolitans mistakes the key role society and belief plays in our own well-being.
When Durkheim was driven to research suicide because he lost a close friend, it was no coincidence that he found that social pressure driven by religious feelings presented a significant difference in how people act. The world can be a cruel and scary place and without sufficient communal relationships it is also a horribly lonely one.
This is the unintended end result of maximalist liberalism
There is no easy way out for anyone. If we genuinely want to begin a journey towards mental wellbeing for our citizens, we need to escape the complacent narratives we currently occupy ourselves with. The answers are tough, controversial, and perhaps more rooted in opposition to our current modes of living than we would like to admit. It is not as simple as merely putting down our phones but requires recognition of our increasingly disconnected status
This is the unintended end result of maximalist liberalism. A society where we all conduct our own “experiments in living” without regard for our wider communities and implications for others. We live a life where we say “you do you” without thinking about if that is a good thing in the first place. Perhaps for our collective well-being we need to begin to expect more of one another in how we live and react to one another. We need to stop regurgitating the slogans of empathy and actually begin to live it.
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