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Mental healthing ourselves to death

Our discourse has brought more confusion than clarity

Artillery Row

Here’s an idea for a horror film: you wake up from a coma and discover that everyone in the world is suffering from the same illness. Anything can cause this debilitating malaise: from reading a nasty tweet to living under the world’s most repressive regime. There is no cure. The best thing you can do is to talk about having this illness. Not talking about it means you definitely have it. Not talking about it enough means you are in denial. You have mental health, and anyone but yourself can save you.

Future historians seeking to understand the 21st century West will eventually have to grapple with the mystery of our descent into mental illness. A quarter of adults, according to the Mental Health Foundation, “struggle” with anxiety. Antidepressant prescriptions have risen by 35 per cent in six years, the consumption of which has even made its way to fish off England’s south coast. A debate now rages as to why this is the case, touching on nearly every major change brought about by hyper modernity. Is it the fault of liberalism, social media, pollution, the pharmaceutical industry, capitalism? Does the problem, as we claim to understand it, even exist?

These historians will also have to grapple with the oddity of how such a complex debate became reduced to a public discourse that verged on a joke. The concept of mental health that links companies to their employers, the health service to its patients, television personalities to their fans and even the news to its audiences is such a meaningless concept, decoupled from any sense of sincerity and meaning, that it has now drifted off into the ether of irony, internet memes and internal eye rolling.

Why? The campaign of awareness that has accompanied the Great Madness has created a strange paradox. The more inclusive and recognised “mental health” becomes, the more we encourage the idea that “everyone has it”, the more reductive and meaningless the concept becomes. This is the logical conclusion for emotions that must now be mediated to everyone, from work colleagues to AI chatbots (the latter part of a digital mental health industry that is now worth billions).

Mental health is less a clinical problem than it is a social revolution in how we think about ourselves

Still, talking about it helps, as every mental health campaign now tells us, backed up by a widening body of research. Alongside this has been an increasingly influential cultural response to the Great Madness, encouraged by best-selling self-help authors such as Matt Haig. This approach encourages the idea that depressive qualities are universal, possibly even transformative should they be seamlessly built into a more understanding society.

There is, however, never any meaningful sense of what might guide a mental health conversation on a one to one basis, beyond the mere expression of apparently repressed feelings. Nor is there the idea that they might possibly touch on some of the socio-economic, spiritual or psychological phenomena that lurk behind all this. Instead we are lowered into a stew of common sense solutions and banal platitudes, which tell us more about the failings of our own society than how to psychologically transform ourselves. Exercising. Not being alone. Community. Religiosity. Job satisfaction. Having strong relationships. If only it were that easy, eh?

It’s a common criticism that in the post awareness era of mental health, the concept has become so broad it now merely accommodates the full spectrum of human experience. What this fails to appreciate is that increasingly we’ve accepted this logic — apparently quite happy to use the modern paradigm of “mental health” to prop up an understanding of modern society that banishes our repressed emotions and prioritises our wellbeing. Mental health is less a clinical problem than it is a social revolution in how we think about ourselves. It has provided us with a false dawn in properly understanding how the human animal has responded to an age of unprecedented change.

The debris of this mediocre and inarticulate discourse, stripped of any meaningful context, can be found all around us. “Climate Change is harming my mental health,” moaned one Perthshire lady, who may be surprised to learn that history, for most of mankind, has been one bad mental health trip. Still, it’s a trauma that possibly relates her plight to the women of Kabul, who are said to be undergoing their own “mental health crisis”. Presumably, if all else fails, this makes them candidates for a course of CBT or a reading of Alistair Campbell’s depression memoir. In a recent podcast series with spray tanned car salesman cum men’s mental health whisperer Rylan, the star guest David Gandy ran the series to its empty logical conclusion by suggesting that he didn’t really know what to say as a “mental health advocate”, given that men can no longer “talk freely”.

Emotions must be freed from the sterile concepts of depression and anxiety

By these very virtues it persists, particularly in corporate spaces where it prospers as a sort of socially acceptable lingua franca of emotion for spaces that thrive on sterile inauthenticity. A friend recently told me that at one corporation the revelation of past traumas was used as a team bonding technique — perhaps one attempt to harness its transgressive energy in a space where companies now quantify the problem and chastise themselves for not doing enough to tackle it. At its best, it becomes a means for the modern worker to rebel against a hated job by offering oneself up to the altar of bad mental health (since the pandemic, it’s been the top reason for taking time off work). At its worst, it passes off empty lifestyle advice as therapeutic guidance: relationships are ended, jobs are quitted, holidays are taken. All is fine until the next bad episode of mental health. The acceptable language of depression and anxiety, however, barely scrapes the surface.

Writing in The Transparency Society, the philosopher Byung-Chul Han warns of the “spiritual burnout” that leads a society to forego privacy with a fetish for openness. We are fast approaching this dilemma with our obsession with mental health. In not recognising the subtle difference between how we create awareness of a problem, and how we come to deal with it within the ideological realm of ideas about ourselves and our society, we could turn mental health into a self justifying extension of its failures. Depressed Dave can exercise himself into the ground, meditate for two hours and then talk about his problems with his best mate down the pub, but if this routine is mediated to some shallow sense of “wellbeing” and “good mental health”, then it’s likely to have diminishing returns. Dave’s problem deserves a little more than that.

To understand something of a solution, you have to draw on Neil Postman’s cultural criticism of the American mediascape in the second half of the 20th century. If “mental health” has become a meaningless, all inclusive discourse that fails to grapple with some of the most contested socio-cultural crises of our time, then it should be treated as one of the empty forms of discourse Postman lambasted in Amusing Ourselves to Death. Postman recognised the spiritually corrosive illusion of informing oneself through the empty forms of modern media. A comparable gulf of meaning is fast being created by empty discourse. A “mental health” conversation is such an empty form that it carries little other than some curious societal obligation to “check in”, whilst carrying none of the true therapeutic value of sincere revelation.

To be saved from mental healthing ourselves to death, we need to reverse the trend of universalising depression and anxiety. Not everyone has “mental health”. The admission to having to medicalise serious misery should not be seen as some secular confessional rite of passage, but rather as a last resort in a failed society. Emotions must be freed from the sterile concepts of depression and anxiety. Ultimately talking about your problems through the increasingly meaningless paradigm of contemporary mental health will only obscure them. If you don’t believe me, then keep talking about your mental health with your mates over a Madri and watch yourself go slowly mad.

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